If the saying “defense wins championships” still holds any weight, the West Florida Jaguars (7-2) may be in for the deepest playoff run of any area team this year.
West Florida High has built a culture around stingy and physical defensive play, and holds the statistics and three consecutive district championships to vouch for it.
The Jaguars are likely the area’s best defensive unit and will play their final regular season game (hosts Washington) Friday before starting their playoff journey Nov. 11.
“Our guys take pride in defense. That was one of the things when I got to West Florida — we wanted to make sure we put guys on defense that can make plays,” said West Florida coach Harry Lees, in his seventh season with the Jaguars. “We’re still looking to get better. We’ve been doing some serious evaluating to see what we can improve on. We definitely need to get better. We want to bring our best every week. Hopefully it will pay off.”
The Jaguars lead the area in points allowed, giving up just 16 points-per-game. For the Jags defense, it all starts with up-front pressure, as West Florida has attacked opposing quarterbacks for 38 sacks (4.2 per-game).
The Jaguars are so effective up front (No.1 in area in total sacks), the No. 2 and No. 3 sack-leading teams combine for just 3½ more sacks (Gulf Breeze 21.5; Navarre 20) than West Florida.
“It’s mind boggling when you look at it The fact is that we have three D1-caliber linemen (Vidal Scott, Adarius McWilliams, Antonio Moultrie) on our defense,” Lees said. “Then, Kewaun Livingston — a little guy, 5-foot-8, 175 (pounds). With everyone concentrating on the other guys, he (Livingston) leads the team with 11 sacks — it’s crazy. We’ve got Kalia (Davis, UCF commit) coming off the edge and Kelsey Stokes applying pressure on the quarterback. It was kind of frustrating early in the year, we were giving up a lot (of points). But we are starting to jell at the right time. Overall, this might be the most talented defensive front I’ve coached.
“We still have some season to play. Whether that remains the same, we will see.”
West Florida’s secondary is no slouch as the team sits at third in the area with eight interceptions on the year. Plus, West Florida’s defensive backs likely haven’t seen as many pass attempts as other teams, with opposing quarterbacks constantly under fire.
Defensive backs coach Gary Cowart (formerly at Pensacola High) has been a key addition to the Jaguars coaching staff this season. He coached Damarious Randall of the Green Bay Packers and Damarius Travis of the University of Minnesota.
“He (Cowart ) and Rhett Summerford (WF defensive coordinator) are two of the top defensive coaches in the area,” Lees said. “Rhett has been with the team, working with the defense for six years. (Cowart) came in this year and enhanced what we already did, but added a few different things. He brought in a bit more man coverage. We started a bit slow, but it has really helped us in the long run as we have seen a lot of teams that run the spread and look to throw a lot.”
Defensive players have contributed big to West Florida’s special teams play, as Lees said his players have come to expect a touchdown each time an opposing team punts.
“Our punt return game has been sick. We’ve had three punt-return TDs and probably could have had five,” said Lees, referring to cornerback Amir McDaniel (two punt return TDs) and wide receiver / defensive back Keyshawn Helton (one punt return TD). They (punt returns) are a weapon for us. Whether it is a pick, or a punt return, our guys want to take it back to the house.”
The Jaguars hosts Crawfordville Wakulla in the Region 1-5A quarterfinals on Nov. 11, a rematch of last year’s first round playoff which West Florida won 41-34.
ESPN Pensacola / PNJ Game of the Week
Who: Washington Wildcats vs. West Florida Jaguars
Where: Woodham Middle
When: Pregane 6:30 p.m. / Kickoff 7 p.m.
Records: West Florida (7-2); Washington (1-8)
Radio: ESPN Pensacola – 1450 AM / 101.1 FM