Lee County has an extensive track record of sending its top talent to play Division I college football. And 2015 was no exception.
With recruits headed to schools like the University of South Florida, Marshall and Appalachian State to play on Saturdays, it left a few high school coaches scrambling to fill the huge void left by these standout players.
In the offseason and spring practice it’s all about evaluating the talent coming back.
Here are five teams with players who’ll be stepping into important roles. They have big shoes to fill.
1. Lehigh Senior High
Shoes to fill: DE/OT Austin Pariason, DT/OT Matt Williams
Next men up: Travis Lewis, Chad Sykes
The skinny: It’s hard enough to replace one Division I talent not less two, especially up front. Yet that’s what Lightning coach James Chaney has been preparing for since 6-foot-6, 270-pound UNC-Charlotte signee Paraison and 6-foot-6, 266-pound App State signee Williams played their last games at Lehigh. They were big, agile players who played both ways, creating some big holes for standout back Chris Curry early in 2015 and creating havoc in the backfield while on the defensive line. An offensive guard last season, the 6-foo-4, 269-pound Lewis is cut from the same cloth with the size to be a dominant lineman at the next level. Meanwhile Sykes (5-11, 212), who has experience playing tackle, is one of the hardest working players on the team with strong leadership qualities.
2. North Fort Myers High
Shoes to fill: LB Mi’Cario Stanley
Next man up: Fa’Najae Gotay
The skinny: Shockingly, Stanley flew under the radar during his senior season, mostly due to North’s 5-5 record. However, the USF signee carried the Red Knights defense, averaging 12 tackles a game. Replicating that type of production is a tall order, but South Fort Myers High transfer Gotay showed during the spring he is North’s best bet. During North’s spring game against Sarasota Riverview, Gotay was the best defensive player on the field as he put his high motor and eye-catching sideline-to-sideline speed on display. It seemed like he was around the ball on every play. “You don’t get better instinctively than him,” North coach Earnest Graham said of Gotay.
3. Bishop Verot High
Shoes to fill: RB William Scott
Next man up: Deven Thompkins
The skinny: Few could argue Scott had one of the best starts to a career for a running back in Southwest Florida. After bursting on the scene as a freshman, he rushed for 1,468 yards and 17 touchdowns during the Vikings’ 8-3 2015 campaign. His transfer out of Verot left coach Bill Shields searching for a replacement. He didn’t have to look very far. As good of a two-way player as there is in the area, Thompkins, a junior, has a nose for the ball as a defensive back, but he will see a lot more time in the offensive backfield this season. As a slot back last season he averaged nearly 8 yards a carry. His blazing speed makes him a candidate to score any time he touches the ball. However, don’t expect Thompkins to get 20 to 25 carries a game with all the work he has on defense and special teams. Shields expects the running game to be by committee.
4. Dunbar High
Shoes to fill: LB Zach Lackman, LB Jailyn Mays
Next men up: Justin Michel, Bakari Jackson, Alonzo Russell
The skinny: The football gods smiled on Dunbar last season when Lackman elected to transfer from Island Coast High. With over 400 tackles for his career, Lackman helped form one of the most feared linebacking corps in the area along side Shanon Reid and Mays (94 tackles in 2015). First-year Tigers coach Sammy Brown is in need of two replacements to plug in next to Reid. Michel, Jackson and Russell are in camp competing for two starting positions. “You can’t replace a Lackman or a Mays,” Brown said. “But we’re looking for guys that can lead and make their teammates better.”
5. South Fort Myers High
Shoes to fill: WR Willie Johnson
Next men up: Brandon Lewis, Jeshaun Jones, Darfnell Gouin
The skinny: Johnson, a Marshall signee who was a News-Press Offensive Player of the Year finalist, was a jack-of-all-trades for the Wolfpack. Getting the ball in his hands, whether it was off a screen pass, a handoff or a kick return, usually paid dividends thanks to his high-end speed and great vision. Lewis, a senior, caught 11 balls for 241 yards and three touchdowns last season while Jones, named the No. 15 recruit in Southwest Florida by The News-Press, showed during the spring he could be a threat downfield. Gouin, at 6-foot-3, is a big target with great potential, but he may get most of his reps on the defensive side of the ball.