Plant grows into Class 5A power

At Plant High School’s practice Wednesday evening, scouts and coaches from at least seven colleges were on hand to check out the prospects. But as the intensity of practice increased, so did the rain, forcing the players inside for the last two hours of practice.

Despite the setback, Plant coach Robert Weiner was happy with what he saw in his players and what he has seen throughout the spring. During this decade, his high school has risen from mediocrity to a perennial powerhouse in Division 4A, with a move to 5A coming up this fall.

A lot of people have asked Weiner if he is ready for the change, but he tells them all the same thing – he’s still playing high school football in the state of Florida, the competition isn’t changing.

“I don’t think the competition is going to be any tougher,” Weiner said, “and that is no slight to our competition. But if you look at the top 10 or 20 in 4A, and that has been the toughest competition, even though the top teams in the state are in 5A or 6A.”

Last season, Plant took down high schools Armwood, Booker T. Washington and Lincoln on its way to a state championship. While many coaches rest on their laurels, Weiner won’t, and he won’t let his team rest, either.

The players will receive their championship rings Thursday, but they’ll be putting them away by Friday. This team, Weiner will remind them, hasn’t won anything.

Weiner is focused on repeating in a new division, and he has a big advantage over the competition – quarterback Philip Ely. Last season, when Aaron Murray (now at Georgia) went down with a leg injury, Ely started seven games in relief.

“Very few teams get to have their cake and eat it too,” Weiner said. “Philip played the best teams on our schedule. He won a district championship for us. You can’t have much more than that, to have a player coming back with seven games of high-level experience.”

Ely, who is about 6 feet tall and 165 pounds, has combined that experience with a big jump in his size this spring. He has put on 20 pounds and is putting up 55 more pounds on his bench press compared to the fall. But Weiner, forever the quarterbacks coach, focused on his mechanics first.

“The ball is really popping out of his hands,” Weiner said. “We’ll be working on his footwork – we’re slaves to footwork – and he’s also continuing to improve upon reading defenses. We’ll be putting a lot on his shoulders.”

Ely returns as a junior to lead a team stacked full of senior talent. Although Plant lacks upper-tier prospects like Aaron Murray and Orson Charles from a season ago, they make up for it with a wealth of talent.

Weiner estimates that eight or nine of his seniors will get scholarships to play Division I football. Last year, Murray and Charles were the only two.

“Murray and Charles are once-in-a-lifetime guys,” Weiner said. “But you win high school football games with the other guys.”

The “other guys” include offensive line prospect Andre Mondor, who looks like he weighs about 320 pounds; corner Javonte Martin, who Weiner called “the best cover corner we’ve ever had here”; safety-wide receiver Eric Dungy, son of Tony Dungy; and linebacker Mike Mirabella, who has been Plant’s leader on defense for the past two years.

Adding to that already long list of talent is linebacker transfer James Wilder Jr. He is the only player on the team with an unofficial offer from Florida (offers can’t be officially tendered until Sept. 1) and he is the one who will be terrorizing the opposition this season.

Wilder, the son of former NFL running back James Wilder, stood out as the most physically impressive player at practice. He is listed at various heights and weights depending on where you look, but looking right at him will show you he’s about 6-3 and closing in on 220 pounds.

“He’s spectacular to look at,” Weiner said. “He’s chiseled and cut. He’s everything we thought he might be and more.”

Wilder is focusing on fitting in with the team right now, and Weiner is trying to figure out all the different places he can play. The only thing that’s certain is, during the spring, he always plays on offense – the side Weiner coaches.

For the fall, he’ll shine on defense.

“I don’t know how the offense runs a play with him on the other side of the ball,” Weiner said. “He just wreaks havoc.”

With that last piece of the puzzle in place, Weiner looks forward to another great season. Mostly, he is excited about Plant establishing itself as a consistent winner in Florida’s competitive high school football.

“We have a long way to go,” he said, “and we have a lot of learning to do. But we’re really excited about what we’ve got.”

What he’s got is a team with strong leadership, a good work ethic and tons of talent. He also has a team full of high school student-athletes who have fun and love the game. It’s a team that is determined to succeed at the next level – in Class 5A.

“We don’t want to be good, we want to be better,” Weiner said. “With our new classification, we have to be.”