Cocoa won't back down

COCOA, Fla. -- If there are any signs of a team that's coasting through spring, it's not evident. Despite 38 wins in a row and three consecutive Florida state championships (3A in 2008 and 2A in 2009-10), it looks as if Cocoa (Fla.) High School is hungrier than ever.

"The target on our back doesn't get any smaller," said linebacker Grady Redding Jr., one of the players expected to be a senior captain on the 2011 squad. "With each title comes more responsibility and no time to be complacent."

It's going to be hard to be complacent at Cocoa after putting together one of the most ambitious schedules a program from Florida ever has.

Just three years ago, coach John Wilkinson, now in his sixth year at Cocoa, decided to take an aggressive approach to finding games that would raise the profile of his players and program. Now he's taking more calls then he's receiving -- something he takes as a compliment to how much his program has grown.

"We want as many challenges as we can get, and I think beating Abilene [Texas] last season put us on the map a little bit," Wilkinson said. "So several schools were interested in playing, and we found some good ones."

The Tigers will open up the season with a trip to play Cincinnati (Ohio) Colerain and will follow it with a game against Dallas (Texas) Skyline at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. After those two trips the Tigers will finally stay in the Sunshine State and host 2010 Class 6A state champions Miami (Fla.) Central.

The game against Central is possibly a shout out to the critics around the state who refuse to believe a program that regularly carries a roster of less than 40 players can compete with the larger schools in the state.

"This is all about the players and their desire to play the best competition they can and prove that they can compete with anyone," Wilkinson added. "Having the chance to play in the same stadium as the Dallas Cowboys is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most of our guys. They aren't worried about protecting a winning streak, they just want to perform at the highest level, and we as coaches want to give them the best chance to be seen and get into college programs."

Near the end of the season, Cocoa will travel out of state again to take on West Monroe (La.) in a game that Wilkinson hopes will be the start of another championship stretch.

All of the road trips and chances to be on television provides exposure for the program and, more importantly, for the players and can help their recruitment.

"I know we've got a game on ESPN and another on one of the regional networks," Redding said. "And anytime you can get on national television it's a big deal, especially with our recruiting. College coaches watch the games and they will always remember the guys that show up on the camera."

There have been several players from the championship teams that have went on FBS programs, such as running back Chevelle Buie (East Carolina), offensive linemen Ronald Patrick (South Carolina) and Josh Woods (Eastern Michigan) and defensive backs David Rowe (Rutgers) and E.J. Johnson (Purdue).

This year the team will be young, but Redding is one of several players who have the ability to be intriguing recruits. At 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, Redding had over 120 tackles last year, and after running a 4.5 40-yard dash at the Under Armour combine in Miami he has been getting major looks.

"Schools have seen film of me playing linebacker so they want to look to see if I can be a strong corner or safety," Redding said. "I know East Carolina, Rutgers, Florida Atlantic and a couple others are checking out my potential at other positions."

Wilkinson is also high on Class of 2013 prospect Tarean Folston, who rushed for 1,247 yards sharing backfield duties with Buie last season. The 5-11, 190-pounder will be sharing with another junior-to-be, Antwan Lee, who made one of the biggest plays of the 2010 season.

"Antwan had a huge kickoff return for us in the state championship game last season that probably turned that thing around," Wilkinson added. "We're going to be young on offense but we've got talent in the backfield and they will be a big part of what we do. We will be starting some juniors and even a couple of sophomore on the offensive line but we really like them."

On the defensive side of the ball, seniors Mike Ferguson, Marcus White and Tyrell Denson will join Redding as top prospects.

Ferguson (6-0, 205) had nearly 80 tackles playing on the defensive line last year and he'll move back to a linebacker position, where he should get over 100 tackles this season. Denson (6-0, 190) had 18 sacks last season and can rush the passer from various angles. White (6-1, 230) played several spots on the line and had a half-dozen sacks and three forced fumbles.

It's another solid collection of talent for Wilkinson, who has watched his program go from being the hunters to the hunted. He's gone from chasing down college coaches to hand them film to holding practices in front of multiple college scouts daily.

He credits his players and their efforts for the success, constantly saying that great players make great coaches.

"We have good kids and we like to play the best teams we can week in and week out; they just want to compete hard and show our character," Wilkinson said. "Our goal remains to win a state championship every season and build players that can have the opportunity to perform at the next level."

Corey Long has been covering high school football and recruiting in the Sunshine State since 1995. He can be reached at coreyespn@gmail.com.