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There’s no debate that one team has total control of this three-team district. Still, because there is a national powerhouse perched at the top, that only makes the other district game that much more heated and competitive.

Blanche Ely Tigers

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2015 Record: 2-9 (District Runner-up)
Coach: Carl Wilburn
2016 Outlook: Blanche Ely is a team in transition.

The Tigers had a rough season in 2015, but still made the postseason and fought valiantly before falling 16-14 to Palm Beach Dwyer.

Ely has a new head coach – as Carl Wilburn replaces Nakia Jenkins, who is now an assistant at Dillard.

Wilburn brings a great deal of wisdom to Ely’s sideline – having 27 years of coaching experience on his resume, including serving as head coach at Northeast and Coconut Creek during that time.

Between graduation and transfers, the Tigers lost a lot of difference-making players. However, there’s a new crop of young players in place that will have plenty of opportunities to show what they can do.

6-foot-2 junior quarterback Yanez Rogers is an under-the-radar passer. His long frame allows him to stand in the pocket and make throws while his solid athleticism allows him to move around to either extend plays for a throw downfield or breakout and scramble.

Ely’s true hidden gem is senior defensive end Corinthian Hudson. While he doesn’t have the typical size of a defensive end, Hudson has a great motor and is stronger than most would expect from his 6-foot, 210-pound frame – giving him the ability to get into the backfield and blow up plays.

If things end up falling in place for Ely, the Tigers should improve upon their win total from this past season – whether they make the playoffs or not.

Fort Lauderdale Flying L’s

2015 Record: 4-6
Coach: Richard Dunbar
2016 Outlook: Aside from having the coolest mascot in all of high school football – a flying L – Fort Lauderdale has a program that is getting closer and closer to that “breakout” year where things take a major turn for the better.

Credit to head coach Richard Dunbar for the work that he’s done to create a football culture at the school – one that attracts prospects and keeps them there.

What needs to happen now, the Flying L’s must start putting things together and become a more consistent team on a weekly basis.

Fort Lauderdale has a nice group of offensive playmakers in quarterback Eugene Davis, running backs Ken Pinkney and Amari Smith and 6-foot-4 receiver Alonzo Clark. Clark, who also has experience playing quarterback, could end up being Lauderdale’s go-to guy because of his versatility and athleticism.

Offensive line is a bit of a question mark, so that could hamper the Flying L’s offense.

Defensively, Fort Lauderdale is solid but a leader must emerge. Perhaps senior defensive back Kewann Calloway or senior linebacker Darryl Weaver can step up to fill that role.

St. Thomas Aquinas Raiders

2015 Record: 13-1 (District Champion; Class 7A champion)
Coach: Roger Harriott
2016 Outlook: When will you see a program graduate upwards of 44 seniors – a group that included players like Nick Bosa (Ohio State), Sam Bruce (Miami), Dontye Carriere-Williams (Wisconsin) and Michael Irvin II (Miami) – and come back the following year and be the preseason No. 1 team in the country?

When that program is St. Thomas Aquinas.

The Raiders enter 2016 as the consensus No. 1 high school football team in the country and its hard imagine them not finishing the season with not only what will be their third straight state title – 10th in program history – but a mythical national championship.

St. Thomas will have its chance to put a stake in the national title claim when it travels to Las Vegas, Nevada for a September 30th nationally-televised showdown against Bishop Gorman – a consensus top three team nationally.

The collection of talent that Aquinas has assembled is almost comical. St. Thomas has depth in spade – the team’s scrimmages in practice may be more competitive and talent-laden than some actual games during the season.

It all starts with head coach Roger Harriott. The even-keeled, sage-like Harriott is the ultimate winner. An alum of St. Thomas, Harriott has been the perfect fit for a program that still works under the watchful eye of legendary coach and athletic director George Smith, whom Harriott played for at Aquinas.

Harriott’s approach challenges players to have self-discipline and play the game the right way while also having fun.

The 2016 Raiders legitimately have no apparent weakness.

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The offense is under the guide of senior quarterback and University of Florida commit Jake Allen. Allen, who missed time in 2015 with a back injury, returns for his senior campaign and is ready to leave his mark in Aquinas’ rich quarterback tradition.

Senior receiver Trevon Grimes is Allen’s favorite target, and rightfully so. The 6-foot-4, five-star pass catcher is among the best players in the country – regardless of position.

Teams can’t just focus on Grimes though, as transfers Jordan Merrell (Dillard) and Elijah Moore (Davie Western) are both top notch slot receivers with multiple D-I offers and West Virginia commit Mike Harley is a dark horse to lead the Raiders in receptions in 2016.

Senior running back and South Carolina commit Kyshaun Bryan comes in from Plantation American Heritage and becomes the lead back in a deep stable of ball carriers. Bryan is the total package, but look for Mike Epstein – an Illinois commit returning from injury – and Sam Llewellyn to contribute.

The Raiders’ offensive line – which was set to be anchored by Jason Swann (6-foot-3, 285 pounds) and Zack Sweeney (6-foot-3, 270 pounds) – was bolstered by the addition of 6-foot-4, 280-pound senior Grant Miller – who transferred in from Bradenton IMG Academy and 6-foot-3, 330-pound junior Sebastian Sainterling.

St. Thomas Aquinas’ defense has the chance to be very special in 2016 – especially the secondary.

Returning cornerbacks Benjamin Sapp and Asante Samuel – both holding multiple college offers – were set to be the key boundary defenders until Al Blades II (University School) and Trenell Troutman (Monsignor Pace) elected to join Aquinas.

Both bring top-level skill sets and versatility. Troutman is regarded as one of the top players in the Class of 2018 and can be a lockdown corner or rangy safety as well – and a kick returner too. Blades, the son of former Miami standout Alphonso Blades, is a four-star player that can also play multiple positions in the secondary.

Linebackers Tyler Dunning (Mississippi State commit) and Drew White (Notre Dame commit) will anchor the middle of the defense along with the unheralded, but very talented trio of Rocky Shelton, Jalen Mackie and Albert Tucker rotating in.

Big-bodied senior Kivon Bennett (6-foot-3, 260 pounds) is the leading man on the Raiders’ defensive line, as he’s shown that he can be a pass-rushing force from the interior of the line. Working on the outside are 6-foot-4 senior Lashawn Paulino – a Michigan State commit – four-star 2018 prospect Nik Bonitto and underrated junior Caden Blanchard.

Teams won’t know how or where to attack Aquinas – they are too talented, too deep and too well-coached.

Bald Prediction

There really isn’t a scenario where I can see St. Thomas Aquinas not winning the district championship.

Not really worried about the injury bug. The Raiders are so deep; they will be able to sub in one Division-I prospect for another. Aquinas’ sights are not only set on a state title, but a mythical national crown.

I think this is the year that Fort Lauderdale breaks through and makes it to the postseason.

Blanche Ely is rebuilding with a new head coach, which should open the door for the Flying L’s.

Predicted Champion: St. Thomas Aquinas
Predicted Runner-Up: Fort Lauderdale

District MVP

Despite all of the great players on Aquinas’ roster that could’ve gotten this honor, my mind automatically went to running back Kyshaun Bryan.

Bryan represents balance and consistency. Having an offense with so many great talents and so many moving parts is a luxury, but it is still nice to have a player that you can give the ball to and he make something positive happen.

Rain and wind can throw off a passing attack, but a strong running game with a game-breaking ball carrier is almost impervious to bad weather and it is the same at home as it is on the road.

And while Aquinas has a deep stable of running backs – Bryan is the most talented and knows what it takes to win a state championship (2014 American Heritage).

Bold Prediction

St. Thomas Aquinas defense will record five or more shutouts this season.

The Raiders have supreme talent at every level of its defensive unit – even when the starters are subbed out – and they will be able to dominate and overwhelm teams all the way through the playoffs.

Top Players

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Al Blades II – St. Thomas Aquinas
Albert Tucker – St. Thomas Aquinas
Alonzo Clark – Fort Lauderdale
Amari Smith – Fort Lauderdale
Asante Samuel – St. Thomas Aquinas
Beau Filichio – St. Thomas Aquinas
Benjamin Sapp – St. Thomas Aquinas
Caden Blanchard – St. Thomas Aquinas
Corinthian Hudson – Blanche Ely
Drew White – St. Thomas Aquinas
Elijah Moore – St. Thomas Aquinas
Eugene Davis – Fort Lauderdale
Grant Miller – St. Thomas Aquinas
Jake Allen – St. Thomas Aquinas
Jalen Mackie – St. Thomas Aquinas
Jason Swann – St. Thomas Aquinas
Jonathan Moore – St. Thomas Aquinas
Jordan Merrell – St. Thomas Aquinas
Josh Palmer – St. Thomas Aquinas
Kedonis Haslem – St. Thomas Aquinas
Kenneth Pinkney – Fort Lauderdale
Kewann Calloway – Fort Lauderdale
Kivon Bennett – St. Thomas Aquinas
Kyshaun Bryan – St. Thomas Aquinas
Lashawn Paulino – St. Thomas Aquinas
Mike Epstein – St. Thomas Aquinas
Mike Harley – St. Thomas Aquinas
Nik Bonitto – St. Thomas Aquinas
Rocky Shelton – St. Thomas Aquinas
Samuel Llewellyn – St. Thomas Aquinas
Sebastian Sainterling – St. Thomas Aquinas
Stanley Bolden – Blanche Ely
Torri Young – Fort Lauderdale
Trenell Troutman – St. Thomas Aquinas
Trevon Grimes – St. Thomas Aquinas
Tyler Dunning – St. Thomas Aquinas
Yanez Rogers – Blanche Ely
Zack Sweeney – St. Thomas Aquinas

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