High School Sports

Prep football preview | Palmetto Tigers

HERALD'S FORECAST: 8-2, playoff berth

Yes, Palmetto lost a ton of talent from a defense that was the Tigers' primary strength in 2011. But the offense is loaded and with district play not beginning until Week 4, Palmetto will have enough time to round its new-look defense into shape and make a strong run at a third straight playoff berth and second straight district title.

NEEDS A BIG SEASON FROM: Stevon Saunders, senior, free safety

Defensive backs are widely considered wide receivers who can't catch.

That's not Saunders.

ROSTERS, PHOTOS: Search here for player pages for Manatee, Southeast, Palmetto and Cardinal Mooney rosters. Remainder of teams coming soon.

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The rising senior was a backup wide receiver last fall. But given Palmetto's depth on offense, coaches decided to move Saunders to the other side of the ball to help anchor a defense that lost eight starters.

"He's had a heck of a spring and summer; he's really doing well," Tigers head coach Dave Marino said. "He went to some camps and he's put himself out there as a Division I prospect."

Saunders has the skill set to make the move, Marino said, beginning with his ability to catch the ball when thrown his way. Consequently, the Tigers are banking on Saunders to help keep the offense on the field.

"He should have some interceptions this year," Marino said, "because he's got great ball skills, great quickness and reaction."

Saunders spent last season backing up the likes of Cory Crawford and E.J. Burston, members of the area's deepest pool of receivers. So he knows how good receivers and good quarterbacks work, which should give Saunders the mental tools to go with his abundance of physical tools.

A good year from Saunders could help the defense excel and send Palmetto back to the playoffs for the third straight year.

"It's been a smooth transition for him," Marino said, "and he's really excelled at it."

IMPACT NEWCOMER: Spencer Atkins, senior, quarterback

Hailing from Illinois and a student of Chris Weinke at IMG's football academy, Atkins beat out sophomore Chris Tuten for Palmetto's starting job.

"Spencer's had a great spring," Marino said. "He understands, he's got a real good grasp of our offensive system. ... So we're looking forward to him getting the ball into our playmakers' hands."

He'll have plenty of playmakers at his disposal. Receivers Burston, Crawford, Shaquille Harris and Pat Green are among the best in the area, while the backfield combination of Josh Hicks and Leon Gilbert will help take some heat off Palmetto's ground game.

DEEP AT: SKILL POSITIONS

Palmetto should have no trouble scoring points. Burston and Crawford teamed for roughly 80 catches last year, Hicks eclipsed the 1,000-yard plateau in the fall and a healthy Gilbert will give the offense another look out of the backfield. And newcomer Atkins has drawn raves from the coaches.

THIN AT: DEFENSIVE LINE

Marino is pleased with the back seven of Palmetto's defense, composed of backups who saw plenty of action last year. There is not as much experience up front, however, and Marino hopes to have four guys in place before Palmetto begins its district schedule Sept. 21 against Arcadia DeSoto.

GET IN THE RING WITH: E.J. Burston, wide receiver

The toughest player on my team (other than me) is: Daniel Houser

The toughest player I've ever faced on an opposing team is: Mike Bellamy, Punta Gorda Charlotte

My favorite sports movie is: "Remember the Titans"

The best trash-talk line I've heard on the football field is: "You too ugly to tackle me, li'l man."

The song I play to get me pumped up for a game is: "Ham," Kanye West, featuring Jay-Z

2012 BOUTS

Aug. 31 at Riverview

Sept. 7 SARASOTA

Sept. 14 BRADEN RIVER

Sept. 21 ARCADIA DESOTO*^

Sept. 28 at Lakewood Ranch

Oct. 5 at Bayshore*

Oct. 19 at Wauchula Hardee*

Oct. 26 at Manatee

Nov. 2 SOUTHEAST*

Nov. 9 OCALA TRINITY CATHOLIC

All games 7:30 p.m., except ^ (7 p.m.)

HOME GAMES IN ALL CAPS

*-Class 5A-District 10 game

THE MAIN EVENT

Nov. 4 vs. Southeast -- With the district title on the line, look for the Seminoles to be out for revenge. The Tigers didn't just clinch a championship with last year's win; they eliminated Southeast from the playoff chase.

2011 RECORD 12-2, 4-0 5A-10

Class 5A-District 12 champions, state semifinalist

RIVERVIEW W, 41-16

at Sarasota W, 35-14

at Braden River W, 45-3

at Arcadia DeSoto W, 52-0

LAKEWOOD RANCH W, 27-0

BAYSHORE W, 42-7

WAUCHULA HARDEE W, 16-13

MANATEE L, 29-26

at Southeast W, 16-13

at Ocala Trinity Catholic W, 42-20

CLASS 5A-REGION 3 PLAYOFFS

AUBURNDALE W, 49-0

WAUCHULA HARDEE W, 27-9

at Immokalee W, 42-21

CLASS 5A STATE SEMIFINAL

MIAMI NORLAND L, 35-27

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