Braden River's opponent this Friday for the Class 7A state semifinals really doesn't need an introduction. Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas ranks second in the state with eight Florida High School Athletic Association football championships, which is equal to the amount of state crowns captured by all of Manatee County's programs combined.
This week's Behind Enemy Lines, though, takes a look at what Pirate Nation needs to know ahead of the state semifinal at home against St. Thomas Aquinas.
So here's the Q&A between the Herald and reporter Andre C. Fernandez, who has covered St. Thomas Aquinas this season for our sister paper, the Miami Herald.
BH: Who are some of the Aquinas players to watch? Pretty big list, but tell us a few.
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AF: On offense -- QB Jake Allen, RBs Jaxson Kincaide and James Charles, WRs Dominic Theiman, Trevon Grimes, Sam Bruce (not sure if he'll play, was benched last week for violation of team rules), Michael Irvin II; OL Cody Bowes
On defense -- DL Colin Nace (stepped up big since Nick Bosa suffered season-ending injury); DB Frank Coppet, Dontye Carriere-Williams, Asante Samuel; LB Tyler Dunning, Drew White, Darrell Shelton; Nick Bonitto.
BH: What's the most challenging aspect for opposing defenses to stopping Aquinas' offense?
AF: Their running game if they can establish dominance up front. Those guys wear you down by the second half of a game and if Kincaide breaks a big run early, it really puts them in rhythm and allows Allen to pick you apart.
BH: What's the most challenging aspect for opposing offenses to scoring and moving the football against Aquinas' defense?
AF: Their linebackers and sec
ondary, but especially the linebackers. They control the game back there and read opposing offenses very well. The line is still strong and can put pressure, despite the loss of Bosa to injury.�
BH: What are Aquinas' strengths?
AF: Their depth. They lost a number of key players including an All-American like Bosa and a promising sophomore QB like Allen for a few games and benched Bruce last week and still can put a beating on an opposing team.
BH: What are Aquinas' weaknesses?
AF: It's hard to find any on this team, but I would say if you can take away their ability to run the ball it does hurt their offense.
BH: What are the keys to potentially beating Aquinas?
AF: Make them rely on the passing game, don't turn the ball over and have a strong kicking game, moreso punts and kickoffs than PAT and FGs. If you make them one-dimensional through the air, they're still tough but it makes it more possible to beat them. You can't set them up on short fields because they will capitalize.
BH: What key injuries or inactive players are there for Aquinas?
AF: The most significant are DE Nick Bosa (knee), out for the year, and WR Sam Bruce (team rules) if he's still suspended or benched.
BH: What makes Aquinas so difficult to beat in the playoffs each year?
AF: Their coaching, preparation and depth is good year in and year out. Their roster numbers over 100 kids and a lot of quality depth. And starting with former coach and current athletic director George Smith, continuing with Rocco Casullo and now with Roger Harriott, they prepare like a college team and are coached well.
BH: How tough will it be for Aquinas to make a trip across the state for a road game, and how accustomed is Aquinas playing in a loud environment?
AF: They have traveled in the playoffs before when they've faced Manatee in the past and traveled a couple of weeks ago to Dwyer in Palm Beach. This year's team didn't go out of state, but a lot of these players have done that before so I don't think it should faze them too much.
BH: What's the X-factor for Aquinas on Friday?
AF: Aside from the running game, maybe special teams. James McCourt, their kicker, is very good and has been very accurate all year. If it's a close game, that will help.
BH: What's your prediction for Friday's game?
AF: I wrote Aquinas 28, Braden River 14 in my weekly column. I think, as I wrote above, if they can run the football and their defense dominates up front, the trip and hostile environment won't faze them too much. If the Pirates can limit them from running, it could swing things their way.