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New-look Gators to rely on Weatherford

The sophomore quarterback is expected to lead the offense through the air.

By STEVE LEE

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 30, 2001


LAND O'LAKES -- When defenses line up against the Gators this season, they will hardly recognize what they see.

Gone is the I-formation or split-back set that featured blocking fullback Jason Carpenter and two-time Pasco County rushing champion Godfrey Pestana. Back is the unbalanced backfield with Land O'Lakes' more traditional half-dozen running backs shuttling in plays.

The backfield change has less to do with the fact that Land O'Lakes has no standout running back and more to do with a promising quarterback. Whether handing off to a runner or rifling passes downfield, there is no question that sophomore Drew Weatherford is in charge.

"We'll throw more," said Land O'Lakes coach John Benedetto, who plans to build the offense around Weatherford.

"I watched the kid as a freshman and I watched him play 11 games (10 in the regular season and a playoff game). And I also watched him help the basketball team win (a school-record) 28 games."

Benedetto feels the 6-foot-3, strong-armed passer is ready to take over as a leader and the coach feels Weatherford will improve on last year's totals -- 797 passing yards, 7 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

"He's a competitor," Benedetto said. "He's big, he's strong and he doesn't like to lose. If I had my pick of any quarterback in Pasco County I'd take Drew Weatherford any day."

Receivers Chip Whelan and Logan Payne, who last year combined for eight catches for 60 yards, will be Weatherford's deep targets, and kicker/punter Mike Melsheimer also is likely to see time at receiver.

Any one of six running backs can shift to a slot receiver or look for throws out of the backfield. That group includes Chris Clarke, Greg Rosenthal, Chris Perez, Adam Denicourt, Keith Elser and Giovanni Benedetto, the coach's son, to name a few.

Weatherford also will take advantage of his height by looking over the middle for tight ends Dustin Collins and Anthony Makowski.

On the offensive line, the Gators are counting on strong play from three returners: center Matt Embry, guard Chris Clarke Jr. and tackle Joey Tuttle. James Ignasiak, Bobby O'Dell and Tyler Moore also will play up front.

Embry handled a shift from guard to center "like a champ," line coach Tom Carter said. "He comes off the ball like lightning."

Embry also had to switch positions on defense, moving from defensive tackle to inside linebacker. Tommy Hoskins, Mark LaRochelle, Denicourt and Elser round out the linebacking corps.

Tuttle, O'Dell, Makowski and Moore are the likely starters on the defensive line.

The secondary will feature new starters with the exception of Clarke, a returning cornerback. Other candidates are Whelan, Payne, Melsheimer, Perez and Michael Garcia.

Most of the defenders, in fact most of the team, consists of underclassmen. That leaves defensive coordinator Al Claggett a bit unsure of the production from this year's squad.

"We have a lot of young talent at the skill positions," Claggett said, "but whether or not that's going to help us this year, I don't know."

Whether the coaches like it or not, a fifth consecutive playoff berth is in the hands of a team of underclassmen.

AT A GLANCE

COLORS: Blue and gold

CLASS: Class 4A, District 6

PLAYOFF HISTORY: 1978, 1987, 1988, 1992, 1993, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000

LAST APPEARANCE: Lost to South Lake 38-14

HEAD COACH: John Benedetto

ASSISTANTS: Al Claggett, Tom Carter, Bill Gebauer, Rock Ridgeway, Tim Stevens, Billy Garcia

DIRECTIONS GATORS STADIUM: 20325 Gator Lane, Land O'Lakes: From the west, take S.R. 52 to U.S. 41 and turn south. School is 5 miles on the left. From the east, take S.R. 52 to U.S. 41 and turn south.

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