The majority of the Pre-Season Top 10 teams in the Amateur to Professional Developmental Football League are established teams that have been around for several seasons, but the Gulf Coast Gators managed to crack the Top 10 in just their inaugural season.
However, at their core, the Gators are not entirely a first-year team.
Owner Phil Carver was the head coach of the Okaloosa Strykers last year and the offensive coordinator of the Northwest Florida Nightmare prior to that. When the Strykers owner decided to retire that brand, the lot fell to Carver to provide his players with a place to play.
“This is a combination of those two teams,” Carver told Developmental Football USA. “We are a really diverse group. One of the main reasons I chose Gulf Coast as our name is because I’ve got guys from Pensacola all the way to Panama City that play on this team. We are a really diverse group, so combining the talent from those two former teams is really big and we feel really good about where we are there.”
Offensively, several solid running backs will give the Gators plenty of gadgets to work the field with.
“We’re really deep at running back, we go three or four deep,” Carver said. “I expect those guys, led by Tray Williams, who is our speed back and receiving threat out of the backfield, to have a very good season. Trey and Jamarius Green, who has been my leading rusher ever since I’ve coached at this level.”
Carver has yet to name a starting quarterback and noted that competition could continue all the way up until Week 1 kickoff. Whoever gets his number called will have several options to work with and the pieces in place to thrive at quarterback.
“Two-time Defensive Player of the Year Labarron Mallory also plays some wide receiver for me,” Carver said. “At 6-foot-4, he can take the top of the defense. I have him, Franklin Harvey and Jordan Ewing at wide receiver.
“Quan Johnson plays a Percy Harvin role in my offense at the H. He does some rushing and receiving. We can create some mismatches with him and lean on his production.”
While the Gulf Coast offense is in no way lacking, it’s the defense that has the Gators pegged as a Top 10 team.
“We’re going to hang our hat on our defense,” Carver said. “I feel like our defense is one of the best in the league. We absolutely love our front four.”
Look no further than West Georgia product Dalvon Stuckey, who leads what could be the fiercest defensive line in the league.
“His motor and his technique, you put the film on and you love what you see,” Carver said. “We have depth inside with T.J. Boyet and Sam Williams in there. Our ends are probably one of the best bookends in the league in Rondrick Ragsdale and Shaquille Campbell.”
Should a play get past those groups, the Gators have more playmakers positioned all over the field to shut it down at the next level.
“The plug in the middle is Isaac Warren,” Carver said. “The last time we were in the APDFL, Isaac had 129 tackles. He’s a tackling machine, reads the offense real well. Having that front four in front of him will be big for us this season.
“I feel like we have the best cornerback in the league in Dee Garrett. Teams just don’t go his way, they learn to stay away from him. At safety, we have two-time Defensive Player of the Year Labarron Mallory and a couple of new former D-I players, like strong safety Jacob Onyechi. We’re really excited about our defense, that’s what we’ll hang our hat on. If you love a dominating defense, I feel like that’s what we’re going to give the fans.”
With more than a half dozen options geographically as to which league the Gators would join, it was more than familiarity that led them to the APDFL.
“The APDFL is widely regarded as the best league, especially in this area,” Carver said. “When I explain it to people, I tell them it’s the SEC of this level of football. That’s the way we view it. When we were the NWF Nightmare, we competed in the APDFL, then the Okaloosa Strykers competed in the APDFL for their first three years. When the decision came to me, it was easy to go to the APDFL.”
While the Gators will look to prove to everyone that their No. 10 ranking isn’t inflated, there is one other team new to the APDFL they are especially looking forward to facing.
“The old coaching cliche, we just want to take it one game at a time, but there is one game where our former owner Eric Solgard with the Atlanta Venom comes back to visit us May 5,” Carver said. “All the former players and myself, we still talk to him and we have a great relationship, so I think that will be a fun ball game.”
The Venom and Gators both expect to contend for it all this season, but Carver knows the week-to-week gauntlet that is the APDFL and the other elite organizations that will have something to say about it.
“Obviously the Mississippi Dynasty is one,” Carver said. “The last time we faced the Dynasty, two years ago in the playoffs, we beat them 10-6. Dee Garrett, our corner, knocked the ball down in the end zone as time expired to seal the game.
“I have a lot of respect for everything about that organization and the way they do things. The Louisiana Lightning is always a fun trip when we go out there to play those guys. There are so many good teams when you look at the league roster. The Augusta Ducks have the pedigree when we look at them, we say, ‘Wow we’d love the chance to play those guys.’ Mr. Hunt has done a fabulous job of stacking the teams in this league. Who knows? There are so many contenders.”