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The time has come for Jesuit’s Luke Knight

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Luke Knight spent last season as the quarterbacking understudy to Joe Pesansky. 

Life in the shadows vanished for Knight this past week when Jesuit became one of the first teams in the state to start spring practices. 

Knight has put away the clipboard to take his turn under center. The new role comes with added responsibilities — and pressure. 

After all, Knight is replacing Pesansky, the Class 5A state player of the year who set nearly every single-season passing record en route to leading the Tigers to their third straight state semifinal appearance.

It would be tough enough taking over for a star. But Knight’s job description includes being the caretaker of a program poised to make a push for a state title.  

That optimism stems from the experience in the lineup. Jesuit returns 18 starters from a team that went 14-1 and lost on a last-second field goal to eventual Class 5A champion Plantation American Heritage.

Still, Knight is not stressing about the situation. 

“There definitely is some pressure, but I don’t view it as pressure,” Knight said. “I see it more as an opportunity, and the role being passed to me. My receivers returning are the best in the area, making my job easier.”

The Tigers top receivers all are back, including Junior Vandeross (981 yards, 12 touchdowns last season), Jaydn Girard (671 yards, 11 touchdowns) and Carter French (650 yards, seven touchdowns). Also returning are leading rusher Joquez Smith (1,226 yards) and four of the five starting offensive linemen. 

They are all getting used to Knight — and a new offensive coordinator. 

Former Clearwater coach Don Mesick took over play calling duties from Joe Gerena, who stepped away as an assistant to spend more time with his family. 

“The new offense has been going well,” Knight said. “The team has quickly picked it up. We continue to work hard on it. I really like the things we are doing with the offense and the diversity of plays it offers.”

The task of learning a new offense has not been overwhelming, in part because of the one-year apprenticeship Knight had studying behind Pesansky. 

“I learned more as a freshman than I have in a long time,” Knight said. “Taking the year to learn from Joe and play behind him was the best thing that could have happened. The leadership, football knowledge and some of the skills were great things I gained from him. I still talk to him most days and will definitely keep in touch in the future.” 

Knight did see some playing time as a freshman, mostly in mop up duty. He played well, completing 19 of his 29 passes for 209 yards and scored six touchdowns (four rushing, two passing).

Now, the Knight is going to take every snap. He does so as a starting quarterback, not as a Pesansky replica.

“We’re not asking Luke to throw the ball 60 yards down the field like we did with Joe,” Jesuit coach Matt Thompson said. “There are going to be some limitations. But Luke is a smart kid. His football IQ is off the charts. And he had the advantage of learning how to act and what it takes to be a leader being behind Joe. 

“Joe was never about stats. He was just about winning games. It will be the same way with Luke. But he knows he doesn’t have to feel the pressure of having everything on him. There’s enough talent around him where he doesn’t have to do it all on his own.” 

For the Tigers, spring practice started on April 22. They got a head start because final exams forced them to play their spring game on May 15, weeks ahead of everyone else.

That is fine for Knight and his teammates, who could not wait to take the field, especially after coming up short in the state semifinals last year.

“I would say we are more motivated than ever,” Knight said. “No one is hesitating to get extra work in, whether it’s throwing, blocking, running track, or going through consistent 6 a.m. workouts. Having most of our team return is a huge deal, knowing that we can handle and beat the teams down south.

“This is our year to prove it.”

The new wave of quarterbacks

Jesuit is not the only high-profile program entering the spring with a new signal caller. Others are figuring out who will fill the shoulder pads of passers who led their teams deep in the playoffs, often setting plenty of school records along the way. Fortunately, there are a surplus of candidates ready to take on those roles. Here are a few.  

Armwood

Last year’s starterThis year’s frontrunner(s)
Cam’Ron RansomMurdolph Jones, Jr.

Ransom, a Georgia State signee, was a three-year starter who threw for more than 5,000 yards and 60 touchdowns in his career while leading Armwood to a state title game and state semifinal appearance. Jones, who served as the backup last season, has the build of a prototypical passer (6-foot-4, 215 pounds). Last season, he threw 113 yards and a touchdown in limited action.

Berkeley Prep

Last year’s starterThis year’s frontrunner(s)
Gavin RuppTroy Reader, Jr.

Rupp, who decided to walk-on at Rutgers, was a highly efficient — and successful — quarterback who led the Buccaneers to the state semifinals last season. Reader, who has already committed to play baseball at Notre Dame, spent the past two seasons as Rupp’s backup and joins an already a talented backfield.

Bloomingdale

Last year’s starterThis year’s frontrunner(s)
Tre SimmonsSean Dungan, Sr.; Jackson Jensen, So.

Simmons, a dynamic playmaker who is headed to Tusculum, threw for 2,651 yards and accounted for 35 touchdowns (27 passing, eight rushing) while leading the Bulls to the state semifinals last season. Dungan is coming off a knee injury so Jensen will get most of the snaps this spring.

Gaither

Last year’s starterThis year’s frontrunner(s)
Kiael KellyBrooks Bentley, Jr.

Kelly, a Ball State signee, accounted for 24 touchdowns (16 passing, eight rushing) a dual-threat and led the Cowboys to an undefeated regular season and a region final appearance. Bentley is the son of USF assistant coach Bobby Bentley, who came from South Carolina to join the Bulls’ staff. The younger Bentley is ranked among the nation’s top quarterbacks in the 2023 class and already has an offer from Eastern Kentucky.

Mitchell

Last year’s starterThis year’s frontrunner(s)
Ezra BrennanChris Ferrini, Jr.; Ethan Rice, Sr.

Brennan, a first-team, all-state selection, threw for more than 4,500 and had a combined 67 touchdown passes the past two seasons while leading the Mustangs to their first-ever state semifinal appearance last season. Ferrini and Rice will spend the spring battling for the top spot. Mustangs coach Andrew Schmitz said he has no idea if a starter will emerge once spring ends. “We’re not going to rush it,” Schmitz said.

Plant City

Last year’s starterThis year’s frontrunner(s)
Nick FeliceClint Danzey, Jr.; Carson Mohler, Sr.

Felice, a Delta State signee, threw for 1,871 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. Danzey and Mohler will split snaps this spring in a battle that will not be decided anytime soon.

Tampa Bay Tech

Last year’s starterThis year’s frontrunner(s)
David WrightCharles Coney, Jr.; Jaden Rosebury, So.; Xavione Washington, Jr.

Wright, an Allen University signee, was a first-team, all-state selection after throwing for 3,078 yards and 34 touchdowns as a senior. He also totaled 6,602 passing yards and 67 touchdowns through the air in his career. The competition to replace him is a three-way battle. Coney was last year’s backup. Rosebury threw for 16 touchdowns as the junior starter. And Washington, a dual-threat specialist, transferred from Tampa Catholic.

Football

Tampa Bay Tech’s Rod Gainey transfers to IMG Academy

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Rod Gainey, one of the nation’s premier running backs in the Class of 2024, is leaving Tampa Bay Tech after one season to attend IMG Academy in Bradenton, Titans coach Jayson Roberts confirmed. 

As a freshman last season, Gainey rushed for 836 yards (7.7 per carry) and had 10 touchdowns on the ground to give Tampa Bay Tech’s high-powered passing game some balance. 

Already a youth league legend in Hillsborough County, Gainey’s performance in his debut high school season only solidified his stats as one of the county’s top recruits in his class. 

Gainey already has offers from Florida, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Penn State, Toledo, UCF, USF and West Virginia, among others. 

This is the second offseason the Titans have lost a star ball carrier to IMG. Last year, Stacey Gage, an incoming freshman at the time, said he was deciding between Tampa Bay Tech and IMG. He ultimately joined the Ascenders, who are a national powerhouse. 

Though the loss of Gainey hurts, Roberts said the ground game still is in solid shape thanks to an offensive line that returns all five starters — Kai Gadson, Shaun Lango, Fred Neal, DJ Porcher and J’shon Scott. And that list does not include Melvin Sylvester, a 6-foot-5, 270 pound incoming freshman who should get plenty of playing time. 

James Evans, John Ponder and Ronald Sims will now handle the bulk of the rushing load, Roberts said. 

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Football

Meet Lakewood’s queen of the block

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Melia Garcia knew all about the success of Lakewood’s athletic program before arriving this year as an advanced placement and honors world history teacher.

The subject that really piqued her interest was football. Discussions about the sport constantly came up, particularly among the players in her classes.

Garcia was hooked. She became one of the Spartans’ most ardent supporters, attending nearly every game.  

Still, Garcia grew tired of watching from the stands. So she came up with an idea that would allow her to be more directly involved with the program.

In January, Garcia asked Lakewood coach Cory Moore about joining the football staff. 

There were no double takes from Moore, despite Garcia having no previous coaching experience. 

“I knew she was serious about it,” Moore said. “And I welcomed it because I saw just how good of a teacher Melia is in the classroom and how well she interacted with her students.

“I thought that was exactly the kind of addition we could use on staff.”

At first, Moore had Garcia observe offseason conditioning so they could decide the best fit for her as an assistant. 

Garcia zeroed in on the trenches. 

She wanted to coach the offensive line. 

“That’s the one area I felt most passionate about,” Garcia said. 

Women have broken plenty of barriers to coach at the highest level of football. There are currently eight female coaches in the NFL, including two on the staff of the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Lori Locust and Maral Javadifar. 

Those trailblazers helped pave the way for other females to become coaches in the college and high school ranks.

Garcia admires what they have done, but insists that is not the sole reason she wanted to pursue a job as an assistant. 

“I really wanted to set my own boundaries,” she said. 

So Garcia created her path by instructing big-bodied students to pave the way for others on the offensive side of the ball. 

The bond with blockers grew from her friendship with Tyler Armillay, a former standout lineman from Scranton, Pa. who went to play at Assumption and is now the offensive line coach at Endicott College.

Their conversations would often be about life on the line. Armillay taught Garcia the fundamentals of pass protection and moving defenders out of the way in the run game.

Garcia felt she could do the same with her students. 

Before that could happen, she needed acceptance. Garcia worried how a bunch of teenage boys would react to a female instructing them on the field. 

Those concerns were quickly soothed.

“Once the guys could see that she knew what she was talking about, they had a great relationship,” Moore said. 

Garcia gets her point across because she knows how to teach.

“I think they wanted someone that was nurturing enough to not crush their spirit but tough enough to make sure they didn’t mess around,” Garcia said.  

Her involvement is not restricted to drawing Xs and Os on a board. During spring practice, Garcia stood among her pupils as they jabbed and punched. She talked about body balance and counterstrikes and proper footwork.

Often, Garcia demonstrated by getting in the middle of piles. 

“Melia is not just some bystander,” Moore said. “At practice, she is in the dirt, in the grind. She’s hands-on all the way.”

Isaiah Cooper, a three-year starter who has played every position on the Spartans’ offensive line, was impressed. 

“She’s phenomenal,” Cooper said of Garcia. “You couldn’t even tell she was new. There were some things I didn’t know, that she knew. And she knows how to listen and find ways to relay the information in ways that we’ll understand.”

Her impact is felt off the field, too. 

Moore made Garcia an academic advisor. Players are required to turn in progress reports, complete with signatures from the teachers. Those who fail to do so are not allowed to practice. 

“The grades were a little rough for some, and now they’ve improved tremendously,” Cooper said. “Everything has gone a lot more smoothly as far as academics.”

And they should continue to improve with Garcia running study hall this fall.

“Melia has far exceeded my expectations,” Moore said. “In the classroom. On the field. She does it all.

“She is the real deal.”

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College Football

Lakewood’s Amari Niblack commits to Alabama

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Lakewood’s Amari Niblack had offers from 15 schools entering this week, including Florida, Florida State, Georgia and LSU. 

Then Niblack went to a camp at Alabama and picked up an offer from the Crimson Tide. 

That was all the three-star prospect needed to make up his mind. 

On Thursday, Niblack announced on social media that he committed to Alabama. 

A 6-foot-4 pass catching target, Niblack can play receiver or tight end. This past season, he had seven receptions for 126 yards and two touchdowns according to the stats listed on MaxPreps. 

This is the second straight season Alabama has landed an area receiver and the third time in the past five seasons the Crimson Tide has picked a local skill player.

Agiye Hall, who starred at Armwood and Bloomingdale, was part of the 2021 class. He was an early enrollee and has already made an impact with several highlight-worthy catches in the spring game. 

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