On the day he planned to quit football, Jamie LeBlanc — a wide receiver-turned-cornerback who weighed 115 pounds when he first stepped foot in the St. Amant weight room — ran drills that defensive coordinator Dwayne Thomassee instructed.
“I don’t know if this kid’s ever going to play for us,” Thomassee, who weighed LeBlanc in that first day, told head coach David Oliver after seeing the scale flash “115.”
LeBlanc planned to approach the Gators coaching staff after that 2013 practice with his intentions. But Thomassee noticed LeBlanc’s effort in drills, complimenting the tiny cornerback.
Outside linebacker Xavier Anderson had similar plans. A starter since seventh grade and an every-down player on St. Amant’s freshman team, Anderson fell behind more veteran players in his sophomore and junior seasosn, prompting Anderson to also ponder hanging it up.
It’s all part of Oliver’s formula.
“Prove yourselves on Tuesday nights as a freshman, Wednesday nights as a JV guy and the better you do on Wednesday nights, you start getting some special teams opportunities on Friday and hopefully you end up being a starter,” Oliver said. “We’ve lost some good football players that didn’t have the patience for it.”
Anderson stayed, he said, because he loved the game too much. LeBlanc, too, but he was mostly spurred, unbeknownst to Thomassee, by that compliment on the practice field in 2013.
Now upped to 145 pounds, LeBlanc rushed in to block a go-ahead field goal against Covington last week. Anderson sacked Covington quarterback Joshua Alfaro to stall a drive. Fellow senior and first-year starter Anthony Wilson added another sack of Alfaro on fourth down late in the game, sealing the Gators’ first playoff win since 2001.
Wilson’s succes is as much a result of Oliver’s formula as his two classmates, though he never thought of quitting. A nose tackle with dreams of playing in college, Wilson calls himself more tolerable than the defiant sophomore he once was.
“When I first came, I really didn’t care for what people told me. I knew I was good, but I was kind of cocky about it,” Wilson said.
“I got closer to my coaches, I started to listen more and I became that person a lot of people could rely on.”
Standing 5-foot-8 and being constantly underestimated, LeBlanc remembers what people told him earlier in his career — evident when he’s in coverage or lined up in the secondary.
“Like he has something to prove to everybody,” Thomassee said of watching LeBlanc play. “It’s fun to watch because he plays lights out. He does everything we ask him to do. (LeBlanc blocking the field goal against Covington) wasn’t surprising because he does that every single day in practice.”
Oliver starts six seniors on defense and pegs each as leaders in specific ways.
Neither Wilson, Anderson nor LeBlanc are particularly vocal. Instead, they’ve gleaned bits from previous upperclassmen and lead by example, training the newest group of Gators to take their places next season.
It’s Oliver’s formula at work.
“It’s very rewarding, and it’s not uncommon for these guys to question themselves a little bit,” Oliver said. “Competition gets stiff and people get discouraged. So the people that hang around and continue to work, it’s gratifying for them and us to see them turn out to have success like these guys have.”
“Our program’s built on guys like Anthony, Xavier and Jamie. Guys that stick around and work their butts off and become valuable starters as seniors.”