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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Before making catches straight out of a Ringling Bros. routine or brandishing hands soft enough to caress a soap bubble, Plant's receivers first had to create some separation.
By JOEY KNIGHT
Published December 7, 2006
[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Plant High's Cam Martin makes a high reach over Booker T. Washington's Kenneth Smith for a touchdown in the state semifinal game last Friday.
TAMPA - Before making catches straight out of a Ringling Bros. routine or brandishing hands soft enough to caress a soap bubble, Plant's receivers first had to create some separation.
Between perception and reality.
"I think most teams, when they look on film, they don't think it's going to be that threatening of an offense," senior wideout Cam Martin said.
Classmate Luke Rorech concurs. "Yeah, people underestimate us, I'd say that."
For opponents who have harbored such a perception about the Panthers' receiving corps - and the players believe there have been many - reality has bitten. So have more than a few unsuspecting secondaries.
The result has been 14 victories, 227 receptions and countless altered opinions about what may go down as the best collection of receivers in Hillsborough County history. Point of information: Robert Marve can't throw for 4,000-plus yards without a few people catching passes consistently.
"There might be faster wideouts," said Panthers coach Bob Weiner, who employs a four-wide-receiver offense. "But if there's a better group of wide receivers in the state of Florida, I want to see them."
Weiner made that proclamation moments after Plant's 28-21 win at Hillsborough in early October, when the Panthers made 19 catches with zero drops.
They haven't dropped many since.
The top five receivers - Derek Winter, Cornelius Gallon, Thompson Brandes, Luke Rorech and Martin - have at least 20 catches each. All average at least 12 yards per reception. Amid that depth, perhaps, lies a key to the unit's consistency.
"They know they've got to catch it or someone else is going to play their spot," co-receivers coach T.J. Lane said.
Seemingly, each has stepped up huge in critical games or moments.
In last week's Class 4A semifinal against Miami Washington, Winter went off (eight catches, 120 yards, one touchdowns). The week before, in a 38-20 upset of Armwood, Martin, Rorech and Winter had scoring catches of 50, 34 and 29 yards, respectively.
In the district title-clinching 17-13 win at Jefferson, Rorech got behind the Dragons secondary for a 52-yard catch in the final 90 seconds, setting up Marve's winning 3-yard touchdown strike to Winter.
In the '05 Jefferson game, Gallon had the winning touchdown catch from Marve and picked off a pass in his end zone in the waning moments to preserve the win at Hillsborough.
But as recently as last week's Washington game, Rorech suggested the overall appearance of the unit still had opponents "licking their chops."
Which isn't to say the Panthers are bereft of physical attributes. Collectively, the Panthers receivers possess some decent size (at 6-foot-3, Martin is the tallest) and speed (Rorech holds the school record in the 330-meter hurdles).
But none simply leap off the team portrait.
"They're not too imposing just looking at them in pictures," said Lane, who coaches the receivers with fellow Jesuit graduate Chris James. "Derek has the puffy hair, Cam is skinny (180 pounds), Thompson's got the wavy, rich (boy) haircut. But we put them together, and they're nasty."
Weiner attributes much of the unit's success to James (who played at Purdue) and Lane (who played at Division III Susquehanna). Each practice, the pair sees that each receiver - somehow, some way - gets between 100 to 150 passes thrown to them. On rare days, the number is considerably higher.
"One practice, on a defensive day when we were not really running all the offense, I caught almost 400," Martin said.
The coaches' drills have been as eclectic as they have been effective. On goal-line slant routes, a coach will stand at the point of the catch with a pad, trying to jar the ball loose.
In another drill employed periodically, receivers go to their knees as coaches fling a succession of balls at them. Nine-on-four drills (nine defenders vs. four receivers) also are common.
"I have never seen a position group squeeze every minute out of practice that they possibly could the way that group does," Weiner said.
"I see them during water breaks. They're down on one knee and (Lane) is standing 10 feet away, throwing a ball here, throwing a ball here, throwing a ball there. It goes right down the line. ...It's unreal."
Lane suggests the relentless work ethic was borne of necessity. At the season's outset, Plant found itself bereft of an every-down back and vulnerable on the offensive line. Entering the 15th game of the season, the Panthers still have no player who has run for 800 yards.
"I tell them, 'If you guys don't produce, we're going to lose,' " Lane said. ' "If we play against a nasty (defensive) line, we're going to have to throw the ball. ... So if you have an average game, we're going to lose.' "
So far, the law of averages has been defied. So have those dogged perceptions.
"We're not the biggest group, we're not the fastest group," Rorech said, "but we're really good as a group together."