Last year the Buchholz football team made a deep run in the state playoffs.
The Bobcats, who finished 12-2, finished one game shy of their first state championship game appearance since winning the Class 4A state title in 1990.
Buchholz defeated Nease (Ponte Vedra) in the region final to advance to the state semifinals for the first time since 1995.
“Obviously special,” said Buchholz head coach Mark Whittemore. “The senior class was incredible. We had a couple of first-year players to the program, came over from Gainesville High, phenomenal. Just to name a few, Jahari Clemons in the middle, Nay’ron Jenkins on the outside, Junior back there at safety, unbelievable players, and all of them are going to play on Saturdays.”
The season came to an end with a loss at nationally ranked St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale) in the Class 7A state semifinals.
“That was a really fun team,” said quarterback Creed Whittemore. “That last game, it hurt, we were all disappointed because we knew if we beat St. Thomas we had a really good shot against Tampa Bay Tech. It hurt, but I think coming back we’ve got talented players, so I think we’ll be back right where we are, hopefully in December and we’ll be going up against a team like Lakeland or Venice and we’ll be on that same bus and this time we’ll come out on top.”
With University of Florida commits Whittemore and defensive end/tight end Gavin Hill (6-foot-6, 240 pounds), 6-4, 245-pound defensive lineman Kendall Jackson (Florida offer), and wide receiver Jaren Hamilton (Alabama offer), a transfer from P.K. Yonge, the Bobcats have reloaded for another run.
Other key players, like senior wide receiver/outside linebacker Jacarree Kelly, senior wide receiver/free safety Donnie Hiebert (47 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 5 interceptions), junior running back Quinton Cutler, junior Thomas Weinhardt (DE/OLB), senior tackle/guard Bryan Rosenberg (6-3, 260), and senior tackle/center Taylor McGriff (6-4, 275) give the Bobcats plenty of reason for optimism in 2022.
“It didn’t take us long to reboot in the offseason,” said the elder Whittemore, whose son is the starting quarterback. “I told the kids we have to remain stable. We can’t get out of our lane. With the addition of Hamilton, we need to just stay steady, but I’m excited about the possibilities.”
In Creed, the Bobcats have a veteran QB with plenty of postseason experience. He completed 112-of-191 passes for 2,043 yards with 24 touchdowns and only six interceptions in 2021. He was only sacked twice all season.
The dual-threat QB had 107 carries for 755 yards (7.06 yards per carry) with nine scores.
Mark said his son continues to get better every year heading into his senior year.
“I think his willingness to stand and deliver,” he explained. “Coming in as a sophomore, he’s an athlete so we tried to keep it as simplistic as possible but then morphing that into a little bit more of a system-based as a junior. And now, even more, requiring him to be a little bit more of a decision maker, not that you’re not as a quarterback previously but allowing him to be even more this year, the driver of things a little bit more than maybe necessarily from the sideline.”
The rising senior added that most of his improvement has been in the mental aspect of the game.
“And having better relationships with my guys,” Creed said. “We had a great time last year, but we lost those guys so now you have to build new relationships with your younger guys. When you get into a tight situation you have that trust, this guy’s going to be there and I’m going to throw it and if he’s not there we lose the game. So, you’ve got to have that trust to be able to just put the ball out there and I think we have that right now.”
He’s got help in the backfield in Cutler, who carried the ball 37 times for 341 yards (9.2 yards per carry) last year with three touchdowns along with seven receptions for 105 yards.
Creed will have plenty of weapons in the passing game led by Kelly and Hamilton.
“Kelly’s a really quick, fast guy, and Jaren’s the taller and deep-ball guy, so I think they complement each other really well,” he said. “I think they’re both great teammates so it’s easier when they like each other.”
Kelly was second on the team last year with 33 catches for 476 yards and seven touchdowns.
“I think he’s one of the most underrated players in the state,” Creed said. “He had four touchdowns in the spring game in one half this year. Just because of his height people kind of steer clear of him but I think he runs a 10.8 (second 100 meters).”
He said he’s run next to him in many races and Kelly’s really fast.
“He’s very explosive,” Creed said. “He catches the ball, it’s just so natural when he catches it. You can put it almost anywhere. He’s got great range, so I think having him, a lot of people won’t double team him just because of his height and he’ll run right past them, so it’s a good asset to have.”
Hamilton will help fill the void due to the graduation of UCF signee Quan Lee, the all-time leading wide receiver in Alachua County history.
“It’s not rocket science, everybody knows that Quan Lee was a huge part of our success, but we’ve got five or six receivers right now that are legit pieces of that receiving puzzle as we look to try and replicate last year’s offensive production,” Mark said. “It might look a little different, but we hope the outcome is the same.”
Despite the loss of Lee, the Bobcats shouldn’t miss a beat with the addition of Hamilton.
“Getting him is big,” Creed said. “Obviously, he’s a great player. Coach Saban doesn’t just offer somebody just out of nowhere. He’s very talented.”
Mark said the pair have developed chemistry.
“Jaren and Creed have already jelled together,” he said. “If you have a like goal and you are a humble person you’re going to be able to be inclusive. Yes, we’ve got some talent but none of it is so proud that they can’t appreciate the team. That’s what’s special.”
Last year Buchholz scored 28 or more points in 11 of 13 games. They have the talent to duplicate that success this year.
“I see something that nobody else sees,” said Kelly, who has offers from Army, Navy, and Delaware. “I see a lot of points getting scored. We’ve got a good running back (Cutler). We’ve got good receivers on the outside, speedy receivers. I feel like we can really put up a lot of points on defenses that underestimate us.”
Kelly, who had a punt return for a touchdown against Gainesville High, is also explosive in the return game.
“I feel like I’ve got really good vision and the patience to see a hole,” he said. “When I see it, I hit it. Having Quan back there helped because they feared both of us. Having good special teams and a return game definitely impacts the game and I feel like having Jaren back there now, I feel like it’s nothing different. We’re both speed demons back there that can get the job done.”
Defensively, Hill will be one of the leaders.
“He’s got confidence but he’s not so prideful that he doesn’t care about the main objective which is a team championship,” Mark said.
Last year Hill finished with four sacks and 10 tackles for a loss.
“Really, really aggressive, steady, and always self-evaluating to be a better player,” Whittemore added about his defensive lineman. “That’s what makes him special. He’s gotten better and better. His skill set has remained pretty much the same but he has increased his ability as a player just by self-evaluation.”
Buchholz will compete in the new suburban classification (4S-Region 1). They will be in District 3 with Bartram Trail (St. Johns), Creekside (St. Johns), Fleming Island, and Oakleaf (Orange Park).
Mark likes their new classification.
“Our district is the same as it used to be so nothing has really changed for us with the exception of taking out some of those urban juggernauts that have kind of had their way,” he said. “But our path, Venice, Bartram Trail, the Lakeland schools, you’ve got your Tallahassee schools still, so it’s not just paved with gold. It’s going to be a relentless deal.”
Mark said in order for the Bobcats to be successful they have to remain stable.
“Obviously the ball has to bounce our way as in any season,” he explained. “We need to play our brand of football. If we slip into the Twittersphere and lose our way, well that’s I think a really big kind of disease that’s out there that can attach itself to us if we don’t look out.”
The Bobcats, who travel to Trinity Catholic (Ocala) for a preseason game tonight at 7 p.m. and will open the regular season at home on Thursday, Aug. 25, at Citizens Field against Columbia (Lake City).