TAMPA — Of all the positions on Plant High’s defense, the “Panther” is the most revered. It is a broadly defined position, a hybrid that requires size and speed and all-out effort. Some of the best players at the school have occupied that spot, including James Wilder Jr. and Orson Charles.
“The Panther is a great spot at Plant,” coach Robert Weiner said. “You get a lot of opportunities to make a lot of different plays and a lot of opportunities to get to the quarterback. He is a linebacker, and sometimes he lines up as a stand-up end. He usually is unaccounted for and racks up a lot of sacks.”
Micah McFadden was not the prototypical player for that position. The junior was buried on the depth chart in the spring. He did not even start in youth leagues.
But McFadden kept working. He kept getting better. Now McFadden is not only starting at Panther, he is thriving in the role. He has a team-leading 12 sacks and four forced fumbles to go with 94 tackles.
“My coach in youth league told me I shouldn’t even play high school football, especially at Plant,” McFadden said. “He didn’t think I would ever start. So this whole year has been unexpected, a complete shock.”
McFadden grew up around Plant football. His older brother Luke played and is now a sophomore receiver at John Hopkins University.
The physical traits were always there for the 6-foot-1, 210-pound McFadden to be a pass-rushing specialist. So was the effort. But something was missing.
“The thing with Micah is we always knew he was dirty, messy and mean on the field,” Weiner said. “Dirty like a kid who played in the sandbox. But he never seemed to understand what he was supposed to do. … We just couldn’t get him in the right spot to do it.
“At the beginning of this year that something clicked in him. He was like, ‘I’m not only going to be physically good and hit people with aggressiveness, but also know what I’m doing.’ ”
The coaches needled McFadden about being in position to make plays. McFadden even questioned his own abilities.
He didn’t give up. He watched film. He studied the playbook. He eventually understood what it took to be a playmaking linebacker.
The big break came in a preseason game against Venice. McFadden started in place of Drew Miller, who was injured. The coaches were impressed enough with McFadden that he was moved to the Panther position for the regular-season opener.
McFadden’s story is similar to that of former Plant standout Joe Ryan, who went from a fourth-string linebacker to one of the leading tacklers in the state. Ryan currently is freshman linebacker at Army.
“That seems to be the M.O. with our linebackers lately,” Weiner said. “They come out of nowhere. Micah has absolutely, positively been one of the most pleasant surprises that we’ve ever had.”
McFadden’s breakout game came against Armwood when he had 11 tackles, four sacks and a fumble recovery in a 29-27 win that snapped the Hawks’ 34-game regular-season win streak.
As a pass rusher, McFadden knows he can disrupt an offense by himself. Tonight’s Class 7A region final against Viera (9-2) might be one of his biggest challenges yet. Hawks quarterback Tim Demorat has a quick release that has helped him throw for 2,321 yards.
“No doubt that puts a lot more on Micah,” Weiner said. “But defense is an integrated thing. So if the backside of the defense has things covered, that can force the quarterback to hold the ball longer and create some opportunities for sacks for Micah.
“That is what Micah is pretty good at now.”
7:30 tonight, admission $8
• East Lake at Venice
• Viera at Plant
• Green Cove Springs Clay at River Ridge
• Immokalee at Jesuit
7:30 tonight, admission $9
• Berkeley Prep at Jacksonville Trinity Christian
• Northside Christian at Hialeah Champagnat