An extra spring in his step

With no more worries of Sunlake intruding on the Gators' turf, John Benedetto is a happy camper.

Published May 31, 2007

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.

John C. Cotey can be reached at 813 904-4216 or johncotey@gmail.com.