Earnest Graham knows there’s two ways of looking at his North Fort Myers football season.
There’s the glass half-empty version, where the Red Knights head coach laments the fact that he’s been without key players for much of the season and his team is winless in District 6A-10.
Or there’s the glass half-full outlook, where Graham looks at the numbers and makes a point where North Fort Myers could easily be 5-1 right now – they’ve lost three games by less than seven points.
Ultimately, Graham will have to be somewhere in the middle when the Red Knights (2-4, 0-2) face undefeated Charlotte, the No. 7 team in 6A, on Friday at Moody Stadium in a must-win game.
“If we put it all together, we can beat anybody,” said Graham, whose team last year won three out of its last four games to finish 5-5. “I truly believe that.”
Friday will be a tough road. Charlotte (6-0, 2-0) is one of the best teams in the state and could be the school’s best since 2010, when the team won 13 games.
The Tarpons are dominating on both sides of the ball, balanced in a way few teams are. On defense, they give up on average just five points per game, while on offense they have yet to score less than 40 in a game.
“We have great team speed and we have the ability to beat anyone on any given Friday night,” Charlotte head coach Binky Waldrop said.
The Red Knights, whose secondary was helped with the addition of Freddie Johnson from suspension two weeks ago against Port Charlotte, will need to keep an eye on quarterback Brennan Simms, who’s passed for nearly 1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns on just one interception.
“He’s made good decisions for us. He’s a real smart kid,” said Waldrop, who added that Simms scored a 33 on his ACT. “He puts us in good situations offensively.”
There’s also running backs Elijah Mack (680 yards, 9 TDs) and Maleek Williams (283 yards, 7 TDs) and receiver Stantley Thomas (530 yards, 4 TDs) to be aware of, too.
But the Red Knights, after falling to Port Charlotte 33-27 on a late touchdown on Oct. 2, are at full strength following the lifting of that six-week suspension from the skirmish that upended the team’s preseason game against South Fort Myers.
That simply adds to the storyline of a team that many expected to compete for a District 6A-10 title to begin the season.
Junior running back Zaquandre White, a Florida State commit who caught two passes for 55 yards and found the end zone twice last week, enhances a backfield that has found success with Lucious Stanley and Luis Alonso.
And there’s also quarterback J’Ravien Anderson, who passed for 257 yards with three touchdowns on just one interception in the loss to the Pirates. He gives the Red Knights, who also feature Jared Rusnack at quarterback, a presence in the pocket that can elude defenders outside the tackle box.
“Last game Ray Ray threw for 250 and had no sacks,” Graham said. “He was throwing well, and he kept us in positive situations. I stayed with him.”
But this game’s difference maker will be on defense. It has to be. No one has been able to limit the Tarpons’ offense yet.
“What’s important is that we execute,” Graham said. “When you play a team like Charlotte, they are literally a 40-point a game team. They execute, they finish drives and they’re very balanced. What we have to do is execute in all facets of the football game.”
While North Fort Myers has been able to move the ball and pick up first downs, the team has struggled converting on third downs and finishing off drives in the red zone, Graham said.
Losses to Fort Myers and Island Coast came late in the fourth quarter, sometimes on the teams’ last drives of the game.
“It comes down to being poised in big situations,” Graham said. “We have a lot of kids who haven’t played in big games.”
No game will be bigger for the Red Knights than this one. Graham is telling his team this is a must win.
And if North Fort Myers wants to remain in the district playoff race, they will have to do what no team has done yet: stop Charlotte.
“It’s exciting and it’s a challenge for us,” Graham said. “But this game will show us what we’re capable of. The kid are psyched to go out and play the football game.”