Carter and Becker continue to click in Aquinas' spring practice
The silent language, or "mental audibles," shared between high-caliber wide receivers and quarterbacks -- an unspoken line of communication -- is the difference between hooking up for the game-winning touchdown late in the fourth and mistimed plays.
The pitch-and-catch combination found a stride last season as St. Thomas Aquinas High, No. 14 in the ESPN HIGH Elite 25 final football rankings, captured Florida's Class 5A championship, going 14-1.
At the mention of the last season, Carter deadpanned, "We're back to ground zero; we're starting over."
With less than a week remaining in the spring sessions, Becker and Carter have picked up where they left off in December, when they teamed for two touchdown passes in the final against Osceola and eight in 15 games.
The duo was in sync Thursday afternoon under a blazing sun at Brian Piccolo Memorial Stadium during the Raiders' first controlled intrasquad scrimmage.
Carter, whose father, Cris, was an All-Pro wide receiver in the NFL with the Eagles, Dolphins and Vikings, is blossoming into one of the nation's top players. He is on the ESPN 150 Watch List and an Under Armour All-American, and his Scouts Inc. evaluation backs it:
"Carter shows toughness and competitiveness by coming back for blocks in open field: a good, physical blocker. Carter possesses very good hands and plays with confidence.
"He makes defenders miss in the open field and gets the important yards after the catch. Speed is one area of concern but like his Pro Bowl father Cris, he has a knack for making the big play and moving the chains."
The 6-foot-3, 185-pound Carter has grown nearly two inches and added 15 pounds since last season. Schools such as Auburn, Ohio State (his dad's alma mater), LSU, West Virginia, Wisconsin and South Florida are the primary suitors.
As a junior, Carter caught 23 balls for 361 yards and eight TDs, but won't rest on his laurels. Instead he's aiming for a breakout season, stamping himself a go-to player.
"I'll need to work on my speed before heading to college," Carter said.
Becker, who is interested in Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Purdue, North Carolina State and South Florida, has developed chemistry with his favorite receiver.
"We've done it through repetition," he said. "After that, it's about timing and understanding each other's tendencies; where he'll be on a route and where I'll place the ball."
Becker's deft touch was good enough for 58 percent accuracy, completing 106 of 183 passes for 26 TDs and only four interceptions.
Early reviews are favorable, but they remain a work in progress.
"They [Carter and Becker] had something good going today," Aquinas coach George Smith said. "Becker will spread it around to all the receivers, but both of them are special players."
The same can be said for Aquinas tradition. Few programs in Florida can boast these facts:
• Four state championships, including the 5A crown in 2007. Seven runner-up finishes.
• 26 alumni have played in the NFL, including Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin.
• Smith was named one of Florida's top 12 coaches of the century; he is 319-65 in 31 years.
• 23 district and 18 region championships.
• Nine undefeated regular seasons.
The Aquinas football tradition is impressive but secondary to the players who shaped it. Thursday's scrimmage served as a mini alumni reunion, with 15 former players attending, many offering insight to the current ones.
Wesley Carroll, the starting quarterback at Mississippi State, imparted wisdom and had pointers for Becker.
"You listen when he [Carroll] talks," Becker said.
"They're giving back," Smith said of the alumni network during spring practice. "The college guys are home from school and take the time to attend practice. It's a huge deal."
Rising junior offensive tackle Brandon Linder worked with Young.
"I grew up liking this program and saw all the great players," Linder said. "You have no idea how important it is to talk with Sam Young. He gave me an overview of the position [left tackle]. I need to work on my speed."
Linder, who Smith calls "an animal," is the next in line of great Aquinas linemen.
He used spring practice in 2007 to crack the starting lineup, learn a new position (he was previously a center) and gain confidence.
"More so the confidence factor was the biggest positive out of last year," said Linder, who earned First Team All-Broward County honors as a sophomore. "I went up against great players and did well. My confidence went up and it helped me last season."
The Raiders return seven starters off a state championship squad. Eleven players earned Division I scholarships, boosting Aquinas' four-year total to 42.
"Last year we had it during the spring," Smith said. "The team was close-knit and had the intangible factors a state championship team needs."
Bill Nesselt (6-3, 245) and Conor O'Neill (6-2, 200) were members of the Aquinas baseball team this spring, but when the season halted in the Region 3 semifinals, they quickly segued back to football mode this week.
O'Neill, an outfield prospect for the 2009 baseball first-year player draft who tallied 56 tackles and seven sacks in 2007, is fielding football offers from Syracuse, Wisconsin, Purdue, Auburn and Wake Forest.
"The defense is inexperienced; that's what we're trying to work on now," he said. "The seniors need to get the underclassmen to step it up."
When Nesselt, a 6-3, 245-pound defensive tackle, moved to Florida from Woodbridge, Va., four years ago, he wasn't aware Florida high schools practice for three weeks in the spring.
His first practice at Aquinas was an eye-opener.
"The pace of the game was much quicker than I was used to," said Nesselt, who has drawn interest from several schools. "Even the big guys were quick, so I went to work.
"Spring (practice) gives me more time to work on my quickness; that's what they want in college."
Aquinas wraps up on May 23 with an "elongated controlled scrimmage," Smith said. After a week off for final exams, the team reconvenes four days a week during the summer for strength training, plyometrics and Pilates. Fall practice begins Aug. 11.
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.
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