There are two things this district has: lots of good football players and deeply ingrained rivalries. And the rivalries aren’t made up or embellished, there’s a genuine aversion between some of these schools and that only makes for some of the most intense and competitive games you’ll see all season.
2015 Record: 12-2 (District Runner-up)
Coach: Chris Merritt
2016 Outlook: When you’re talking about Christopher Columbus, you’re talking about the model of consistency.
The Explorers are like the Pittsburgh Steelers in that you can count the number of head coaches they’ve had over the past 30 years on one hand – and not use all your fingers.
Head coach Chris Merritt enters his 15th season leading the program; putting him in company with North Miami Beach’s Jeff Bertani and Belen Jesuit’s Rich Stuart as the longest tenured coaches at a single school in Miami-Dade County.
Merritt and his coaching staff, which is mostly comprised of Columbus alums, do a great job coaching up their players and maximizing their potential – whether it’s a five-star stud or a junior varsity player working his way up.
Over the past two years, Columbus compiled a 25-5 record – reaching the Class 8A state championship game in 2014 and falling in the state semifinals this past season.
While other programs would be content to pat themselves on the back for a two-year stretch like that, Columbus remains hungry for that elusive state football title.
Entering the 2016 season, the Explorers have a roster capable of making another deep playoff run.
The marquee player is senior defensive back Trajan Bandy. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound four-star cornerback recently flipped his verbal commitment from Oklahoma to Miami and is easily one of the pass defenders in his class.
A player that seems to be gaining more notoriety on a daily basis is senior running back C.J. Henderson. Another Miami commit, Henderson is a speedster that ran for 12 touchdowns this past season. But he’s also going to be used as a defensive back this season as that’s where colleges are projecting his best position moving forward.
Columbus’ secondary is sneakily one of the best groups in Dade as Bandy and Henderson team up with senior safety Austin Chacon and junior Josh Jobe – another Miami commit.
The Explorers’ offense will benefit from operating behind a large offensive line, which will be anchored by senior Robert Perez (6-foot-4, 290 pounds). Sophomore running back Darren Davis Jr., the son of former Southridge and Iowa State standout Darren Davis, has shown flashes of being able to carry the load while complementing Henderson in the backfield.
But the hidden gem could be 6-foot-4, senior tight end Max Gonzalez-Brito. He can excel as both a blocker and a pass catcher, which means he’ll be an every-down player for the Explorers this season.
A lot of Columbus’ success this season will be tied to quarterback Marcelo Rodriguez. A transfer from Miami High, Rodriguez has to prove he’s able to operate effectively and efficiently in the number of high-stakes games against top-end competition that the Explorers have this year.
Coral Gables Cavaliers
2015 Record: 10-1 (District Champion)
Coach: Roger Pollard
2016 Outlook: Coral Gables is another one of those schools – are there are only a handful that are this lucky – that will never truly be devoid of talented athletes.
The area in which the school sits and neighborhoods that pour into the program make sure that the Cavaliers always have a few tricks up their sleeve.
Having produced Frank Gore, Jonathan Vilma and Denzel Perryman; Coral Gables has a tradition of football excellence that stretches all the way back to the 1960’s.
Since taking over the program four years ago, head coach and Gables alumni Roger Pollard has made sure the program stayed in the South Florida football conversation.
2015 looked like it was going to be a really big year for the Cavaliers. Gables rolled through the regular season undefeated and entered the second round of the playoffs for a rematch with rival Columbus with the utmost confidence. Things got off to a bad start in that game and got progressively worse as Gables fell to the Explorers 35-0.
Now, many of the players that were on last year’s 10-win team (Voshon Waiters, Amir Rasul, Robert Brown, Gee Stanley and others) are gone – leaving Pollard to find new leaders and playmakers.
Looking to fill the role of key playmakers on each side of the ball will be a pair of juniors – running back Johnny Ford and defensive back Gilbert Frierson.
Ford (5-foot-8, 170 pounds) is a spark plug. He possesses game-breaking speed and has a knack for making big plays happen with his instincts and shiftiness with the ball in his hands. Ford also can run the ball from out of the backfield or split out wide to create mismatches with linebackers and safeties – allowing him to draw comparisons to 12-year NFL veteran and three-time all-pro selection Darren Sproles, who’s listed at 5-foot-6, 190 pounds.
Frierson looks every bit the part of the four-star recruit status that he’s earned. The 6-foor-2, 195-pounder can play both cornerback and safety, but is probably best suited in the back of the defense so that he can use his rangy coverage skills and hit-first attitude to clean up plays on the back end.
Gables’ defense will once again be its strength. In addition to Frierson, Gables has its emotional leader in underrated senior middle linebacker Kristopher Moll and a disruptive force along the D-line in Killian transfer Robert McWilliams (6-foot-4, 210 pounds).
Look for quarterback Nick Galuppo to take the reins of the offense. The Cavaliers offensive line does have room for improvement, but are solid enough to give Ford the creases he needs to make good things happen.
Coral Park Rams
2015 Record: 0-10
Coach: Rafael Jimenez
2016 Outlook: Things did not go very well for Coral Park in 2015.
The Rams scored just 39 points in 2015 and they were shutout six times. Worse yet, Coral Park has only won four games over the past four seasons.
Head coach Rafael Jimenez is a respected veteran coach, who spent time at Miami Beach before being hired to lead the Rams in 2015.
The task for Jimenez starts inside the school – getting the support of the administration and the student body at large, so that football can become more of a priority.
On the surface, things should be better for the Rams in 2016 as they welcome the return of their leading rusher (senior Marcos Ruiz) and top passer (Christian Pena).
Ruiz is a solid ball carrier with the ability to slip through tackles and create extra yardage.
Senior offensive lineman Jeremias Jiron could play his way into earning some attention for colleges this season. Jiron is a 6-foot-3, 320-pound interior lineman – that has experience playing center – that has the size needed to play at the next level and could end up being a diamond in the rough if he ended up in the right situation.
Junior defensive back Juan Gonzalez (5-foot-11, 170 pounds) is another player that could put together a solid season that gets the attention of colleges.
Tangible success for the Rams this season could come in the form of seeing players develop in Jimenez’s system and the team scoring points in every game.
Miami High Stingarees
2015 Record: 6-4
Coach: Ivan Rosales
2016 Outlook: Welcome to Miami High – AP.
That’s “after Pie”.
Keyshawn “Pie” Young, without a doubt Miami High’s most talented player since Roscoe Parrish, walked across the graduation stage and took his talents out west to the University of Southern California.
While “Pie” was the biggest piece of the – well, pie, to leave; Miami High will also enter the 2016 season without quarterback Marcelo Rodriguez and receiver Murphy Theodore.
Rodriguez went to rival Christopher Columbus and Theodore, who can also play quarterback, took his talents to up-and-coming program Doral Academy.
That means head coach Ivan Rosales will be looking for new centerpiece players to emerge.
Junior running back Willie Stewart should see his role increase this season. During his sophomore season, he showed that he could be a factor as both a ball carrier and pass catcher – and he’s ready to show that he can be counted on in big moments.
It looks like 6-foot-2 senior Deshondre McCullough is set to step in as the Stings’ starting quarterback in 2016. McCullough excels more in the short passing game and he has just enough speed to catch defenses off guard when a play breaks down – either to extend the play or take off on his own.
Miami High’s defense is a bit of a work in progress entering this season. There is a lack of overall size, but there’s also a couple of solid players that can find themselves standing out in 2016.
The secondary is led by a talented pair of juniors in Mykeem Tyson and Derek Gainous. Tyson is a physical corner that seems very comfortable coming up in run support and making a tackle. Gainous is a traditional cover safety, showing a good back pedal and an ability to make a play on the ball when he’s in position.
The offensive and defensive lines are where Miami High must improve the most. 6-foot-5, 280-pound senior Jobdariel Gomez can anchor the offensive line, but a defensive anchor must surface if the Stings are to stay on the top half of this district.
Miami Beach Hi-Tides
2015 Record: 2-7
Coach: Aaron Harris
2016 Outlook: A lot of young fans are unaware of the fact that Miami Beach was once one of the more prominent football programs in Miami-Dade County.
Producing such players as Duane Starks, Samari Rolle, Terry Cousin, Chad Johnson and most recently Ricardo Louis – plenty of great athletes have walked the halls as Hi-Tides.
But Booker T. Washington’s reassignment as a high school and its subsequent rise to prominence drew a lot of players the five miles west to become Tornadoes instead.
Still, Miami Beach is a program that will put together a roster that has a couple of gems intertwined throughout.
Head coach Aaron Harris and his staff have committed to changing the culture around the program and elevating it back to a level where it can at least challenge for a playoff spot in this tough district.
The player to watch this season is 6-foot-3 senior quarterback Eddie Brill. Brill, a team captain, is a prototypical pocket passer that can stand tall in the pocket and deliver the ball all over the field. He possesses a good arm and is deceptively quick – enabling him to move around in the pocket before making a throw on the run.
During the offseason 7-on-7 season, Miami Beach was able to hang with a lot of the big name teams thanks to Brill’s arm and him building a rapport with receivers Kama Jackson and Trevon Jackson.
Miami Beach’s defense needs a leader to surface. Senior defensive tackle Rashad Francois or senior middle linebacker Justin Chandler could be the players that fill the role; either way, improvements need to be made on a unit that gave up 30 or more points in each of the final six games of the season – all losses.
All eyes go to the October 27th showdown between Columbus and Coral Gables.
That game will once again decide the winner of this district.
Putting the pressure on myself to make a pick on that game right now, I’d have to give Columbus the preseason edge.
I think The Explorers coaching staff would devise a plan that slows down Johnny Ford and Kevin Romer enough and Columbus quarterback Marcelo Rodriguez should have settled into the offense by then.
But I’ll go out on the short limb to say that these two teams will be playing each other twice this season.
I think Miami High takes the No. 3 spot. Even without “Pie”, the Stingarees should be able to hold off Miami Beach.
While this could be the season that the Rams win a couple games, Coral Park will once again finish at the bottom of this district.
Predicted Champion: Columbus
Predicted Runner-Up: Coral Gables
I’m a big fan of Coral Gables’ Johnny Ford.
And speaking to a former Dade County coach that now coaches in Broward County but spent a lot of time around Ford, he called Ford “one of the best running back prospects I’ve seen in a while”.
Because this team lost so many offensive leaders, the door is wide open for Ford to carve out a large role in the offense.
There are some “four and five-star” players that won’t positively impact a game like Ford can – doing it as a ball-carrier, receiver and kick returner.
I think Coral Gables’ Gilbert Frierson will finish the season as a 50-5-5 defensive player. That’s at least 50 total tackles, five interceptions and five sacks.
The hardest one for him to reach will naturally be the sacks, but he’s that a good a player and this is a “bold” prediction, right?
The other is that sophomore running back Darren Davis will end up with more rushing yards than his senior teammate C.J. Henderson. Davis has lead-back potential and I could see scenarios – against pass-heavy opponents – where Henderson is used more as a defensive back than a running back.
A.J. Betancur – Coral Gables
Andrew Bloodsaw – Miami Beach
Anthony Puntonet – Coral Gables
Austin Chacon – Columbus
C.J. Henderson – Columbus
Darren Davis Jr. – Columbus
Derek Gainous – Miami High
Eddie Brill – Miami Beach
Gilbert Frierson – Coral Gables
Jajuan Johnson – Miami Beach
Jamar Thompkins – Coral Gables
Jeremias Jiron – Coral Park
Jobdariel Gomez – Miami High
Johnny Ford – Coral Gables
Josh Jobe – Columbus
Juan Gonzalez – Coral Park
Kahvon Lovett – Coral Gables
Kama Jackson – Miami Beach
Kevin Romer – Coral Gables
Kristopher Moll – Coral Gables
Marcelo Rodriguez – Columbus
Marcos Ruiz – Coral Park
Marlin Brooks – Coral Gables
Max Gonzalez-Brito – Columbus
Michael Rodriguez – Columbus
Najat Morgan – Miami Beach
Nick Galuppo – Coral Gables
Robert McWilliams – Coral Gables
Robert Perez – Columbus
Ronaldo Marquina – Miami High
Tavaris Phillips – Miami High
Tony Mills – Columbus
Trajan Bandy – Columbus
Travon Shannon – Miami High
Trevon Jackson – Miami Beach
Yael Gomez – Columbus