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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.
LAND O'LAKES - It's 6 p.m. on a cool Monday evening, and the Gators are practicing in stations - the quarterback throws to the wide receivers while a group of linemen pound the blocking sled while another group of linemen work on getting off the line of scrimmage and hitting someone.
At each station, a coach. And the overlord? A relaxed John Benedetto, who looks like he is entering his third season, not his 31st.
"Nice out here, ain't it, " he said, immensely pleased with his decision to hold practices later in the day when the breeze makes the big oak tree by the equipment shed sway a little and the sun is more forgiving.
Benedetto hardly seems concerned he has to replace his starting quarterback and the county's leading passer last season in Joe Weatherford. He has to find new receivers to his dynamic tandem of Develin Robinson and Dontarrius Thomas. And he could use a replacement for running back/linebacker Jerome Blyden, and a key defensive presence in lineman Darrick Fullwood and cornerbacks Brad Patton and Cameron Harris. All of the aforementioned players were all-county selections.
"We lost a lot of guys, " Benedetto said. "But we also have a lot of talent coming back."
Benedetto's mood is much more cheerful than at the end of last season, when he contemplated retirement with a new school opening nearby.
The fear was Sunlake, which begins varsity play in the fall, would siphon off a nice-sized chunk of the Gators' younger talent. But that concern was never realized, with Land O'Lakes, which won its last nine regular-season games in 2006, suffering nary a scratch.
That left Benedetto with one less thing to worry about this spring.
As for replacing those players who graduated, the coaching staff is upbeat. Eli Payne is the likely starter at quarterback, though the fall arrival of incoming freshman Steve Weatherford may change Benedetto's mind. And the Gators get a pair of new receivers, basketballer Jerome Harrison and rising sophomore Alex Robinson.
Harrison gives the quarterback a big target, while Robinson was arguably the most impressive player all spring for the Gators.
"I don't know why you don't throw the ball to him every time, " a grinning Benedetto told Payne one day at practice. "He's always open. He catches everything."
The very next play, Payne hit Robinson for a long gain and the smitten Benedetto could only shake his head and smile.
But the high-octane passing attack may take a backseat to the running game this season, the coach said.
"We may switch up, " Benedetto said. "We've always liked to throw it 20-25 times a ball game. That may drop down to 10 or 15 and we'll give the ball to John Weatherford and let him carry the load for us."
Unless little brother Steve lights it up in the fall, John Weatherford will be a workhorse on both sides of the ball, at fullback and middle linebacker.
Last year: The Gators lost their season opener, then won nine straight games to claim a district title. They lost in the first round of the playoffs to Chamberlain.
District: Class 4A-8 (Central, Ridgewood, River Ridge, Springstead, Tarpon Springs)
Did you know?: Incoming freshman Steve Weatherford could be the most talented of all his brothers and will try to become the third from his family to start at quarterback, following in the steps of UCF's Joe and FSU's Drew.
Breakout player: John Weatherford doesn't throw passes like his brothers, so grabbing the spotlight has been no easy task. And maybe this year, it will be more of the same as another quarterback-playing brother shows up. But chances are this will be his season as Benedetto brings his younger quarterbacks along by making John Weatherford the focal pointy of the offense. A bruising runner with enough speed to break a big one or two, John Weatherford could see 20-30 carries a game and help the Gators grind opposing defenses into the ground.
Who's back: The aforementioned Weatherford, as well as fellow linebacker Nick Castellano, head up a defense that lost a lot of talent but is always solid under the tutelage of coordinator Tom Carter. Kicker Alex Spock will be a valuable weapon for the Gators with his plus-50-yard range and booming kickoffs. And as always, the Gators staff is intact for another year and that always seems worth a victory or two.
What's new: The Gators' running game, which has been in the shadows during the Weatherfords Era, should be a significant part of the offense. Of course that may not last long as the last (and possibly most anticipated) of the Weatherford boys, freshman Steve, shows up on campus. And a new district could make things interesting. The Gators drop from 5A to 4A and leave behind the likes of Wharton, Wesley Chapel and Gaither. But they run smack dab into Ridgewood, which will be one of the county's best teams, and solid clubs on each side of the county in Tarpon Springs and Central.
Spring revelation: Wide receiver Alex Robinson was the smallest player on the field this spring, but did a good job doing the most important thing of all - catching Benedetto's eye. The diminutive receiver (about 5-foot-7) showed a knack for getting open and catching everything thrown his way, even against bigger defenders, and has good enough speed to be a breakaway threat once he gets the ball. "He's been very impressive out here, " Benedetto said. "He's only going to be a sophomore, but if he's the best one he's going to play."