SARASOTA -- What held back the Cardinal Mooney football team in 2012 may turn out to be what propels the Cougars to a big 2013.
Workhorse running back Anthony Caiazzo, a senior who had shouldered the offensive load the previous season, was limited by injuries to just six games.
In three of those games, he managed a total of just 18 carries, about half of what he would get in one game when healthy.
Cardinal Mooney finished 5-5, defeating rivals Fort Myers Bishop Verot and Out-of-Door Academy but falling short in its district games (0-3) and missing the playoffs.
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The good news for 2013? Quarterback Reese Vita and top running back Demardre Patterson are back with plenty of experience as the focal points of the offense heading into Thursday's spring game at home against Braden River.
"Unfortunately, we didn't have Anthony to the capacity we wanted him last year. The benefit of it was we had a chance to get Demardre and Reese going," seventh-year head coach Josh Smithers said.
"This is the first time we've had a quarterback two years in a row since Robby Lyons in 2007-08. That's going to be
huge because he'll facilitate everything. We're putting a lot on his shoulders."
Vita, still only a rising junior, completed 125 of 213 passes for 1,580 yards. He threw for 12 touchdowns and was intercepted nine times.
He agreed the loss of Caiazzo hastened his development, but the tough-minded back left a lasting impression.
"I want to be as good a ballplayer as Anthony was," Vita said. "He was a beast in every aspect of the game. ... I try to model my play after him as much as I can."
Patterson, a bruising running back who will be a senior in the fall, gained 489 yards on 67 carries, an average of 7.3 yards per attempt. He also caught 13 passes for 177 yards and returned kickoffs for touchdowns in each of the Cougars' first two games, both victories.
"That's like my specialty thing. I love kick returns. Anything I can do to get a touchdown on that board, I'll do it," said Patterson, who has offers from Florida International and Ohio University.
The key to continued improvement for the offense will be the line. The unit struggled during the annual Red and White spring scrimmage on May 18, but there are talented players in rising junior Wyatt Knopfke and rising senior Sam McMullen.
"We have young guys, but they're coming along really nicely. They've made huge improvements from the beginning of the spring. That's all we can ask them to do," Vita said.
Vita lost his favorite target in receiver Elijah Toussaint, but rising senior Blair Perry is back after catching 29 passes in 2012. Rising junior Sean Morris will provide explosiveness on the outside.
On defense, returning linebackers Tyler Garris (81 tackles), a rising junior, and Clark Horne (78), a rising senior, lead a promising unit. Rising junior Sam Leonard makes the switch from offensive line to linebacker.
"Sam Leonard's going to have a great year for us," Smithers said. "He's put on about 15 pounds in the offseason. He's been an animal in the weight room. ... He's a tough, tough, physical kid."
Alex Sobczak will step into the safety role left by Ryan Branch, who will graduate after leading the team in tackles (91) and interceptions (three).
The Cougars will step into a new district, Class 3A-District 6, with Bishop Verot and ODA. The histories of those matchups will add even more intrigue to the district contests.
"It should make it a lot of fun. It'll be nice to have those games mean even more than the rivalry," Smithers said.