Billy Rolle knows what it’s like to coach squads labeled “super teams” before they even play a down.
When Rolle went back to coach Miami Northwestern in 2007, he took the reins of a team that won a national championship, had double-digit future college starters and two still-active NFL players in linebackers Levonte David and Sean Spence.
Rolle’s 1998 Northwestern state championship team had even more NFL players, including Vernon Carey, Antonio Bryant and Nate Webster.
This season, Rolle is in charge of another tradition-rich football program in Miami-Dade County that is fielding a team many are already claiming has the makeup of a state championship team.
But Rolle is taking a game-by-game approach with the 2016 version of the Southridge Spartans.
“With this team, it’s not just their athletic prowess, they’ve shown improvement in terms of really learning how to play football well,” said Rolle, who became Southridge’s coach last season and led the Spartans to a 7-5 record and the second round of the playoffs.
“We stressed a lot of the small things in the offseason like conditioning, eating right, getting proper sleep and being accountable for your actions and how they affect the team. If you don’t take that seriously, it can hurt you in the long run. The focus is more on getting better as an individual and then as a team.”
It has been nearly two decades since Southridge was counted among the teams in serious state championship contention.
The Spartans have not reached the state finals since 1999 under then-coach Mark Guandolo and haven’t won a championship since winning two in 1991 and 1993 under Don Soldinger.
Rolle won’t compare Southridge to his Northwestern teams of the past or even the 2004 Killian team he also guided to a title.
Should Rolle guide Southridge to a state championship he would become the first coach in the state to win state titles at three different schools.
The Spartans advanced to the Class 8A regional semifinals in his first season last year and still have to prove themselves worthy of their lofty expectations.
There’s no denying Southridge, which has more than 20 FBS-level prospects, enters this season with a lineup deep at nearly every position with potential to follow the footsteps of some of those great Miami-Dade County teams.
Rolle said the Spartans spent most of the summer studying film from last season’s games and continued to emphasize that aspect of their preparation even after fall practices began.
“The kids needed to learn how to break down film and really recognize what they did and correct mistakes, not just look at their own highlights,” Rolle said. “Most of them have passed their qualifying exams and committed to schools, so they can focus more on the upcoming season.”
Senior tight end Kemore Gamble (6-4, 237 pounds), a University of Florida commitment, highlights an offense that should improve following a season in which it averaged only 20.9 points per game.
The Spartans have a stellar group of receivers led by junior Mark Pope (6-0, 160) and seniors Rodney Scott (6-0, 175) and Darquris Wiggins (6-2, 180), both of whom are University of Miami commitments.
The catalyst might be a running game led by Killian transfer Bentavious Thompson, who is two seasons removed from a 1,000-yard season and also is being recruited by Miami.
The questions will be if senior quarterback Michael Cox (6-1, 175), who was part of Miami Sunset’s run to a district championship last season, can conduct the offense behind an offensive line anchored by West Virginia commit Cody Bowes (6-4, 280), who came over from St. Thomas Aquinas.
On defense, the Spartans have the potential to be one of the nation’s best.
“Teachers and administrators who have been at the school a long time are excited about us,” senior cornerback Shawn Davis said. “They’re really hoping we can bring back the tradition.”
Davis, a 5-11, 190-pound cornerback and University of Florida commitment, leads a secondary that will be extremely tough to throw against. Joining Davis is Illinois commit Antwan Collier (6-3, 180), safety Billy Gibson, a 6-1, 185-pound UM commit, and seniors Coema Jones (5-7, 160), Natron Grayson (6-4, 180) and Juwon Horn (5-10, 160).
Linebacker Brandon James (6-2, 200), an FIU commit, and Nadarius Fagan (6-2, 200), a Syracuse commit, will back up the Southridge defensive front, along with sophomore Diamante Howard (6-2, 195). Fagan led the county in tackles last season with 141 and had four sacks.
In the trenches is where Rolle said his team needs to develop as the season goes if they are to reach Orlando.
The defensive line is led by Mississippi State commit Deandre Johnson (6-3, 240), senior Dimirtry Prophete (6-0, 200), and juniors James Head, Jr. (6-5, 205) and Randy Charlton (6-3, 235).
“We’ve become a more disciplined team this season,” Fagan said. “We learned a lot from last year, and we have more of a bond on this team.