Sharks using spring to move on

Photography by Alice Mary Herden

The exploits of Nature Coast’s football team last fall were well-chronicled. That’s an end result from the Sharks putting together arguably the finest campaign in county history.
But All-American senior running back DeShawn Smith, who led the nation with 3,715 rushing yards and a state-record 66 touchdowns, has played his final game in a Nature Coast uniform. So the program has begun the process of moving forward this spring, hoping to prove that after going 12-1, collecting a district crown and advancing to the Elite Eight, it can sustain a high level of success.
“Kids are kids, they talk in the county and our kids have heard it,” Nature Coast head coach Justin Worden said. “We’ve got a lot of guys from the lower levels who have come up. They have to grow up in a hurry, especially defensively.
“Offensively, it’s just finding our swagger. Our swagger walked out the door, that’s what everybody has been telling us.”
The Sharks travel to Palm Harbor University for their spring game, May 20 at 7 p.m. Spring practice leading up to that contest is already underway.
“It’s not going bad, I think. Offensively, we started off ahead but that was expected. We’ve got more back on that side,” Worden said. “Defensively, we have a lot of new faces trying get caught up to the play at the varsity level.
“We’ve got to be detail-oriented with our offensive line. We’ll have to play flawless football for us to come close to doing what we did last year.”
While it would seem highly unlikely that anyone could simply replace Smith, Nature Coast has no plans to get away from relying on its ground attack. At this point, the Sharks will go with a committee approach, as they did in 2014 with Smith, Jermaine Green and Richard Graham IV.
Smith’s primary backup, Willie Coffey, steps to the forefront. As a sophomore, he carried the ball 63 times for 394 yards with a touchdown. He’ll be complemented by Michael Weston, who rushed 17 times for 81 yards and a score as a freshman.
“I think our biggest expectation, and we’re talking to them every day, is they’re not DeShawn. I think that takes a little pressure off them,” Worden said. “They’ve just got to play their game. I think they’ve taken bits and pieces of DeShawn’s game and incorporated that into what they do.”
Also returning is quarterback Brian Haygood. As a junior, he took over under center early in the season and only attempted 39 passes, but ran for 710 yards and seven touchdowns.
The defense retains its leading tackler, linebacker Matthew Robinson (142 tackles), who will be a senior in the fall. Defensive tackle Trevor Gamble (69 tackles, team-high six sacks) will be a senior, as well, and figures to anchor the defensive front along with Weston (27 tackles).
Still, the focus outside the team is likely on who isn’t there any longer, so this spring offers an opportunity to ease some doubts and build positive momentum heading into the summer.
“We’re just trying to find the right combination on the offensive line and getting the right faces in the right places defensively,” Worden said. “We’re just trying to get a good jump on the fall and find the right guys for the right spots.”
Follow Chris Bernhardt Jr. on Twitter @cpbernhardtjr.

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