AMERICA'S BEST LINE: St. Thomas Aquinas


While there are some impressive offensive lines across the country, it would be hard for any to match the talent that Fort Lauderdale's St. Thomas Aquinas has. Check out what tackle Sam Young and the Raiders have for the 2005 season!

FORT LAUDERDALE – As he made his way across the field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville to shake hands with Bill Castle after his team had just been soundly beaten by Lakeland in the state 5A title game, veteran Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas head coach George Smith boarded the bus for the long ride back to South Florida.

I have known Smith for over two decades, and of all the words in his vocabulary, losing is something he uses the least. Maybe because he has done so little of it in his now three plus decades with the Raiders.

Knowing Smith the way I do, and he knows that I respect him more than anyone in high school football today, this is someone who seems to get the last laugh, and while he did little smiling in the weeks following the loss to the Dreadnaught, there was something inside his crafty head that told him not to worry about the 2005 season.

When he returned to his office prior to the holidays, Smith and his loyal assistant coaches went over what this program had coming back for 2005. After Bryan Baucom, Jay Connolly, Michael Spencer, Jack Hanrahan, Tim Conrad, Lee Martin, Dwight McKenzie, Jim Gazzillo, Michael Curry, John Hackett, Marty Poplar, Jason Milgrom and Rocco Casullo emerged from the look into the future, all had to be feeling pretty good.

While the Raiders did lose a number of key players from this surprising ride in 2004, the very fact that the return of three linemen, easily the best trio in Florida, and I couldn't imagine any better anywhere else in the country, all return.

Three players who make running backs Marcel Archer, Stephen Cardullo and Bobby Crawford sleep a whole lot better. Three giants up front that has emerging junior quarterback Wesley Carroll believing that 2005 will be something special.

Three linemen who have already started to receive more pre-season publicity than ever before.

Tackle Sam Young (6-7 1/2, 290), center Daniel Wenger (6-3, 280) and two-way star guard Marcus Gilbert (6-6, 290) are without question three players you look at and say to yourself: all three will play this game for a long, long time at a very high level.

I have been fortunate enough to have watched all three grow from freshmen into this position. I have watched their maturity, been there at camps, practices and at games, and listened to Coach Smith and his assistants talk about their progress and maturity.

Today, I will break down the way I see all three players. From over seven games lives in two seasons, from watching in practice and at camps. While I have heard all the "experts" chime in on the way they feel about these players and what their future is, I will give you a unique first hand look from a vantage point of watching all three play six feet away from me.

SAM YOUNG: First had the opportunity to watch this young man and appreciate his zest for the game and positive attitude when he was making the move as a sophomore from Pine Crest, where he played tight end, to St. Thomas Aquinas, where he would be considered one of the up-and-coming sophomores in the nation. That evaluation was based on his size, athletic abilility and knowledge.

HIS STRENGTHS: Because of his athletic abilility, his footwork is second to none. He moves very well, has tremendous technique and has the capacity to learn so much more. He is a prototypical left tackle.

Watching him move out on running plays is a thing of beauty. He holds blocks as well as anyone at this level. He also extends his arms out on passing plays to shield block in a way that takes years to perfect. He has been taught extremely well.

NEEDS TO WORK ON: Getting stronger. While he dominates right now, there is a sense that as he gets stronger, he will move to an elite level. Young is also learning to pass block much better than his first year. You could see that down the stretch in the playoffs last season.

IN CONCLUSION: I have said all along that this young man will play that left tackle spot for the next 15 years, and will be an elite player for a long, long time!

DANIEL WENGER: If there is a better high school center in the nation, please let me see him. Very seldom has any young linemen ever been groomed to play this position at this age. Watching him play, you get the sense that, like Young, here is a position that Wenger will settle at for the next decade – and beyond.
Last year, in two games, I tracked him on three different series to see what he did that was so impressive, and after writing down notes, I came to the conclusion that he dominates, standing defensive linemen straight up, trap blocks so well and can open holes quickly with his strength and pure athletic ability.

HIS STRENGTHS: If you watch Daniel on four different plays, he won't block the same on any of those plays. While most 17-year-olds have been trained to repeat blocks and use one or two different blocking schemes, Wenger variates from play to play, which comes from plenty of practice and film watching.

NEEDS TO WORK ON: Just gaining the natural experience the position requires. He will be given more and more responsibility as he gets to college and at the professional level.

IN CONCLUSION: After watching him play three different times, I proclaimed that this will be the first linemen in this class, who will start in the National Football League. He just has the look of a center who will play in the league for a long time. He reminds me a lot of another Floridian Jeff Faine.

MARCUS GILBERT: Ask five different people who have watched him play, and three will say that he belongs on defense, while the other two are convinced that offense is where this huge, aggressive football player will end up. Great problem to have!

Is there any question that Gilbert is the best two-way line prospect in the state, and perhaps in the nation? I think we can make that statement.

First had the opportunity to watch him close up last year in a regular season game at Pompano Beach Ely. Talk about a dominating performance. He was doing such an impressive job on Ely star Ronnie Wilson, I had to check numbers to make sure that this was the player who most hailed as one of the nation's emerging linemen. It was, and a star was born in Gilbert.

HIS STRENGTHS: Can dominate with his upper body, size and knowledge of the position. Has very good feet for someone with this size. He seems to anticipate plays on defense, playing off blocks very well. He is a tremendous athlete who has great vision.

Offensively, he has the quickness to pull out and lead on sweeps, can control the flow with his hands (without holding) and is strong enough and big enough to sustain plays where the opposition is double-teaming him.

NEEDS TO WORK ON: There will come a time, perhaps at the end of this season, where his decision to perhaps play on the offensive side of the ball exclusively at the next level will have to be made.

IN CONCLUSION: Has worked his way into elite status because of his work ethic, will to improve and the understanding that great linemen are not created, they are made with hours of dedication. Like Young and Wenger, here is another player who should enjoy more than a decade of top-level play.

While the Raiders also return linemen such as Travis Smith, Nathaniel Blair, Richard Appollon, Robert Montejo and Nicholas Wollschlager, all who will make an impact, there is no getting around the fact that Young, Wenger and Gilbert don't come along too often – especially not on the same team!

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