tampabay.com

Better balanced

With a season under its belt, Mitchell's previously green defense should complement its powerful offense more.

By JOHN C. COTEY
Published May 22, 2007


TRINITY - It's 4:30 in the afternoon, and on an unmarked practice field, the quarterback drops back to pass.

His throw never makes it to the receiver. It is tipped up, and defensive end Aly Ahmed grabs the ball and runs the other way, feet churning toward nowhere in particular.

"Velcro, " someone yells, drawing laughter. "That's Velcro!"

As Ahmed walks back to the team, coach Scott Schmitz has a little spring in his step. He smiles.

"Velcro."

For Mitchell, the play is just one of dozens at its final spring practice that no one will remember come fall. But for a team in search of its defensive identity, it provides a much-needed moment of which there were few last season.

"The defense is the key, " Schmitz said. "It's really been a point of emphasis this spring. We have to get better. Have to get tougher. And we have to have a defensive mindset. It's the only way to get that turned around."

Last season, the Mustangs surrendered 38 points or more in six of their 10 games. They allowed an average of 43 points in their four district games. And one night, when the offense was scoring 43, the defense was allowing 53.

But Schmitz lost his entire starting unit from 2005, giving him the greenest group he ever had.

"We played a lot of sophomores on defense, " Schmitz said.

The coach will have the same players on defense he did last year, the hope being it was merely inexperience that led to a series of breakdowns and not a lack of talent or will.

"You can see the improvement. They're going to be better, " said senior-to-be quarterback Tate Humphrey, and he certainly hopes so because it would be a waste of the Mustangs' offensive firepower if they weren't.

Humphrey, arguably the most exciting player in the county, is back to lead an offense that has the potential to be prolific. Last season, Humphrey had his moments. He threw for 1, 342 yards, second in the county. He rushed for 646 yards and scored 13 touchdowns rushing, which was third in the county.

Now more acclimated with Schmitz's spread offense and with a few more weapons at his disposal, Humphrey is poised for an even bigger season. He'll have top target T.J. Hendrix to throw to, as well as Jesse Dustin, who moved to Alabama after last season but has since moved back.

And in the backfield, Schmitz has to replace running back E.J. Booze, but feels comfortable with returner Sterling Ross and Alonso transfer Justin Hogston.

In the fall, Seven Springs Middle School's Ricky Trinidad will suit up after scoring a school-record 19 touchdowns in 2006. With four starters - Dominick Booth, Jesse Lorensten, Will Lemmon and Tommy Doman - returning on the offensive line, Mitchell doesn't expect to be overmatched up front.

"We hope this means another year older and another year stronger, " Schmitz said. "Hopefully, that will make a big difference."

But not as much a difference as a more stout defense will. As Humphrey watches a few plays, Hendrix is playing defensive back. Burned earlier, he wants another chance. He wants the ball thrown his way.

"Throw it out here again, and I'm picking it off, " he said.

John C. Cotey can be reached at 727 869-6261 or johncotey@gmail.com.