High School Sports

Spring football | Manatee's Booth says Canes will maintain excellence

BRADENTON -- When John Booth was in elementary school, he used to wear his youth football jersey to school on Fridays in the fall, emulating what he hoped to do when he got older and played for Manatee.

Booth saw that dream come to fruition and took on an even bigger role last summer when at 32 years old was named the Hurricanes' head football coach.

He had a good inaugural season, going to the Class 8A state semifinal and finishing with 12-2 record after replacing the hall of fame coach Joe Kinnan.

The offseason was more difficult, and Booth said he was hurt when numerous assistants left the program for various reasons and some in the community criticized his handling of the program.

But the feelings didn't sway Booth to change his coaching style. He emphasized criticism comes with the job.

"You look at any level (of coaching), and change is the only constant," Booth said. "I think change is tough, but it's something that in the end we will be stronger for it and move forward and continue to coach with the level of excellence that the program is accustomed to."

The remaining members of his staff are highly supportive of Booth as are key players who have been in the program for several years. Booth said public perception, whether wrong or right, comes with coaching and is something a good coach handles.

"What I am concerned with are the guys in the locker room and the kids and our staff," Booth said. "The kids have had a great offseason. I saw a lot of good things with them on the weightlifting and track team and out here in spring practice. You are not going to please everyone with decisions. That is the position that I am in, and it's fine with me."

Two of Booth's biggest supporters are assistant coaches Dennis Stallard and Dominique Dunbar, both of whom worked under Kinnan. Dunbar also played quarterback in 1999 when Booth was the backup. He said Booth and Kinnan have quite a few similarities.

"They both want what is best for the program and put the kids in the best position to be successful," Dunbar said. "His (Booth) strengths are his leadership skills. He cares about the kids and wants them to succeed. When that happened (assistants leaving), he had support from the rest of the staff. It's one of those things where you can't please all the people all the time, and he took it in stride."

Stallard joined the program in 1993 and has been coaching more than twice as long as anyone else on Booth's staff.

"Coach Booth has come in with a plan, and every day that plan has been consistent," Stallard said. "I knew him as a player here, and he is a high-character guy trying to instill those values onto the team. I remember him being a player who came out every day and worked hard. He always had a great attitude and was well-liked by the other kids."

Travon Rumph, a Bradenton Herald All-Area safety last season as a junior with 95 tackles, said he likes playing for Kinnan and Booth.

"The practices are about the same. You go out and play Manatee football," Rumph said. "It's a younger guy taking control of the team and energy-wise, maybe it's different. But we still have the athletes who can play with the best of them."

Booth said he does not feel extra pressure coaching his team on a field that is named after Kinnan, whose success is so fresh in many people's minds.

"There is no more pressure than what I put on myself," Booth said. "The tradition here is strong, but I am not coming in with a mentality that I hope we can win. My mindset is that I expect to win. We certainly have an expectation here and that's what makes Manatee special."

Manatee is going through spring practice without arguably its two best players in defensive end Kwanzi Jackson and running back Johnnie Lang, the Herald's reigning All-Area players of the year, along with defensive back Malik Mitchell. All three are suspended pending the outcome of legal charges regarding a series of alleged burglaries.

The Canes lost a lot through graduation, but have most of their line on both sides of the ball returning.

They are switching to a 3-4 defense, which means if Jackson returns he would play defensive end in some sets and outside linebacker in others.

"I like the defense. It's a way to create pressure and confusion on offenses. It is something I have used and our (interim) defensive coordinator Chad Choate is familiar with," Booth said.

Booth said Paul Mobley, who can play safety or cornerback, has looked good this spring along with linebacker Matt Kissell. Three returning starters on the defensive line are Tony Collins, Mahlik Mills and Matt Mackey.

Four offensive linemen who started at one time or another return, led by Josh Carden and Brad Stickler. The Canes hope Kavious Price can take over the top receiver spot from Kelvin McKnight. Octavious James, Lang's backup last year, has transferred to Palmetto, but the Canes like what they've seen from Lorenz Allen at running back.

The leading candidates for the quarterback job are rising junior A.J. Colagiovanni, the starter early last year, and rising sophomore Sir Williams, who was the JV signal-caller.

"A.J. has had a great spring and going into spring had a leg up because of his experience. Sir Williams and him are competing, and both have done a nice job," Booth said.

The Canes are solid in their kicking game with returnee Nick Null, who will be the field goal kicker, punter and kickoff guy.

Booth will try to have his starting 22 for both halves in a round-robin Thursday with Venice and Lakeland, but says that doesn't mean any of those are guaranteed starters for the fall.

"I would like to have that set (starting quarterback) as we get into the summer, but that is not to say it is not subject to change," Booth said. "We have confidence in both and we compete every day, which prevents complacency. If we go into the summer and whoever we deem the starter doesn't work hard and is not doing the right stuff, then there will be a change."

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