Plant, Armwood gearing up for season-opening showdown

Quarterback Aaron Murray didn't throw a touchdown pass in two games against Armwood last season. Tom Hauck

TAMPA, Fla. -- Aaron Murray has a long memory.

He recalls the pressure from the edge, defenders flying by and realizing there must be an easier way.

Murray, one of the nation's top quarterback prospects from Plant High School, endured a large dose of pressure in two games last season against Armwood High School (Seffner, Fla.) -- most notably from defensive end Ryne Giddins.

"I think he sacked me, like, nine times in those games; he was coming from everywhere and we didn't have an answer," said Murray, who established a Florida single-season record with 51 touchdown passes as a junior.

During Murray's record-setting season, he failed to throw a TD pass against Armwood's ball-hawking defense, including a 36-7 loss in the Class 4A, Region 3 playoffs. His frustration continued under pressure; he threw five of his seven interceptions against the Fighting Hawks.

Suffice it to say, Murray could claim memory full. But he won't.

"Coach [Bob Weiner] wants all of us to be accountable," Murray said.

With spring practice in full swing, Plant High School is wiping the slate clean following an 11-2 season. After the spring jamboree game at Jefferson High against Blake (Tampa) on May 22, Plant's next opponent is, ironically, Armwood on Sept. 5 in the regular-season opener for both teams.

"The media will give that one a lot of hype," said Armwood linebacker Petey Smith.

The same can be said for the gifted Murray. The soon-to-be senior recently committed to Georgia over Florida and LSU.

Murray (6-foot-1, 198 pounds) busted onto the national scene last season when he passed for 4,013 yards, completed 201-of-329 attempts (61 percent) and rushed for 932 yards (averaging 9.5 yards per carry and 12 TDs).

The already eye-popping passing numbers are even more remarkable considering Murray had never taken a high school snap at quarterback and suffered a torn labrum the previous season. He played in four games as a sophomore linebacker in 2006 but missed Plant's 4A state championship run capped by a 25-21 win over Nease (Ponta Vedra).

Despite the injury, Murray gleaned knowledge of Plant's sophisticated pass-oriented spread offense from quarterback Robert Marve.

"Marve has the most brilliant football mind ever -- no surprise he's now starting for [the University of] Miami," Plant coach Bob Weiner said.

Said Murray, "After [shoulder] surgery, I just sat back and observed how [Marve] did things. He made plays with his feet, and when the pocket collapsed, unlike most quarterbacks, he wouldn't throw it away or give up the sack."

Weiner said Plant is in good hands with Murray, an ESPN 150 Watch List prospect, at the controls.

His ESPN scouting report praises the dual-threat quarterback's abilities. "He has a strong arm and the ability to drive the ball downfield," it reads. "Murray has the best, quickest release of any passer in his class, bar none. He puts excellent velocity on his deep out routes and can fit throws into tight spots. ... Has a knack for improvising. He's a tough, gritty winner with excellent intangibles. Finds a way to get things done and plays with infectious confidence."

The Panthers will need every bit of Murray's superlatives this season because only six starters are returning (three on each side of the ball).

"We've had a tremendous spring," Weiner said Wednesday before his eighth practice. "There are new players getting a chance to play and transfers learning our system, but how well we play together will determine our season."

The season mainly will hinge on if there's a seamless transition at wide receiver, where three transfers refuel the position. Allen Sampson (formerly of Gaither-Tampa), Eric Dungy (Park Tudor-Indianapolis) and Orson Charles (Riverview-Tampa) joined the team in January. Dungy's father, Tony, is the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.

Charles, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound specimen, has the most upside. He has already received 21 offers from schools such as Miami, Florida, Florida State, Auburn, Ohio State and Kansas.

A change of venue has benefited Charles.

"I'm more fluid and flexible since working with new coaches, especially coach [T.J.] Lane," he said. "What can I say about Aaron? His accuracy and leadership really stand out."

The Panthers, the three-time District 10-4A champions, feature three returning defenders. Hunter Baldwin (163 tackles, 30 for loss), rising junior linebacker Mike Mirabella (143 tackles, 70 solos, four sacks) and lineman Austin Clark (53 tackles for loss, seven sacks).

"Defense is about speed," Weiner said. "We ask the players to swarm to the ball."

Ball hawks

Armwood, the Tampa area's most successful team this decade, is bracing for another season. Already more than 90 major programs have visited the school located on the eastern edge of Hillsborough County.

"That's one every 45 minutes each day," Armwood Coach Sean Callahan said.

Seffner (population 5,467), an unincorporated town bisected by Interstate 4, is a working-class community. Armwood High, which opened in the fall of 1984, draws from towns like Mango and Thonotosassa.

Callahan has coached at the school from the beginning, taking over as head coach in 1990. He has seen it grow into a national power after winning Class 4A state championships in 2003 and '04. In the 2005 final, the Hawks lost 37-34 to future Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and Nease High School.

The past nine years, Armwood has averaged nearly eight Division I players per graduating class. Callahan has coached three players who played in the NFL, most recently offensive lineman Mike Pearson of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

For all his recent success, Callahan called an audible this spring by installing a new offense and defense. Traditionally, the Hawks have been option-oriented, asking their running backs to pile up yardage. Now they'll feature the trendy shotgun, spread attack similar to West Virginia and Oregon.

Offensive coordinator Chris Taylor added a few wrinkles that he picked up during a weeklong March trip to several successful programs, including Appalachian State, South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina.

"The [college] coaches were great," Taylor said. "They were wonderful sharing their plays and coaching points."

The retooled offense was born out of necessity and will be run by rising senior quarterback Mywan Jackson (5-11, 170), who runs a 4.3 40-yard dash. Running backs SirChauncey Holloway (4.5 40) and Sherman Jessie (4.4) are suited for the spread and can create mismatches.

Additionally, the defense has a new look, switching from a 4-3 to 3-4.

"You change according to your personnel," Callahan said.

Smith, a 6-4, 240-pound linebacker, is the heart and soul, while Giddins (6-4, 225) and defensive back Angelo Hadley (6-1, 185) beef up the pursuit.

"The defense is smaller but we're quicker," said Smith, who will pare down his 50 offers before the start of the regular season.

Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA Today, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.