Stronger Hawks

The returners already have made impacts, the replacements already have playing experience.

Published August 25, 2006

SEFFNER - With a razor-straight face, Armwood coach Sean Callahan tells a visitor the 2005 season, which ended with a third consecutive trip to the state title game, was the one that initially had him concerned.

"I think last year was our worry year because it was a whole new backfield," he said. "It was like two returners on the offensive line, and we had a couple of receivers."

Amid those "concerns," the Hawks pieced together 13 victories, five shutouts and a furious rally in the Class 4A title game that nearly gave them their third state crown in as many years.

All teams should stumble so blissfully. In the past three seasons, during which they've gone 42-2 on the field, the Hawks have raised the proverbial bar for their program to such an astounding height, Warren Sapp could limbo under it.

They have no intentions of lowering it even one rung, though conventional wisdom might suggest they're bound to suffer at least a slight drop off.

Only five starters return, but that quintet represents the entire starting offensive backfield and, arguably, the best pass rushing tandem in the county. Additionally, most of the new starters already have considerable playing experience thanks to last season's lopsided victories that enabled Callahan to substitute liberally.

THROUGH THE AIR: As a rookie starter last season, quarterback Justin Hickman might have been the team's most pleasant surprise. Stepping in for Bethune-Cookman signee Jameel Williams, Hickman proved the ideal engineer for the Hawks' vaunted triple option, collecting more than 1,300 passing and 500 rushing yards.

Should Armwood find some receivers to effectively replace departed standouts D.J. Mitchell and Mat Brevi, Hickman could flourish on play action.

"I think he's probably the best quarterback we've had," Callahan said. "I don't think he's being recognized as that."

ON THE GROUND: Again joining Hickman in the backfield is the complementary ball-carrying tandem of Marquise Branton (up the middle) and Eric Smith (around the edge).

Collectively, the pair ran for more than 1,300 yards in the 2005 regular season and proved surprisingly effective replacements for predecessors Kalvin Bailey and Demetrius McCray. They'll operate behind an offensive line that will average 280 pounds but lost its top Division I prospect in Josh Uhlarik, who took his life in January.

DEFENSE: The fact Callahan returns only two starters should come with some type of disclaimer. Those two are among the county's best down linemen.

Lean junior Sergio Joyner (6-2, 185 pounds), who set a school record with 18 sacks last season, lines up on one end opposite Torrey Davis (6-4, 280), a three-year starter who committed to Florida.

The secondary shapes up as the backbone with cornerback Jay Lassiter the lone senior. In the middle, 230-pound sophomore linebacker Jamiel "Petey" Smith - Eric's brother - could render a bigger impact than his sibling.