Heading into the 2015 football season, Live Oak Suwannee head coach Jamie Rodgers was unsure.
He’d just lost 16 seniors to graduation off a team that went 12-2 and had restored pride in a program with a long history of success.
And while Rodgers knew he had some returning talent, no one loses that many key contributors, including 1,500-yard, 29-touchdown running back Denzel Washington, and finds the same beat.
After a season-opening 10-7 loss to Leon on a last-second field goal, Rodgers had reason to be worried.
But what emerged over the final 10 weeks of the regular season was a Bulldogs team that found its own identity. And the wins came, to Rodgers ever-increasing pleasure.
Now, Suwannee is 10-2 and its only other loss after Leon was to 7A Lake City Columbia (11-1) as it heads into tonight’s Region 1-5A final at Wakulla (11-1).
“We had so many sophomores that are playing now that were having to take those guys spots,” said Rodgers, who two years ago got the Bulldogs to the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. “They’re going to be really good players one day. They were just young at the beginning of the season and hadn’t gotten many varsity reps.”
When junior quarterback Steven Anderson went down injured in Week 6 and missed three games, elusive senior Aaron McAllister— electric on special teams and utilized as a receiver and running back otherwise— moved to quarterback.
“Letting him touch the ball on every play was fantastic for us,” Rodgers said. “He’s got 28 touchdowns now this year. The Leon game he just didn’t play very good and he would tell you that. He made a vow that that wouldn’t happen again. He’s carried us all year. It seems like he’s three touchdowns every game. He’s put us on his back.”
Anderson has since returned, but during his absence Suwannee learned how it could be more multiple as an offense and run packages suited for its various talents. The Bulldogs run spread when Anderson is in, but can show zone read option looks.
Suwannee lost in the first round of the 2013 playoffs to South Sumter during an 8-3 season, then it ripped off three playoff wins last year before getting crushed 48-14 by Godby in the state semifinals.
It took several weeks for Rogers and his staff to watch the game film from the loss to the Cougars. He knew the Bulldogs were out-matched that night.
His optimism has returned in time for Friday night’s showdown against another District 2-5A champion.
“We’ve watched and studied the film and we know we’re going to try to attack them in some places where we feel we can have some success,” Rdogers said. “We have some things we haven’t shown on film that we’ll try to do. We’ll try to be multiple on defense and run some different fronts that they haven’t seen. Obviously, they’re a very good football team. Their physicality and size and speed, we understand what we’re up against.”
Whereas Godby ran right down Suwannee’s collective throat to gash the Bulldogs’ defense for 19 first downs, 345 yards and 41 points in one half, Wakulla presents more complex intricacies.
“I told our guys in the defensive meeting that this was probably going to be the toughest team that we’ve had to get ready for, no doubt this year and maybe even last year because Godby was so run dominant,” Rodgers said. “But this is a different element because these guys can be in 3×1 spread, trips to the right and things like to that. The quarterback can deliver to so many guys.
“They’ve got guys besides just (Keith) Gavin. Being in the very next play, under center, double slot, running the veer action, that’s not easy to prepare for. We’ll try to give them multiple looks and talk to our kids about playing assignment football.”
And then there’s just the atmosphere of being on the road, away from the securities of Paul Langford Stadium. It’s not easy to win a playoff game. Suwannee just hopes it has another in them.
“We’ve got at least 10 starters that didn’t get into that game last year,” Rodgers said. “It’s going to be a little bit of culture shock. We’ve played in some big games over here, but nothing like the regional final on the road in a hostile place. That will be the first taste of that for some of our kids. They’ve been in big games— Columbia, both Ribault games— but they were here. They’re going to see something Friday night they haven’t seen before.”
Friday Night Lights
FHSAA Region 1-5A final, 7:30 p.m.
Live Oak Suwannee Bulldogs (10-2) at Wakulla War Eagles (11-1)
FHSAA Class 1A state semifinal, 7:30 p.m.
Trenton Tigers (12-0) at Madison County Cowboys (9-3)