By VINNIE PORTELL
The games don’t count yet, but Venice High football is back in a big way this week as the Indians travel up to play the four-time state champion Plant Panthers on Friday night at 7:30.
With new starters at several key positions, there are plenty of questions for Venice to answer against the Panthers as they get in a tuneup before hosting the IMG Ascenders on Friday, Aug. 23 to open the regular season.
Though there’s a lot to still learn about how the 2019 Indians will perform, let’s first take a look at what to expect from Plant.
Venice and Plant tied 25-25 in last year’s Kickoff Classic at Powell-Davis Stadium, and both teams went on to have runs deep into the playoffs.
The Panthers lost just two games in 2018 — 21-18 to Armwood and 49-30 to eventual state champion Lakeland in the regional final — and look poised for another big season.
Plant has lost its running back and top four receivers from last year’s team, but retains one of the best quarterbacks in the state in Tucker Gleason. A dual-threat Georgia Tech commit, the senior quarterback passed for 2,001 yards and ran for another 1,097 while scoring 40 total touchdowns in 2018.
“Obviously the defense has their hands full with him,” Venice coach John Peacock said. “He can do it all. He throws the ball really well, and he’s well-coached by coach (Robert) Weiner.”
Despite losing several offensive weapons to graduation, Plant will be aided by the return of receiver Frank Murphy, who missed all of 2018 due to a torn ACL.
Murphy is the son of a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver with the same name, and has showed he shares some of the same traits — bringing in 738 yards and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore.
But Murphy won’t be alone on offense, as several experienced defenders from last year are set to show what they can do on the other side of the ball. Linebacker Jackson Hacker (80 tackles, 15 sacks in 2018) is in line to take snaps at tight end, safety Zaequon Gilliespy (103 tackles in 2018) is likely to see some time at receiver and linebacker Christian Carvajal (102 tackles, 14 for loss and two interceptions in 2018) is looking to step in as a running back.
“They’re a solid team,” Peacock said of Plant. “They’re well-coached. Their quarterback is a strength, obviously. He’s the leader of the team. Their offensive line always plays well. So I’d say their offense, with the quarterback and their receivers, is probably their strength.”
What to watch for
Friday night will certainly be a test for a new-look Venice defense that is replacing nearly its entire front seven and has a revamped secondary.
Not only will there be the challenge of stopping a veteran quarterback with weapons aplenty, but the defensive line will have to see how it reacts to the threat of a running quarterback as well.
However, it might be more of a question as to what Venice will do on offense.
Peacock said both quarterbacks — Nico DallaCosta and Ryan Overstreet — will take snaps in Friday’s game as one looks to separate himself from the other.
New receiver Malachi Wideman has stayed late after practice this week to work on learning the Indians’ playbook, but suiting up for the Kickoff Classic is still in doubt. Peacock said the goal is for him to be ready to play against Vero Beach in Week 3.
Even if Wideman doesn’t play, look for the improvement of Weston Wolff and how new varsity receivers Jayshon Platt, Myles Weston and Shevan Pearce fair against the Panthers’ defense.
Another player to look out for is running back Brian Taylor. While he already lit up Lakeland in the spring game, how he runs behind Venice’s offensive line will be worth watching.
Venice needs to win this game to establish some confidence and momentum heading into a loaded schedule that starts off with IMG and doesn’t get much easier from there. That shouldn’t be too much of an issue with a deep offense and the best secondary its ever had, but a loss would certainly hurt.
Venice 31 — Plant 24