Spectrum Sports Top 20: No. 5 Lakeland

By Lindsay Liquori, Spectrum Sports
Last Updated: Sunday, August 13, 2017, 3:51 PM EDT

NO. 5 LAKELAND DREADNAUGHTS

2016: 8-3, 2-1 in 7A District 7 (won a three-way tie breaker)

Last Playoff Appearance:  2016, Lost 25-21 to Plant in the 7A Regional Semifinals

Head Coach: Bill Castle, 407-90 entering 42nd season

Key Returners:

RB Branson Brown

OL Aleek Saint-Aime

LB Jack Smith (68 TKL, 15.5 TFL)

QB Kevaris Thomas 1,606 Pass Yards, 16 TD 9 INT (at Lake Gibson)

WR Antonio Whitehead Jr. (transferred from Kathleen)

TE Keon Zipperer 160 Rec Yards, TD

The Scoop:

So, what will Dreadnaught life be like in the wake of three-time Polk County Player of the Year A.J. Davis (Pitt) and James Robinson (Florida)?

It’s no cake walk replacing 34 TDs and almost 2,500 yards of combined offense.

“You can’t replace an A.J. Davis,” Bill Castle said.   He has had to replace stud backs before.  Chris Rainey ring a bell?

The 2017 ground game will be by committee. 

They do have a stable of backs, but they lack experience.  Sophomores RB Demarkus Bowman and FB Quadir Hall will lead the charge.  Seniors Mahki Marbra and Branson Brown will also tote the rock.  Taking over for James Robinson will be Antonio Whitehead Jr., who transferred from arch rival Kathleen.  Expected to have a break out year is 4-star (Rivals) tight end, Keon Zipperer.

The ‘Naughts lost way more than Davis and Robinson.  They only return five starters total, graduating 31 seniors.  However, they did land QB Kevaris Thomas, who came over from Lake Gibson after leading the Braves to a 6A state runner-up finish.

OLB and Syracuse commit Ja’Qurius Smith is the team leader and leader on a defense that needs to rebuild their entire secondary and defensive line.

Quotable: “I think it’s a good thing b/c it’ll get the best teams in the playoffs.  Example-our district with Winter Haven, Kathleen and Bartow, we may have a district champ, but the others may be on the same level.” - Bill Castle on the new playoff qualifying format

 

2017 Schedule

Game 1: @Manatee

Game 2: Cooper City (Miami)

Game 3: Apopka

Game 4: @Gibbs

Game 5: East Lake (Spectrum Sports Feature Game)

Game 6: Bartow

Game 7: @George Jenkins

Game 8: Winter Haven

Game 9:  South Broward

Game 10: Kathleen

 

STORY

It still gives the Dreadnaughts nightmares.

The block heard around the state. 

With 1:30 left in the 4th quarter of the 7A Region 2 Semifinals Plant’s Clay Hancher blocked McKenzee MacDonald’s punt.

The Panthers recovered the ball inside the Lakeland 5-yard line and two plays later scored the miracle game-winning touchdown.

“They seem pretty upset about it still,” said new Dreadnaught quarterback Kevaris Thomas.   “They complain about it almost every day.”

Thomas found out about it while leading Lake Gibson to the 6A state title game.  He is now a ‘Naught and part of the group left to pick up the pieces from a stunning early exit.

“We did lose 31 seniors,” said Bill Castle who is entering his 42nd season as Lakeland head coach.  “We got a lot of guys that are still thinking a lot, when we call a play.”

Learning the Lakeland playbook for the first time, Thomas replaces Holden Hotchkiss under center.

“They’re similar,” said Castle.  “They’re both drop back passers, but Kevaris may have a little edge in running capabilities.  Now, if I can get him to buy into that.”

“He can throw every route,” said 4-star tight end Keon Zipperer.  “He can run.  He’s a big hitter.  It’s hard to make him hurt.”

But what is pretty painful, is losing he luxury of 3-time Polk County player of the year A.J. Davis and 4-star wide receiver James Robinson.  That’s 34 TD and almost 2,500 yards of offense graduated.

“We gotta do a lot better than they did,” said Thomas.  “We gotta finish the game hard and try to get to that state championship.”

“James Robinson, A.J. Davis we could do two plays on offense and have a touchdown,” said Zipperer.  “We ain’t gotta do 50 plays to score once.  So that means I’m the next man up.  I gotta work really hard.”

The ground game will now be by committee, with two sophomores.  Stepping into Robinson’s role, Kathleen transfer, Antonio Whitehead Jr.

The defense, led by OLB Jack Smith, needs to be invented from the ground up, losing their entire starting secondary and defensive line.

“Our whole football team is young,” said Castle about the turnover.  “We’ve got a lot of rebuilding to do.”

A statement you rarely hear around Bryant Stadium.