Coral Gables has had its share of talented running backs through the years — most notably Miami-Dade County rushing record-holder Frank Gore.
The Cavaliers hope 6-2, 215-pound senior Gregory Howell, one of the bigger and stronger backs they have had in recent years, is next in the line of Cavaliers standouts.
“In terms of size, he could be one of the bigger backs we’ve had here in a long time,” Coral Gables coach Roger Pollard said.
Howell earned a reputation for being a powerful runner last season by gaining 777 yards and leading the Cavaliers to a first-round playoff victory against North Miami Beach. The win was fueled by a clutch 107-yard performance from Howell that included a game-winning 65-yard touchdown run in the final minute.
Howell delivered in that game despite dealing with flu-like symptoms earlier that week.
And like their running back, the Cavaliers overcame what had been a mostly forgettable 3-7 season to that point by securing their first playoff win since 1989.
Howell is one of 10 starters on offense and 17 overall returning for the Cavaliers, who hope to challenge perennial powerhouse Columbus for the District 14-8A championship this season.
“Winning that playoff game and going to the second round, these guys got a taste of what it takes to get there,” Pollard said. “We have more experienced guys and more football players who went through that journey of losing games they shouldn’t have and got better.”
While Columbus enters the season as the favorite in the district that also includes Miami Beach, Miami High, South Miami and Coral Park, Coral Gables thinks it has the experience to have a much better regular season that could prepare it for further advancement in the playoffs.
“We feel like we’ve progressed and have a lot more talented players this time around,” Howell said. “We have more unity on this team, and everything is going in a good direction.”
Pollard required most of his players to either run track or join the wrestling team in the offseason to get stronger and faster.
“We’ve seen the results in the weight room and out here on the field,” Pollard said. “These guys learned that people have to play and win or lose games. If we don’t turn ball over and fight our tails off, we can be in any game. We had some growing pains but, hopefully, we’re fully grown now.”
Howell, a 3.0 grade-point average student, is one of those players.
Howell has become a faster runner by competing in track in the spring, adding speed to his size and strength.
Howell, who has offers from Minnesota, FAU, Northern Illinois, Marshall and Georgia State, improved his 40-yard dash time to 4.5 seconds.
“Greg can just run through people,” Pollard said. “But this year, I think you’ll see him run past and away from defenders more.”
Howell will try to help an offense that averaged only 11.5 points per game become more explosive this season.
“We’re going to pound people on the ground and throw the ball,” Howell said. “We had to change a lot of game plans last season depending on the opponents. This time, we have an offense we’re going to stick to and challenge people to stop us.”
The defense graduated its top player in linebacker Ryan Francis, but expects junior Emilio Gibbs to fill in adequately. Gibbs started his first season at the position last season after converting from running back.
Gibbs and senior defensive back Mark Wynn will back up a strong line led by end Nathaniel Nicolas, a Miami Mater Academy transfer.
“All summer Emilio was in here watching film going over different things and recognizing formations and personnel,” Pollard said. “Last year, he was the sidekick with Francis. Now, he’s the man. With more responsibilities comes more pressure. He’s big enough to handle it.”