Before he starts studying his opponents’ receivers, running backs or quarterback, St. Thomas Aquinas cornerback James Oliphant said he zeroes in on the offensive line.
The way Oliphant sees it, unless that other team has a group of guys up front who will be playing major college football, game day is going to be a lot easier than practice.
“I believe we have the best D-line in the nation,” said Oliphant, a 5-9, 175-pound senior who is one of nine starters on Aquinas’ defense with a Football Bowl Subdivision scholarship offer. “The front we have — they can’t be blocked.”
Friday night at the Citrus Bowl, the Kissimmee Osceola Kowboys (13-1) are going to try to be one of the rare exceptions.
Outside of two games this season — a 24-7 loss to Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey and a 20-12 win over rival Miramar — the starters for Aquinas (13-1) haven’t played a down in the fourth quarter. Sometimes, they’ve even been replaced by backups before the half.
“Sometimes we get a little happy when [our] offense fumbles and we can come out for another series,” Raiders junior defensive end Nick Bosa (6-4, 260) said, half-kidding. “But it is nice to win big.”
Aquinas, which goes into Friday night’s Class7A state championship game in search of its eighth state title and ranked 15th nationally by MaxPreps, has won big all season. The Raiders have outscored opponents on average 44 to 5 — and that’s including that loss to Bosco back on Sept.13.
“The beasts,” as Oliphant refers to them, are the biggest reason why.
Bosa, the most heralded of the bunch and the younger brother of Lombardi and Bednarik Award candidate Joey Bosa at Ohio State, leads the team in tackles (47) and tackles for loss (27½).
The other guys playing opposite him at rush end/outside linebacker are Wyatt Ray, a 6-3, 230-pound Boston College commitment who ranks fourth on the team with 34½ tackles and 10½ for loss, and 6-3, 230-pound three-star recruit Chris Hart (North Carolina, Iowa, Utah, Michigan State).
The big guys in the middle are 6-4, 245-pound senior Brandon Boyce (Duke commitment), 6-3, 265-pound junior Colin Nace, and 6-3, 240-pound senior Julian McCleod. Boyce leads the team with seven sacks.
“I’ve been here since 2002,” coach Rocco Casullo said. “Me, personally, I think this defense is the best defense we’ve had at Aquinas since I’ve been here. We’ve never had a front like we have. Even though they don’t have FBS offers, we’ve gotten very good inside linebacker play from Claudeny Jeudy and Velvario [Faulkner]. [South Carolina commitment] Damon Arnette, we’ve never had a guy that can play [strongside] linebacker and corner like he did last week.
“Our secondary, Oliphant [UMass offer] has been a great program kid. Lance [Deveaux Jr.] and Tyson [Cisrow] have been here for four years. [FAU commitment Rashad] Causey has done a great job coming in [from University School]. There’s just been great chemistry between the players and the coaches, and a lot of that is because these kids played little league together. There’s no egos, which is huge.”
There is, however, a lot of confidence and a lot of pride. The six shutouts Aquinas has posted this season are the most in school history. The starting unit, itself, hasn’t been scored on since Oct.17 at Cypress Bay. That was seven games and 30 quarters ago.
The 77 points the defense has given up this season is the fewest in a 14-game span at Aquinas. The 2008 national championship team gave up 110 points. The 2010 national title team gave up 104 in state championship winning seasons.
When the second-team unit has given up late touchdowns in each of the last three playoff games, the starters have gotten upset. Not because they’re chasing the school record for fewest points, but because when the Raiders pitch a shutout, the entire defense gets treated to donuts the morning after by the coaching staff.
“Coming in this year, we definitely had big head with all these transfers and D1 guys — we felt we were unstoppable and thought we were going to go up to New Jersey and whip up on Bosco,” Bosa said. “That loss just showed we could lose a game when we aren’t focused. Everybody we play is talented, can put points up. It changed us as a unit, made our heads smaller, brought us together as a team.”
And it’s made them hungrier for something besides donuts.
“We’d love to be national champs, but when the season started, coach Casullo said we wanted to be playing in the state title game Dec.12,” said left guard Sam Clausmen. “In the end, winning that is what matters.”
If you go
What: The 52nd annual state football championships.
Where: The Citrus Bowl, 1 Citrus Bowl Place, Orlando.
Admission: $12 per session; Parking: $10.
Last week’s state champions — Class 1A: Port St. Joe; Class 2A: Indian Rocks Christian; Class 3A: Jacksonville Trinity Christian; Class 4A: Booker T. Washington.
Friday’s championships — Class 5A: Plantation American Heritage vs. Tallahassee Godby, 1; Class 7A: Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas vs. Kissimmee Osceola, 7 p.m.
Saturday’s championships — Class 6A: Miami Central vs. Seffner Armwood, 1; Class 8A: Miami Columbus vs. Apopka, 7 p.m.
CLASS 7A FINAL — ST. THOMAS AQUINAS (13-1) VS. KISSIMMEE OSCEOLA (13-1)
Coaches — STA: Rocco Casullo (4th year, 46-9); KO: Doug Nichols (5th year at KO, 8th overall, 69-27).
State experience — STA: 7-7 (won state titles in 1992, 1997, 1999, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012); KO: 1-2 (won state title in 1998).
The road to state — STA: d. Mater Academy 57-0; Plantation 38-6; Royal Palm Beach 52-7; Tarpon Springs East Lake 45-7; KO: d. Bartow 35-7; Lakeland 35-28 (OT); Tampa Bay Tech 35-15; Niceville 42-14.
Offensive probable starters — STA: LE Connor Fee (6-2, 200, Sr.); LT Philip Parchment (6-4, 280, Sr.); LG Samuel Clausman (6-5, 300, Sr.); C Daniel Evers (6-4, 285, Sr.); RG Richard Desir-Jones (6-4, 285, Sr.); RT Colin Byrne (6-6, 305, Sr.); RE Devante Peete (6-5, 200, Sr.); QB Jake Rizzo (6-1, 175, Sr.); HB Jordan Scarlett (5-11, 220, Sr.); FB Deltron Sands (5-9, 175, Sr.); FL Jawuan Harris (5-10, 185, Sr.); K Zachary Cicero (5-10, 165, Sr.); KO: Armani Helligar (6-2, 180, Sr.); LT Parker Braun (6-3, 265, Jr.); LG Michael Marriot (5-11, 240, Jr.); C Austin Upleger (6-1, 235, Jr.); RG Andres Osorio (6-0, 255, Jr.); RT Chayse Gray (6-2, 245, Jr.); WR So’More Fagan (5-11, 175, Jr.); QB Isaiah Wilson (5-10, 175, Jr.); FB Ladarrien Wilson (5-10, 210, Jr.); WB Edtwain Black (5-10, 175, Sr.); WB Nazayah Brown (5-10, 175, Jr.); K Mateo Perez (5-10, 165, Sr.).
Defensive probable starters — STA: LE Nicholas Bosa (6-4, 260, Jr.); LT Brandon Boyce (6-0, 245, Sr.); RT Christopher Hart (6-3, 230, Sr.); RE Wyatt Ray (6-3, 230, Sr.); LB Damon Arnette (6-2, 185, Sr.); LB Velvario Faulkner (6-0, 220, Sr.); LB Claudeny Jeudy (5-10, 185, Sr.); DB James Oliphant (5-9, 170, Sr.); DB Rashard Causey (6-0, 185, Sr.); DB Lance Deveaux, Jr. (6-0, 185, Sr.); S Tyson Cisrow (6-1, 185, Sr.); KO: Christian Bridgewater (6-0, 190, Sr.); DT Derek Rivers (5-10, 265, Sr.); NG Devin Lebron (5-10, 205, Jr.); DE T.J. Kelly (6-0, 245, Jr.); SLB Shayvai Gordon (6-2, 215, Sr.); MLB Riley Nicholson (6-1, 220, Sr.); WLB Treyvon Simmons (6-0, 205, Sr.); CB Stephon Brown (5-11, 175, Sr.); CB Carlos Becker (6-3, 175, Jr.); SS Dominic Lee (6-2, 185, Sr.); FS Devon Clarke (6-2, 185, Jr.); P Mateo Perez (5-10, 165, Sr.).