By REID TUCKER
By now, Freeport’s football team from the coaching staff down to the newest player knows the drill: the Bulldogs, state playoff contenders three seasons running, are still the underdogs.
The thing is, that’s just the way they like it. A roster of just 36 players is par for the course and a schedule of tough opponents in and out of District 1-A is no surprise. This is all ground the Bulldogs have treaded before.
Freeport, which went 8-4 last year as the district and regional runner-up, has long depended on its players’ hard work on both sides of the ball, and things will be no different in the 2012 season, said head coach Jim Anderson.
“One thing our guys always do is give everything they’ve got,” he said. “We get the most we can out of everybody. That goes for our players and coaches too. If we don’t win a game it’s not for lack of effort. I feel like our kids understand that they’ve got to play over their heads all the time and they more than exceed that expectation. We’re really proud over everyone’s effort because that is our strength in the end.”
Another strength that cannot be discounted is the presence of veteran players in the most critical positions on the field, including a power duo quarterback/running back combo and experienced offensive linemen, all of whom return from last season.
On offense, junior QB Gabe Moore, one of the top high school-aged decathletes in the U.S., last season racked up a passing record of 82-154 for 1,349 yards through the air, and throwing 17 touchdown passes in his first year at the position. He also carried the ball 711 yards for 11 more TDs, making him far and away the Dogs’ top scorer. Senior Owen Cole, with three years’ experience as running back, remains Freeport’s go-to man when it comes to running the ball, having totaled 827 yards and six touchdowns on 106 carries last season.
Offensive linemen Nick Russell, Joseph Petrone, John Griffey and Colton Parsons will not only have to manage the newcomers on the d-line but Russell will also fill in at tight end for bona fide playmaker Caleb McCormick, who scored five touchdowns last season. Morgan Hardee will take over as wide receiver for Jordan Varner, while Zach Fordem and Joseph Scarpaci will be doing David Bartlett’s cornerback and wide receiver duties. In addition to graduating McCormick, Varner and Bartlett, the Bulldogs also graduated all-around specialist James Leogrande and offensive and defensive strongman Brandon Head, the team’s second highest scoring player with eight touchdowns last season.
In light of the many new faces on the defensive line, assistant coach Mike Myrick pointed to that as Freeport’s weak spot in the pre-season. In the Bulldogs’ May 18 spring game against Graceville it was a “lack of aggression” on the d-line’s part that helped the Tigers claw their way to an early lead before a more settled second half gave way to a 27-20 victory. That win was too close for comfort for Myrick and the rest of the coaching staff, which led to an overhaul of the way the team is going to look at handling defense.
“What we do on defense is read-and-react,” Myrick said. “Our boys have got to be in the right place before the snap. We’ve got to get there before the other guys get there because we aren’t going to get there if we’re beaten to the point. It’s going to take a lot of reps but our boys are good at putting in the work.”
The Bulldogs’ opponents in the 2012 season are better in all aspects from this same time last year, Anderson said. Starting off the season this Friday against 6A Fort Walton Beach sets the tone of the rest of the season, with district foes Baker, Jay and particularly Northview all looking strong early on. Though Freeport narrowly defeated Baker with a field goal in overtime last season, and while Jay continues to improve its game, the real threat remains Northview, which twice trounced the Bulldogs last season, including a 43-13 victory that featured nine QB sacks in the regional final. Freeport’s non-district opponents are equally as stout. The Chipley Tigers, last year’s state runners-up, will once again rise up as a major obstacle to overcome, and Blountstown, loaded with much bigger linemen, will likely grind out four quarters as they did last season’s meeting with the Bulldogs. Perhaps Freeport’s two most interesting non-league foes are county rivals Walton and South Walton, both of which have new coaches and veteran teams looking to make up for last season’s doldrums.
As proof of its renewed vigor, Walton defeated the Dogs’ varsity squad 27-7 in a half of play during last week’s kickoff classic. Now helmed by former Fort Walton Beach coach Jimmy Ray Stephens, whose brightest pupil was University of Florida legend Danny Wuerffel, the Braves will face off against Freeport on the third week of 2012 season. Though Cole scored on a touchdown run and though Moore completed 8-of-14 passes for 83 yards, it was clear the Bulldogs still have some areas to improve, Anderson said. Despite these hurdles to overcome, Anderson remained confident that his team will make its presence known in the region and hopefully deep into the state playoffs. By facing stiff outside-the-district competition, the Bulldogs will only get sharper for the district games that have always been their focus. Obviously they’ll have to be careful to avoid injuries, but even a comparatively small roster and a challenging schedule won’t stop the team from living up to its potential, Anderson said.
“We’re really emphasizing district games and district wins,” he said. “I think if we can beat Baker on October the fifth we stand a good chance of making it to the playoffs again. Beyond that, who knows? Our whole objective is to just keep getting better and better as the season goes on. I think they boys will surprise some people with what they can do.”