As a second-year head coach last season, Earnest Graham was still on a bit of a learning curve. The former Florida Gator and Tampa Bay Buccaneer was still settling into his job at North Fort Myers High.
The last thing he and the Red Knights needed was to be so hyped up thanks to an abundance of talent that they had a target on their backs every week. And North didn’t handle it well, hitting plenty of bumps along the way that derailed a 2015 season with sky high expectations.
It started with a preseason fight with South Fort Myers, which kept the Knights without standout running back Zaquandre White for five games, and followed with missed opportunity after missed opportunity in some key games.
“You have to have a certain amount of poise playing in these games,” Graham said. “I think our issues in the second half got the better of us last season.”
It amounted to a 5-5 season and stretched North’s postseason drought to nine seasons.
Armed with even more talent this season, the preseason hype machine again set its sights on Graham’s team.
This time North believes it’s prepared.
Offense: White continues to think of what could have been had he not thrown a punch at a South player during a preseason classic game. The Florida State commit rushed for nearly 1,000 yards in just five games upon his return.
The plan is to play in more than 10 games this season.
While he’ll be the feature back, Graham plans to go with a back-by-committee approach with South transfer Fa’Najae Gotay, sophomore Hunter Kobylanski, senior Luis Alfonso and sophomore Chris Lucas all getting their chances.
The running game will be reliant on a young, talented offensive line led by senior Collin Tumbarello and junior Colton McMullen. Sophomores Adolphus Taylor and Isaiah Taylor as well as senior J.P. Perez will fill in.
Blocking from the receiving core will be crucial to North’s production. Joe Wilkins, Eric Harris, Herb Riggins, Garrett Morgan, Bryce Adkins and Blake McPherson are also part of unit who can stretch the field and make crucial catches on third down with junior quarterback Ben Pogue running the offense.
Defense: Graham is looking for increased physicality down the stretch from his defense after it tired during the second half of games last season.
“Last year we had a couple of games, if we had gotten a stop late we could have won the games,” Graham said. “In our district a lot of teams make a point of it to run the ball. Out of district, Fort Myers closed us out running the ball down our throat. Island Coast same thing, Port Charlotte. Those are teams that get stronger as the game goes on so our physicality needs to be present for a full four quarters.”
Up front will be Perez and senior Hunter Warren along with juniors Michael Chase and Brandon King on the edges.
Gotay replaces University of South Florida recruit Mi’Cario Stanley at linebacker and is joined by Kobylanski and junior Cameron Taylor.
White will see some time in the secondary with Riggins and Wilkins at cornerback and senior Tanner Mounce and Alfonso at the safety positions.
Outlook: Defending District 6A-10 champion Charlotte appears to be the favorite this season with the second playoff spot up for grabs.
Graham expects this past offseason will make all the difference as North has learned from last year.
“This offseason was less eventful,” Graham said. “We really just focused on being around each other as a team. We focused on leadership and accountability.”
North opens its district schedule Sept. 16 with a home game against Island Coast before a crucial stretch hosting Port Charlotte, at Charlotte and hosting Ida Baker, which should determine its fate.
North Fort Myers
2015 record: 5-5, no playoffs
Aug. 26 — at Riverdale, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 2 — at Fort Myers, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 9 — Estero, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 16 — Island Coast, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 23 — at Mariner, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 30 — Port Charlotte, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 7 — BYE
Oct. 14 — at Charlotte, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 21 — Ida Baker, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 28 — at Cape Coral, 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 4 — Barron Collier, 7:30 p.m.