No one-man show

With Bryan Thomas graduated, the Bulldogs need several players to step up and pick up the slack.

Published August 25, 2006

ZEPHYRHILLS - Tom Fisher lost perhaps the smartest mix of brains and brawn he will ever coach.

For the first time in four seasons, Zephyrhills must stand without Bryan Thomas, the crutch who lifted an average team to its first postseason berth in three years.

Opposing coordinators designed schemes to disrupt the versatile threat - now a freshman defensive back at Florida - on both sides of the ball.

Fisher's role is to rally a locker room and convince this 2006 roster it can stand on its own.

"We'll see what we can put together," Fisher said. "They can't sit back and be satisfied with what they did last year."

The Bulldogs reached the playoffs for the first time since 2002, falling 14-6 to Eustis in a Class 3A region semifinal.

There are plenty of returning elements from that team, including 13 starters at key spots.

Among them is quarterback Sederrik Cunningham, who is certain to garner plenty of the attention as he steers the offense.

Once a distant third on the depth chart three years ago, Cunningham has blossomed into a bona fide Division I prospect. The 6-foot-1, 192-pound passer insists the only thought floating through his brain is winning his first game.

Recruiting will take care of itself.

"No matter what you do, you have to start over," Cunningham said. "We have to come in with our heads high and start from the beginning.

"If our heads are in the right place we'll do what we need to do."

Cunningham is a mix of pass and dash. He can throw the ball with accuracy and has the instincts to race with the ball in a split second.

Of course, he has more options than his arm and his feet.

Zephyrhills receiver Chris Henry is back to lead a group mixed with youthful talent. Alex Sampson has made an impact since climbing from the JV and joins Michael Floyd, a defensive back with the ability to play offense.

Because Zephyrhills has limited depth, most players just flip-flop to defense. Most receivers become defensive backs; running backs are linebackers and linemen are linemen.

Barring injury or failure to execute, fatigue appears to be the only obstacle for most.

Cunningham will rely heavily on the running game with the return of Cannellios Ansley and Phillip Robichaud.

"They didn't get as many carries as they will this year," Fisher said. "The reason they don't get the carries, they're on defense, too.

"Ideally your top running back would be running the ball 25 times a game and sitting on the bench when we're on defense. We're not at that point yet."

They'll follow an offensive line that is a work in progress and was not set as of press time.

The strongest candidates include Andrew Smith, Quentin Amos, Sean Gray and Beau Barnes to form a line with an average weight of roughly 280 pounds.

Barnes returns as the Bulldogs' leading tackler and is joined by players such as Josh Ringo and Pasco transfer Joey Lyman as defensive threats.

Another big obstacle is scheduling.

The Bulldogs open with two 5A opponents in Land O'Lakes and Mitchell. Those on the heels of a preseason game at Plant City.

They also get Naples Lely at home.

"A lot of them are young kids that aren't ready to step up and be starters," Fisher said. "A lot will depend on those first few games and how they respond."