Ponte Vedra offensive guard Brock Mayers said it best: It’s no longer about the people who are not members of the Sharks’ football program, it’s about the people who are.
Friday night was the first opportunity for the new-look Sharks to face someone beside themselves. For 24 minutes the reigning Class 5A state runners-up held their own against Gainesville Buchholz. The visiting Bobcats pulled away to win 49-28, but the contest was tied 21-all at intermission.
“I thought our run blocking was good. Our pass protection was good,” noted Mayers, a rising senior and one of two returning starters on the line. “The front we were given, we played well. We didn’t execute all the way, but we had some highlights.”
The Sharks had six first-half possessions and scored on three of them. New quarterback rising junior Jack Murrah found Jarrett Stepp for a 30-yard touchdown pass to cap off Ponte Vedra’s first series.
Murrah and Stepp hooked up again on Ponte Vedra’s third drive.
The connection may have illustrated just how much Murrah learned while serving as Nick Tronti’s understudy the last two years.
Two Buchholz defenders applied pressure. Murrah dodged the first, evaded the tackle of the second, slid to his right, planted his back foot and fired downfield for Stepp who was running away from the secondary. Murrah’s pass wasn’t the prettiest, but, more importantly, it was accurate. Stepp caught it in his breadbasket and scampered the rest of the way for a 50-yard touchdown reception with 2:01 remaining in the first quarter.
“Learning from Nick toughness and trusting everyone on your team,” Murrah explained when asked about his ability to keep his eyes downfield. “We do a lot of (run-pass options) so, if your eyes are down, you can’t make a lot of reads.”
There is room to grow for the quarterback who enters the summer as the Sharks’ No. 1. He threw an interception early in the second quarter on a pass he said he should have handed off to his running back.
Ponte Vedra finished 13-1 in 2016, but the Sharks lost 22 seniors. While Tronti, who was Mr. Football, headlines that bunch, the team will graduate its top running back, two leading wide receivers, top tackler and three-fourths of its secondary.
Running back questions were answered by rising sophomore Colin Magill and rising senior Zack King. Stepp is quickly becoming a favorite of Murrah’s. Meanwhile, defensive back Jake Lytle recovered a fumble on Buchholz’s first series of the game. Others, including linebacker Duncan Van Kouteren, defensive end Zach Summers and rising junior tight end Kit Connelly, who played secondary roles a year ago, appear primed to take on more responsibilities.
“That’s a physical football team and our kids matched that physicality on both sides of the line of scrimmage,” said Ponte Vedra football coach Matt Toblin. “I thought Jack played extremely well. We were extremely efficient on offense. We have to make (fewer) mistakes on critical downs on defense. I thought we played fast and we matched what I think is a pretty physical football team.”
The coach added the best way for his team to improve was to be put in a crucible where a team would expose any flaws they are showing on both sides of the football.
Buchholz lost 34 seniors from a program that has won consecutive district championships.
Both teams put in reserves in the second half. For Ponte Vedra, it was an opportunity for people like running back Nick Greco to show his willingness to fight for extra yards, punter Brian Salzman to get action for the first time and rising senior Anthony Carnacelli to make a tackle for loss. Few made more of a second half impact than rising sophomore Aiden Dunnigan, who not only sacked Seider, but intercepted him in the fourth quarter.
Dunnigan was a quarterback on the junior varsity last year, but looked at the depth chart, and his stature and moved to linebacker.
“All I can do is work harder. What I did, I can improve on that,” Dunnigan said. “That was two plays in the third and fourth quarter. I need to get ready to play the full game.”