An exodus of 23 players from the most successful football team in East Lee County High School’s eight-year history has new coach Dave Smith rebuilding with two key Division I prospects.
Gone are the experienced offensive linemen who guarded quarterback Winfred Ward and wide receiver Kendall Sawyer.
These two seniors will lead a Jaguars team that went 7-5 last season, the final year of coach Scott Jones’ tenure and the only year in which the program reached the state playoffs.
East Lee County defeated Golden Gate 35-7 in the first round of the Class 5A state playoffs last season before falling 30-12 to eventual state runner-up Immokalee in the regional semifinals.
“We’re really young,” said Sawyer, who has offers to play defensive back from Florida State, Arkansas, Ole Miss, West Virginia, Florida, USF and UCF among others. “I’m going to try to help. I know I have a lot of responsibilities. I’m going to make plays so my teammates can make plays.”
Sawyer will have help from Ward, who is being recruited as a quarterback by Arizona, North Carolina, South Alabama and Wake Forest among others.
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Ward completed 87-of-190 passes for 1,334 yards and 10 touchdowns with 13 interceptions last season. He also rushed for 272 yards and seven touchdowns.
Sawyer caught 79 passes for 620 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
“We have to become leaders,” Ward said. “It’s pretty tough, but they put on the pads just like we do.”
In addition to inheriting few experienced players, Smith also inherited one of the area’s toughest schedules.
Of East Lee County’s nine opponents this season, only two of them, Lehigh (2-8) and Cape Coral (4-6) finished with losing records last season.
The rest of the opponents combined to go 63-26 with five of them making state playoff appearances.
Cocoa (10-3), American Heritage Delray Beach (11-1) and South Fort Myers (10-2) each won at least 10 games, and Vero Beach went 9-2.
The Jaguars open the regular season Friday, Aug. 30, at home against Cape Coral following a preseason game Friday, Aug. 23 at home against Island Coast.
“We’re looking at it as a challenge,” Smith said of the schedule. “To try and be the best, you have to beat the best. You have a high standard for your kids.”
Smith, 49, enters his first season as a head coach. He has been an assistant coach at Cypress Lake, Lehigh and East Lee County for all but one of the past 28 seasons, having spent one year working on a shrimp boat.
“It’s very gratifying,” Smith said of finally getting a top job. “The only way it works though is to have good people around you, and I have that. I’ve been here a long time, and it’s always been fun. I just got the opportunity. It’s a good fit.”
Having Sawyer and Ward has helped, Smith said, as he has been busy preparing almost everyone else.
“We’re leaning on those kids,” Smith said. “We’ve got leadership. Our problem is we lost a lot of kids, and we had a lot of kids ineligible.”
Smith said he has 31 varsity players, but of them only six arrived to the first day of practice last week with paperwork completed in order to practice.
“We’re good skill-position-wise,” Smith said. “We’ve got to find linemen, more linemen and more linemen.
“We will be tested every week. Win, lose or draw, we’re seeing what it takes every week to be a state caliber team.”