Last year, a dynamic offense led Ponte Vedra to the Class 5A state championship game. This year, it’s the Sharks’ defense that could lead them back to the playoffs.
“They’re incredible on defense,” St. Augustine coach Brian Braddock said of the Sharks. “They give up nothing easy.”
Ponte Vedra (4-1) hosts St. Augustine (4-0) at 7 tonight in a non-district game that was originally scheduled for Sept. 8. It is one of four games tonight involving St. Johns County teams that had to be rescheduled because of Hurricane Irma.
The Sharks and Yellow Jackets have not met since 2014, but it’s a game that both coaching staffs and players get excited about.
Braddock and Ponte Vedra coach Matt Toblin have a history that goes back to the mid-2000s when they were defensive coordinators for St. Augustine and Nease, respectively, and competed in some classic battles. In 2005, both teams won state championships in their classifications.
“I’ve known Coach Braddock going on 11 years,” Toblin said. “We both kind of came up together.”
The coaching staffs have a mutual respect for one another that continues to grow.
“When we get St. Augustine film in, it’s like an artist respecting another man’s work,” Toblin said. “It’s like, ‘What are they doing? What are they trying now?’ A lot of the principles and concepts St. Augustine does, we’ve borrowed. I think the world of their staff, and Coach Braddock is as sharp as they come.”
The Yellow Jackets are known for their aggressive defenses that are sound and physical year after year. They’re solid again this season, allowing 227.5 yards and 14 points per game. But while Braddock said St. Augustine’s defense “is still a work in progress,” during this hurricane-marred season, Ponte Vedra appears to be in late-season form.
“We expected to be good,” Toblin said. “Almost our entire front seven are back from last year.”
Last week, the Sharks dominated previously undefeated Bishop Kenny, holding the Crusaders to 38 rushing yards in a 38-22 victory.
Ponte Vedra had four takeaways — three fumble recoveries and an interception — in addition to four sacks and a blocked punt. Although two of Bishop Kenny’s three touchdowns were scored in the fourth quarter, long after the game was decided, it was the first time this season the Sharks gave up more than two scores.
“They’re coached really well and they’re really disciplined,” St. Augustine quarterback Austin Reed said. “It’s like preparing for our defense. They fly to the ball well and they’re physical. They look as good as any defense we’ve played.”
The Sharks are particularly good at stopping the run, and that starts with inside linebackers Duncan Van Kouteren (46 tackles, three sacks) and Gibson Pardue (25 tackles, one tackle for loss). Outside linebacker Cole McCormick has 31 tackles, four tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries and an interception.
“They fit the gaps real good,” Reed said. “We have to be ready to hit them or they’ll stuff us at the line of scrimmage. But I have faith that we’ll be able to do it. Our offensive line works hard.”
St. Augustine right guard Thomas Atkinson said the Jackets will have to be very precise in their blocks and their steps tonight.
“(Their defensive linemen) move a lot,” Atkinson said. “They’re smaller than we are, so it’s important to pick the right steps. Every inch matters.”
Braddock said the Sharks’ defense does not have a weakness. But St. Augustine will pose their biggest challenge so far this season. The Jackets are averaging 467.25 yards on offense.
Reed, who committed to Southern Illinois earlier this week, has passed for 977 yards and 10 touchdowns with two interceptions. And he has talented weapons in receivers Karim Brown and Cedrin Daniel.
“They’re extremely explosive on the perimeter and they still run the ball effectively,” Toblin said. “I don’t know if we’ve played a team that runs it quite as well as St. Augustine does. St. Augustine is a troublesome matchup in a lot of spots.”
The last time these teams played, the Yellow Jackets won 35-14. Braddock said he’s enjoyed watching the Ponte Vedra program steadily improve during the past few years.
“Their rise has done nothing but improve the competition of St. Johns County football, and that’s a great thing,” Braddock said. “They’ve established themselves as a high-quality program. They’ll be a great test.”