Prep football | Palmetto Tigers reload receiving corps with young players after three D-I departures

Perennial playoff contender Palmetto lost three Division I pass catchers

jlembo@bradenton.comMay 19, 2013 

PALMETTO -- Heading into the playoffs last year, Azavion Smith was listed on Palmetto's roster as standing 5-foot-5 and weighing 130 pounds.

Not exactly what you expect from a guy nicknamed Tank.

But Smith's moniker has more to do with moxie than measurements.

"I have a lot of energy," he said following Wednesday's spring practice, "so people said I have a lot of fuel in my tank."

After losing three top-shelf wide receivers to graduation, the Tigers are going to need plenty of fuel to get one of the area's best air attacks going again in the fall.

High school sports is cyclical, with players coming and going each year. But it isn't every year an offense loses three Division I wide receivers as Palmetto did after E.J. Burston, Shaq Harris and Cory Crawford played their final game as Tigers last November.

Burston and Harris signed with UMass, and Crawford chose Temple, leaving Palmetto to shoot for a fourth

straight playoff appearance with a brand-new batch of receivers that doesn't include a single senior.

"All we ask our kids is for them to do the best they can every day," Palmetto head coach Dave Marino said. "Just try to pick one thing and try and get better at that one thing. ... And that's what (the receivers) doing."

The most experienced of the bunch is Simon Williams, who will be a junior when Palmetto opens the regular season Aug. 30 at home against Venice. The 6-foot-1 Williams saw time at receiver last year when Crawford switched to tailback.

Williams and Smith have similar skill sets and will play slot, Marino said. But Williams will be looked upon to take more of a leadership role, too.

"He's a transitioning force the other guys can gravitate to, so they can see it's really not that big of a deal to play varsity football," Marino said. "In the meeting rooms, he's more of a mentor, helping them to understand our schemes."

It's a young bunch heading into Thursday's spring game against Booker. Smith and Deshawn Barnes are still freshmen, and Chase Forrester is a sophomore.

So being the elder statesman is a role Williams says he takes seriously.

"In school, I try to push everybody to see who can have the better grades," he said. "And on the field, we push each other to get better and have a good competition."

That the entire group consists of underclassmen isn't a bad thing in Marino's eyes because it gives everyone a chance to learn and grow together, just as Burston, Crawford and Harris did.

The trio, along with a tight-knit defense that had been together since middle school, helped lead Palmetto to a Class 5A state semifinal in 2011.

"We're just stepping up, helping our coaches out and getting the program built back up to the way it's supposed to be," Smith said. "We're just doing what we can to help our team."

Palmetto doesn't plan on banking primarily on the pass, especially considering Josh Hicks is returning to the backfield. The rising senior and Rutgers commit totaled nearly 2,000 rushing yards the past two seasons, even though he battled through injuries last year and saw some time at linebacker.

"Obviously, we're going to lean more on Josh this year. But we're still a pro-style offense and you always like to be balanced," Marino said. "Situations dictate that, and certain teams' strengths that we're going to play will dictate whether we run or pass. But we'll going to develop this young group of receivers and get them ready to carry and execute our offense."

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