As Port St. Joe prepares for this Friday night’s spring football matchup at Blountstown, Coach Tanner Jones is “very excited” about his team and the upcoming 2022 season.
One of the reasons for Jones’ optimism should be obvious to any Tiger Shark fan, and that reason wears #4 on his jersey.
D.J. Oliver. a multi-talented player, rushed for 1,689 yards and 20 touchdowns on 124 carries his junior year, and caught 20 passes for an additional 378 yards and five scores.
“We know that D.J. is going to be D.J.,” said Jones of his star running back, who also contributed to 107 tackles from his linebacker position last season.
Opponents best take notice the Sharks are not a one-man show, as Jones pointed out. “Our starting 11 on both sides of the ball, I love them,” he said. “I think we can go to war with them. And then the next 11 on both sides in a year are going to be really, really good.”
One such player is rising senior LaJuan Zaccaro, Jr., who “is coming into his own. He’s gotten bigger, (and) finally started putting on some weight,” said Jones. “We’ve got to keep him playing at the level he’s playing.”
Several college coaches have driven the byroads down to Port St. Joe, having heard of Oliver’s exploits, spoke well of Zaccaro and a number of other Shark players after attending spring practices.
Coaches from Kennesaw State, South Florida, Samford, Florida Atlantic, Carson-Newman, University of Alabama – Birmingham, Jacksonville State, Army, Navy, and Mercer have come to St. Joe.
In addition to Oliver and Zaccaro, “some of our younger guys are starting to get looked at, so this will help us get noticed so that coaches will say that they have to stop by St. Joe,” said Jones.
P.J. Jones, Chance Gainer, Jabara Pearson, and Kellen Speights are other skill position players Jones is counting on to add value to the team.
A rising senior, “P.J. is the ‘X’ factor,” said Jones. “He is much stronger and faster this year, and he’s going to cause problems for other teams.”
A rising sophomore, “Chance is unbelievable, he can fly,” said Jones, who plans on using him as a deep threat on offense, “our jet sweep and over the top guy.”
Another rising senior, Pearson, is a cover corner and receiver. “Jabara and P.J. give us two speed guys,” which the Sharks will need to replace Nick Jefferson and Dakota Quinn.
Speights, also a rising senior, returns to the Sharks after having played at Liberty County last season.
“I love him. He’s a wonderful kid to talk to. He’s 140 pounds and I don’t think he’s scared of anything,” said Jones of the player he refers to as “K-5.”
“He will fly around, and he will replace Nick Jefferson, so he’s got big shoes to fill.”
With the added receiver options available, Jones said the Shark running attack of Oliver and Jones should benefit, because “the defense won’t be able to stack the box waiting for the run.”
Another set of big shoes to fill belongs to departing quarterback Colin Amison, who threw for nearly 1,700 yards and 20 touchdowns last season.
Two players with differing styles are working to claim the position: rising sophomore Lake Lomauro and rising junior Devin Cuttino.
Lomauro, a traditional drop back passer, “understands the offense,” said Jones, while Cuttino “is quickly picking it up, and is more of a rollout passer who gives us another dynamic with his running ability.”
Replacing Kobe Flowers at center, will be “a huge hole to fill. Kobe anchored it down for two years,” said Jones, but raved about rising sophomore Andrew Fountain.
“So far this spring, he’s gotten better every day, and he’s really starting to develop. We feel good about his 225-230 pounds, so he’s big enough to play the position.”
“He’s going to have to hold his own, but he’s very flexible and has good feet. We think he can play the position,” said Jones. “We also have King Waters, another rising sophomore. He was our JV center last year.”
Other players who will occupy vital roles on the offensive and defensive lines include rising senior Jay Stuckey, rising junior Uwenses “Winston” Benedict, and rising senior Chase Lanford.
“Winston has gained about 40 pounds since last year. Chase has gone from 160 to 193, so he can play defensive end or defensive tackle. With his growth and the extra confidence gained during weightlifting season, he’ll play right guard of offense,” said Jones. Lanford will also be the team’s long snapper.
Jones is also hoping for a speedy recovery by rising senior Sailor Tull, who had shoulder surgery and hopes to return to action by mid-July. He is expected to fill the defensive tackle void left by Justice Peacock.
Although not knowing yet which position he would play, Jones was excited about the addition of Donovan Cumbie coming out for his senior year. “He’s big, he’s strong, and he’s fast. He looks like a football player,” said the coach.
“We’re not at full strength yet, but we’re not far from it,” he said. “Defensively, we are fast.”
Depending on the number of rising seventh graders who join the team, Jones expects nearly 70 players when fall practice begins.
“We’ll dress 50 for the spring game at Blountstown,” said Jones.
“We’re going to play Blountstown’s varsity and JV teams,” said Jones, who tried to get Bozeman to join so that the Sharks could play each team for a half, but that plan failed to work out.
“The first half will be starters on starters, and the second half will be our backups,” said Jones. “Depending on how the two teams play it, if we feel safe letting some of the younger kids in, we will.”
Although the kicking game will not play a role, Jones said rising seniors Zachary Burkett and Tad Russell would share responsibilities during the regular season.
Spectators will also see two coaching changes on Friday nights this fall:
Corey Silcox, who moved this year from Blountstown, is now the defensive coordinator; and long-time coach Tracy Browning will not be on the sidelines because “his son is playing at Faulkner, and he needs to go and watch him play,” said Jones. Browning will continue to be involved in the day-to-day program, however.
“Spring is one thing, but how they develop in the summer will be the key,” said Jones.