A fast group of running backs is ready to fill the role of ineligible star Raymond Neal.
By JOEL POILEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2002
TAMPA -- Opponents who think the Lions have lost their roar because of running back Raymond Neal's academic and legal problems might be surprised by the team's resilience.
Neal, the county's second-leading rusher last season as a sophomore with 1,498 yards, was declared academically ineligible after dropping out of a summer school course. He also entered a plea of not guilty Aug. 6 to theft charges. In his absence is a stable of talent that should keep the Lions running toward another playoff berth. Most of the team's players are returning juniors.
Optimism remains high in King's camp after last year's 8-4 season ended in a second-round playoff loss to Kissimmee Osceola in double overtime.
Besides that final loss, coach Joe Severino figures three plays and a holding penalty were all that separated the Lions from an undefeated season.
A bit more discipline, Severino said, might be the final piece for a state title run.
"Without Raymond we'll be different, but we'll still be good," Severino said.
"We have the nucleus up front and the kids know our system. Everywhere I've been, the third year has always been my best year."
THROUGH THE AIR: Senior quarterback Mike Brewster runs Severino's potent wing-T to perfection, with improved accuracy to go with big-play running skills.
Junior receivers Dominick Johnson and Artis Ponds lend speed on the outside.
Junior Ben DeWitt, who transferred from Blake, provides a big target with good hands at tight end.
ON THE GROUND: Running behind a big, athletic line should help whoever carries the mail for the Lions.
Throw in sprinter speed and quickness, and this unit should churn out yards in big chunks. Gary Johnson, Vince Arboleda, O.J. Brooks, converted defensive back Juan Cherry and Justin Hayes will have significant touches. Brewster, a rugged 5-foot-10, 180-pounder, reads defenses well and knows when to tuck and run.
"Our offensive line should be the best we've had in three years," said Severino, a champion powerlifter who appreciates the guys in the trenches.
That group, which also doubles on defense, includes junior Kyle Salman at 6-0, 260, junior Fedell Jackson at 6-2, 320, junior Bjar Atkins at 6-2, 240, junior Whitney Bogan at 6-4, 325, senior Antwan Clethan, who transferred from Blake, and senior wingback Orvil Ray.
"We're more balanced," Brewster said.
"This year we'll have three or four guys who can pick up 750 to 1,000 yards. Teams can't key on one guy like they did on Raymond last year."
DEFENSE: With improved depth to keep people fresh, Severino expects his 5-2 scheme to control the line of scrimmage and force teams away from their strength.
When they pass, Brewster has earned his Superman nickname the past two seasons with 14 interceptions in the defensive backfield.
THE BIG GAME: Hillsborough, Sept. 27.
"Since we beat them last year, when they were ranked sixth in the state, they'll be gunning for us," Severino said. "I'm sure (Hillsborough coach) Earl (Garcia) has us circled in red on his calendar."
AT A GLANCE
COACH: Joe Severino (third season, 12-8; 11th season overall, 58-50).
ASSISTANTS: Jim Gee, Alex Gonzalez, Orlando Gudes, Harry Kayian and Malawi Hills.
COLORS: Columbia blue and scarlet.
STADIUM: Bill Stewart Stadium, 6815 N 56th St.
CLASS: 5A, District 6.
PLAYOFF HISTORY: 1972, 1976, 1978, 1981, 2000, 2001.
LAST APPEARANCE: Beat East Bay 17-14, lost to Kissimee Osceola 24-23 (2 OT).