Leopards' win peek at future

On a cool Saturday night, Hernando coach Rodney Byrd walked off the field at Umatilla High with a limp and a smile.

Published May 23, 2007

Just before 10:30 on a cool Saturday night, Hernando coach Rodney Byrd walked off the field at Umatilla High with a limp and a smile. The limp came from an injury he suffered earlier during gym class.

The smile came from a 29-14 win in the Leopards' spring game.

"The kids tried to get me, " Byrd said, referring to the celebratory cooler of water his team had attempted to douse him with.

While it is far too early to tell what the regular season holds for this Hernando team, the Leopards' weekend win over Umatilla at least provided a glimpse of the identity it will have once September rolls around.

The defense again looks to be a strong suit. Last season, the performances of underclassmen such as linebackers Nick Pauliot and Taylor Rotunda helped hold opponents under 20 points per game. This season, Pauliot and Rotunda are seniors, and against Umatilla, they both appeared to have improved.

Pauliot turned in a performance that defensive coordinator Shawn Bingham later said was reminiscent of Zach Thomas and Brian Urlacher, forcing three fumbles, recovering two and intercepting a pass. Rotunda, meanwhile, showed his versatility by lining up on the defensive line, where he played as a sophomore.

As a unit against Umatilla, Hernando forced five turnovers and allowed just 173 yards of total offense. The majority of those yards came on the Bulldogs' only sustained drive of the game, a 13-play, 99-yard march down the field that resulted in its first touchdown of the game. Of the Bulldogs' nine total first downs, seven came on that drive.

"We're going to pick up where we left off last year, " Bingham said.

The same can't be said for the offense.

Gone is the full-house backfield employed by Matt Smith, who was fired after three years as coach. In its place is a spread offense designed to exploit mismatches on the opposite side of the ball.

Don't be fooled: Hernando is still a running team. Though Byrd said he'd like quarterback Jason Davies to have more than the four passes he attempted Saturday, he didn't say "a lot more."

With Nick Sizemore 17 carries, 82 yards and George Fribley (eight carries, 60 yards, three touchdowns) in the backfield and Davies (15 carries, 88 yards) under center, expect to see plenty of ball control.

But the package is different.

"The kids like the offense, " Byrd said. "It's up-tempo."

David Murphy can be reached at dmurphy@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1407.