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The stage is theirs

Each fall, young players fill the practice fields at area schools. Following the graduation of Dee Brown, the time is right for one of them to emerge as the county's next superstar.

By BRANT JAMES

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 30, 2001


Each fall, young players fill the practice fields at area schools. Following the graduation of Dee Brown, the time is right for one of them to emerge as the county's next superstar.

They strut and fret their hour upon the stage, and then, to paraphrase Shakespeare's ghostwriter, are heard no more. There's always another, but we never know when they'll arrive.

Before the Jerome Brown Era made Hernando County a part of National Football League history, there were the Maulty Moore, Ricky Feacher and George Floyd dynasties. Since Brown, Ed Chester Jr., Dwayne Mobley, Tyrone Goodson and John Capel have taken their turns as the single best players -- players good enough to excel in the world beyond -- from a very small county.

With the Dee Brown epoch concluded, his career path now winding through the backfield of Central Florida, one question lingers as the year 1 A.Dee begins.

Now what?

* * *

Ask a football coach who has seen the ebb and flow of talent, and the wins and losses it creates, and he'll provide an answer borne of experience, frustration and hope.

"The thing about this game," Springstead coach Bill Vonada said, "you have them for a few years and then they're gone. But someone always is there to take their place."

Sometimes a familiar face.

Huey Whittaker, a sophomore wide receiver at South Florida, was a Times All-Suncoast selection in 1998 when he caught 10 touchdown passes as a senior at Springstead. This fall, Houston Whittaker, his younger brother, walked into Eagles camp looking a lot like a baby Huey, not nearly ready to compete -- much less dominate -- on the varsity level, but offering promise the cycle never stops.

"He's a little smaller, but pretty quick," Vonada said. "I don't want to make him out to be the next Jerry Rice, but we want to see the kid because he has good skill and ability and you see those tools right off the bat. You see the size potential and how his brother got.

"But he has to work with us and show us. We don't say that because the last name is Whittaker or Capel we're putting him on varsity."

Vonada has a couple of young glimmers in pads this fall, including freshman tailback Joe Merando. But their careers are pure speculation.

"You're always speculating, but we think we have a bunch of kids that will have good seasons and be able to produce for two or three years," Vonada said. "It's just awfully tough because you don't know how they will adjust. With Whittaker, even seeing him dominate in middle school you don't know, because he hit his growth spurt before everyone else.

"You just can never tell."

* * *

That could be a bumper sticker on Bill Browning's truck.

Replacing Brown was certain to be a fitful process, but knowing he had a super-talented potential replacement in his program was a comforting thought for the Hernando coach.

Sophomore Jagren Castillo thrust himself into the Leopards' plans by rushing for more than 1,000 yards on the junior varsity team last year, then paced Hernando in its spring game.

"He's a young, talented individual, great field vision for someone that age," Browning said. "He's only a 10th-grader, but he definitely has the potential to be a very good player."

But his career was side-tracked when he was burned lighting a fire a few weeks before school and missed valuable workout and practice time. When he'll return is unclear, so Browning moves on.

"Every year is another adventure," Browning said. "You get a new cast of characters and try to mold them the best you can."

That strategy worked pretty well with Steve Cassell, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound defensive end who could finally emerge from Brown's shadow in his senior season. He wants to pull an inexperienced Leopards team with him, and it should probably do what he says.

"I'm part of the team," he said. "I wrestled last year and I wasn't a good wrestler, but my teammates took pride in helping me step up. That's what I have to do out here as a leader."

Browning's staff identified the raw frame and football attitude in Cassell when he was a freshman, and has spent four years constructing a player who is now earning considerable Division-I attention. Cassell, of course, had to buy into it.

He quit his part-time job, he spent much of the summer in the weight room, gaining body mass and improving his bench press to 350 pounds.

"Steve has slowly learned what it takes to be successful," Browing said. "He's really matured a lot, and when his motor is full-tilt, it's a chore to stop him.

"You can just tell he has a lot of fun out there playing the game."

Oh, he does.

Willie Winslett might be the grand old man of the Hernando County football fraternity -- high school chapter

The 6-foot-3, 255-pound offensive guard/linebacker can become the first to ever play four full years on the Central varsity for coach Steve Crognale, and as the cerebral brute in the trenches, he has learned to discern who's made of what.

With at least a slight bit of impartiality, he'd nominate Bears junior running back Tim Gaynor onto the next-great-one ballot.

"Another great one? Tim, all he has to do is keep his head on straight," Winslett said.

Gaynor, working in the same backfield with Jerry Daniels and Kashif McCormack, rushed for 701 yards on 109 carries and a team-high 11 touchdowns last year. He is the county's top returning rusher and scorer by huge margins.

"I plan on leading, still," Gaynor said. "I think I should run over a thousand (yards) this year, as good as my line is."

Winslett plans on helping Gaynor get where he needs to be -- the end zone. But as a young man proud of what he can do on a football field, he would like to think he could at least get some consideration as the best player in the county this year.

"I don't want to brag and say I'm going to be a great one, but I think I can go compete on the next level," said Winslett, who has been contacted by schools including Miami, Auburn and Clemson. "A lot of colleges want to see a mobile lineman, so when they come see me play pulling guard, I'm playing linebacker, too, going sideline to sideline. There has to be something special about that guy who can play guard and linebacker, too."

Special, indeed. But who will be the best?

- Staff writer Brant James can be reached at (800) 333-7505, ext. 1430. Send e-mail to brant@sptimes.com.

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