The 2012 Wharton Wildcats have an interesting balance between assets and liabilities.
They have a franchise quarterback in Division 1 recruit and junior Chase Litton. However, they have very little behind him at the position. Litton was knocked out of the team's 2011 season opener against King and proceeded to miss three games, with the Wildcats going 1-2 in the span.
They have found replacements for the bevy of graduated skill players, mainly at running back and wide receiver. However, their trench players, the offensive and defensive lines, are lacking.
"They are hanging in there," said head coach David Mitchell. "They are going to have to work together as a unit."
They have five-star recruit and senior Vernon Hargreaves III, whom the Tampa Bay Times referred to as the number one player in the Tampa area. Unfortunately, Hargreaves cannot play every position on the field at once.
There are two main factors that will dictate success for the 2012 Wildcats.
Number one: Players
Quarterbacks: Litton is the quarterback of the present and future. However, as stated above, there is very little behind him. Last season, the Wildcats used a combination of Hargreaves and DJ Grant while Litton was out. Burning Hargreaves' candle at both ends is not a good idea simply because of the impact he can have on defense and in the receiving game on offense. Grant has transferred to Freedom and the Wildcats are thin and inexperienced beyond Litton.
Running Backs: Workhorse running back Darius Page, who amassed 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns, is gone. However, the Wildcats re-loaded respectably as junior Jeff Keil and senior Deon Sampson step in. Keil will be used more on first and second down and in short-yardage situations, while Sampson will be more of a third down back who will line up at slot receiver and wide receiver, too. The pair only combined for 29 carries last season but their extensive work in 7on7 competitions this summer should get them a little head start. Expect to see senior linebacker Rocky Enos line up at full back. The senior relishes the chance to deliver some hits from the offensive side.
"I have no problem lining up blocks on offense, I'm actually pretty excited about it," Enos said.
Wide Receivers: Nyere Thompson and Jaylen Dinard graduating left a big hole at the position. Again, the Wildcats re-loaded well. Sampson, of course, will factor in. He caught 16 passes for 300 yards in 2011 but the outside receiver spots will likely be manned by senior DeAndre Washington, a Freedom transfer who caught six passes for the Patriots in 2011. Opposite Washington will likely be sophomore Auden Tate. Tate is a big X factor for the Wildcats. A transfer from South Carolina, Tate has the size — 6 feet, 2 inches, 185 pounds — to be a go-to option, and he is just a sophomore so he factors into the long-term plans for Wildcat football, too.
"He can really catch the rock. He can also play tight end," said Mitchell. "We're looking for big things from him."
Added Litton, "he's gonna be a big player for us. We throw at 5 a.m. before school everyday, if we can get that connection right, it's gonna pay off big."
Senior Keith Hopkins should factor into the mix as well and don't forget about Hargreaves who only caught 13 passes in 2011 but averaged over 24 yards per.
Offensive Line: The Wildcats are woefully understaffed and without a centerpiece after senior Gabe Nold transferred to Armwood. The move left a vacuum in Wharton's offensive line options and brought Nold's eligibility at Armwood into question — a losing situation for Wharton, Armwood and Nold. Senior Jacob Meier has experience at the position but the Wildcats will be hard-pressed to compensate for their lack of depth at this position.
Defensive Line: The Wildcats did hold on to senior Chris Myers, who had 63 total tackles in 2011 and should anchor a group that is still very much looking for players to emerge.
Linebackers: Some strength and stability enter in at linebacker. Meier should put in some time but the kind of season senior Rocky Enos has will tell a great deal about what the Wildcats are going to get out of the position. Enos led the team with 118 total tackles in 2011. He is bigger, faster, and he might have even gotten a little meaner in the off-season. Look for him to post triple digit tackles again in 2012.
"When we're playing against ourselves, I'm playing rough but not all out mean," said Enos. "When we get another team in there, it's like a light goes on."
Defensive Backs: Easily the most stacked position on the team, even without Hargreaves in the mix. Moving Hargreaves to safety is probably more common sense than stroke of genius but either way it gets Hargreaves more involved and is sure to pay dividends.
"He and I connect with our coverages," said Enos. "We can make adjustments just between the two of us."
Regarding the move to safety, defensive backs coach Kiwaukee Thomas said, "We can use him in one-safety and two-safety sets. He can sit back and scan the defense, cover both slot guys, basically take out up to three guys on any given play."
Lining up at corner, it's easy for teams to avoid Hargreaves: throw to the other side, run away from his side of the field. At safety there's nowhere to hide from him. Look for Hargreaves to have 60 or 70 tackles and probably lead the county in picks. Avoiding Hargreaves is not a favorable scenario anymore anyway. Junior safety Antonio Joseph is developing into a nice, roving defensive back. He's finally starting to fill his 6-foot, 4-inch frame and has shown remarkable improvement over the spring and summer. Sampson and Hopkins are also solid defensive players that should factor in at corner.
Number two: Schedule
While the Wildcats face two district champions and a handful of other tough teams, making the playoffs comes down to the three District 6 games against Plant, Alonso, and Bloomingdale. The Wildcats went 2-1 last year and it got them in the playoffs. However, the Plant leviathan is a major road block to a district title and a playoff berth beyond the regional semifinals.
Can they beat Plant? It's a long shot. However, the Wildcats handed the Panthers one of the toughest second halves they faced all season when they played last October. They lost 37-19 but outscored the Panthers 13-3 in the second half.
It really comes down to the Oct. 19 game against Bloomingdale and the Nov. 2 game against Alonso. The latter should determine that second playoff spot.
How do you think the Wildcats will do this upcoming season? Tell us in the comments section below.