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Uncertainties surround Dee-less Leopards

The graduation of Dee Brown has left Hernando with a lot of holes to fill.

By BRANT JAMES

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 30, 2001


The graduation of Dee Brown has left Hernando with a lot of holes to fill.

BROOKSVILLE -- Hernando coach Bill Browning knew to expect a certain amount of chaos. That comes with the graduation of your leading rusher, scorer and tackler, along with other key seniors.

The sixth-year coach could plan for the departure of Dee Brown, center Sam Forrester and quarterback Ozzie "Ray-Ray" Whitten, but he wasn't ready for the replacement parts to start vanishing.

One of the few certainties Browning cradled entering the fall was that sophomore Jagren Castillo would be ready to take over in the backfield following a 1,000-yard junior varsity season and a solid spring game.

However, he became another part of the enigmatic Leopards late this summer when he suffered second- and third-degree burns in a fire. Castillo will be unable to participate for an uncertain period.

"Running back is a major question mark," Browning said. "We went into the spring thinking (Castillo) played well. He's been in school, but he's been unable to practice and it's unclear when we'll get him back. And the problem with that is he hasn't been able to work out like he needs to so he's lost some (muscle) weight."

Browning said he expects to field a "backfield by committee" with returning junior Art Starks and seniors Trevor Coleman and Steve Cassell. Without Brown, who rushed for 1,001 yards and 12 touchdowns, the Leopards will switch to a two-back set, "because we just don't know if we have anyone durable enough to be back there by themselves."

Starks is the team's top returning ground-gainer with 198 yards. He also caught a 91-yard touchdown pass from Brown in a 21-16 win against Citrus that earned the Leopards a playoff spot. Starks admits the Leopards became complacent around Brown at times last season.

"Dee is gone and we can't depend on Dee like we did last year," he said. "I think we did (depend on him too much) and now we have to come together as a team."

Starks provides great speed and can be a dangerous receiver, but he had too many drops and is small (5 feet 7, 155 pounds). He said he spent the summer working on his pass-catching and ran up hills in boots to improve his ability to shake off tackles.

Cassell, the defensive end, will spend much of the season trying to shake off tackles. The converted fullback is the Leopards' one genuine impact player. Tall and athletic (6-4, 250), Cassell led the Leopards with six sacks last season despite missing three games due to a FHSAA-mandated suspension for an illegal hit.

Bigger and stronger than last season, Cassell should command a lot of attention from opposing linemen, but will not be able to demonstrate what Browning -- and several inquiring scouts -- think is Division I potential without help from teammates. Where that help will come from -- or if at all -- is another concern. A possible, unexpected source could be 6-3, 300-pound senior Bryant Clark, who has never played before.

Browning has no idea who will be playing behind Cassell, with the linebacker and defensive back slots "pretty unsettled" around possibles Joel Steele and Brad Wyatt, who enters camp as the starting quarterback for the second consecutive fall. At times, the junior looked overmatched in his first varsity endeavor, finishing 14-for-52 for 170 yards with one touchdown and six interceptions. Late in the season he was replaced by Whitten, who guided the Leopards into the playoffs.

"Last year's experience did nothing but help him," Browning said. "I think he feels much more comfortable running the offense. I think last year we were probably throwing him into the fire sooner than we would like."

Wyatt agreed.

"I learned a lot from Ray-Ray," he said. "You can learn a lot from just watching your position being played by someone else, picking up some pointers and stuff like that. But also, it made me as a person work harder, not take stuff for granted."

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

AT A GLANCE

COLORS: Purple and gold

CLASS: Class 3A, District 7

PLAYOFF HISTORY: 1967, 1981, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2000

LAST APPEARANCE: Lost to Titusville Astronaut 57-0

HEAD COACH: Bill Browning, sixth year (36-29)

ASSISTANTS: Matt Smith, Joel Myers, Jeff Renihan, Jimmy Bragg, Brett Teitelman, Herman Scriven, Donald Bruzzi, Gene Thomas

DIRECTIONS TOM FISHER STADIUM: 200 E. Kelly St., Brooksville. From U.S. 41 north of Brooksville (Jefferson Street), turn right on Howell Avenue. Stadium will be about 1 mile on the left.

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