Some could say Dr. Phillips is in a rebuilding year. But that doesn’t lower the perennial powerhouse’s lofty expectations for the season.
Dr. Phillips High School’s football program has had a history of continued success since it made its debut in 1987. Notable players such as Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, Matt Milano and Marcell Harris went on to play in the NFL after wearing the Panthers uniform.
Coming into the 2021 season, the Panthers have compiled a record of 102-25, an 80% winning percentage, under head coach Rodney Wells since 2012 and added a Class 8A state championship in 2017, along with numerous other championship game appearances.
But with only two defensive starters returning and several new players on offense, the Panthers inevitably were going to go through some growing pains early in the 2021 season as players got acclimated to their new roles and the speed of varsity football.
Those pains were evident in the Panthers’ losses to Lake Minneola in the Preseason Kickoff Classic and Jones in week one at Camping World Stadium. Some costly turnovers on special teams played a part in the Panthers’ 48-13 loss.
“We’re not where we’re going to be, we’re not where we want to be yet, but that’s not where we’re going to be at the end of the season,” Wells said.
This kind of situation is not new to Wells and the rest of the coaching staff. In 2018, the year after it won the state championship, the team started out 1-4 and was already written off by that point. That team then went on to win four of its next five games to get into the playoffs. It won two playoff games before falling to Riverview Sarasota in the third round.
Although the Panthers are not quite at that stage, Wells said what defined that team is what he hopes this team can do, as well.
“Those guys kept with it, stayed with the fundamentals, they didn’t believe the outside noise,” Wells said. “They kept chopping wood, like we say, and they became a really good team. You just don’t know what happens.”
Panthers quarterback Curtis Argroves is one of the new starters on offense this season. While other guys are adjusting to being starters after sitting on the bench for a year or two, Argroves transferred from Lyman to DP for his senior season. Adjusting to new teammates and new coaches has been a challenge — but one he welcomes because of the quality of the program.
“The atmosphere is good, the coaches push us, and as players, we’re like a family,” Argroves said.
Argroves splits playing time at quarterback with Jair Murphy, who both present a dual threat to opposing defenses. Argroves says the situational changing hasn’t disrupted the team chemistry so far on offense.
“We have different play styles,” he said. “When we need one thing, I go in. And when we need another thing, he goes in. So it doesn’t really affect everybody else.”
Through the first two weeks, Argroves said the slow start has only fueled the team’s motivation to get better.
“It pushes us to work harder and want it more,” he said. “We keep getting better, and eventually, it’s going to click for us.”
Senior Jayden Taylor is one of the few returning starters on the team. As an athlete, he’s put in whenever he’s called upon, whether it be on offense, defense or special teams. Because of that, he spends time with the players in all three phases. He believes it’s all a matter of getting on the same page.
“The last two weeks — we haven’t been on the same page defensively and offensively,” Taylor said. “But as practice goes on, we’re getting better and better.”
To go along with performing better in practice, Taylor is starting to see the team coming together on a more personal level. He also feels the urgency already to start turning things around as the Panthers head into their game with Apopka this week.
“We’ve got to get the ship going … for the rest of the season because our schedule is one of the hardest schedules in Central Florida,” Taylor said. “We can’t just get right for Apopka. … We’ve got to get right for everybody.”
Going from being just another cog in the greater machine to, all of a sudden, being a team leader is an adjustment for any player on any team. Taylor has embraced his role as a leader and is proud of how the new starters are progressing.
“They adapt very fast, and once they do, it’s like you’ve been playing with them forever,” Taylor said.
During their game against Timber Creek last Friday, the Panthers dominated both sides of the ball in a 33-7 win over the Wolves. The offense ran the ball seemingly at will, with three of their touchdowns coming on the ground.
As the team gets ready to play Apopka Friday Sept. 10, Wells has emphasized that improvement from week-to-week will be the key going forward for the rest of the season.
“We’re looking to improve on some areas every week,” Wells said. “Sometimes as coaches, you give the kids something that an experienced group usually has — we give them a big playbook and lots of responsibility — but they haven’t mastered it yet.”