Bears trying to plant seeds for breakout season

Photography Alice Mary Herden

The Central football team’s official Twitter account often boasts of college signings and offers, punctuating each tweet with the same hashtag: We have dudes.
Indeed, after years of struggle the Bears do appear to have some serious talent on their roster. But it has yet to translate into the win column, something that needs to change, according to Chris Sands as he enters his third year as head coach.
Phase 1, he said, was building camaraderie, followed by Phase 2, developing players.
“We’re in Phase 3 of the program, of the blueprint of being a successful program,” Sands said. “Phase 3 is start winning and getting to the playoffs and making a state run, and we feel we have the athletes to do that.”
Central is currently working through spring practice, building toward a May 20 exhibition at Boca Ciega, starting at 7 p.m.
“We’re strong, healthy and getting everyone ready for this upcoming season,” Sands said. “We’re getting back to basics and the kids are working hard.”
The Bears went 3-7 in 2015, preceded by a 2-8 finish in Sands’ first campaign. The three wins were the most for the team since 2008, which was the first of eight straight losing seasons.
One thing Central did accomplish last fall was establishing a dominating running game. Junior De’Vonta Smith put together not only one of the finest statistical performances in county history, but he was the fifth-leading rusher in the state – and the four ahead of him all had the chance to pad their numbers in the postseason.
Smith rushed for 2,193 yards and scored 19 touchdowns, yet headlines mostly eluded him in large part because his cousin, DeShawn Smith, was leading the nation in rushing and setting a state record for touchdowns over at Nature Coast.
However, the Bears’ Smith has not gone undetected by college coaches, as he has received 14 offers and appears destined to sign with a Division I school.
“We have one of the best players in the state,” Sands said. “De’Vonta Smith is an unbelievable talent, not just running the ball but on defense, as well.”
Overshadowed by his sparkling offensive numbers, Smith’s defensive stats were highlighted by 95 tackles, including 14 for a loss, plus three sacks, two interceptions and 10 passes defensed out of the cornerback spot.
In both the offensive and defensive backfield, Smith has gained considerable help in the form of Springstead transfer Dominique Walker. As a junior he led the Eagles in rushing with 670 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. Walker also had 4 ½ sacks playing corner, and that’s where Sands sees him making his biggest contributions.
“He can run. He’s really strong. You’re able to put him against the opponent’s best player and lock down one side of the field,” Sands said. “We’ll put him and Smith next to each other (offensively) and have that two-headed monster and ride their coattails as far as they can take it.”
Middle linebacker Josh Rivera, who as a junior paced the team with 107 tackles, returns to lead the defense along with defensive tackle Andre Timmons (57 tackles, three sacks as a junior).
Sands, a former offensive lineman, said the primary focus is on that area. Three starters return, including 6-foot-7, 315-pound Lyndell Hudson.
Boca Ciega and its pass-heavy attack will present the Bears with a challenge in contrast to the power running games typical of North Suncoast squads. Sands wants his players to make the most of the opportunity before heading into the summer.
“We’re just trying to put a show on and have our playmakers make plays,” Sands said. “You want to win, but you want to put everything together, stay healthy and have a great showing.”
Follow Chris Bernhardt Jr. on Twitter @cpbernhardtjr.

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