As third year starters, Fort Meade quarterback Jay Smith and wide receiver Tobias Culpepper are hardly strangers to Miner football opponents.
Despite that, the duo which has the chance to be one of Polk’s most prolific passing pairs, were on display early and often last Friday night as the Miners defeated Lake Region, 14-7, in the preseason Kickoff Classic.
The game lasted exactly two quarters and four plays in the third quarter before lightning called a halt to the night.
The combination connected from 16 yards out on the Miners first possession, capping a 65-yard, 11-play drive, kept alive after an interception was nullified on a roughing the passer penalty. The two made quicker work of the Thunder defense on Fort Meade’s second possession, hooking up on a 41-yarder as Culpepper, who was reasonably well-covered, was nonetheless hit in stride at the goal line by Smith.
That strike put the Miners on top 14-0, but the Thunder responded by holding the ball more than nine minutes, driving from their own 25 to score 16 plays after taking over, converting a four-and-goal from the two in the final half minute of the half.
Fort Meade only had three possessions in the half, scoring on its first two, and taking over with 31.7 seconds to go before the break and running out of time on the Thunder 41. Lake Region had three, the first two ending in punts before its long drive.
Fort Meade ran four plays after intermission, the last one a fumble which was recovered by Lake Region, before Mother Nature interceded.
Miner Coach Jemalle Cornelius said the success Smith and Culpepper enjoy is no accident.
“It’s non-stop for those two,” Cornelius said. “They worked at least three to four times a week together over the summer. Tobias has a lot of speed, and Jay has great arm strength, so it works out great. And they’re best of friends, which is what you would like, between your top receiver and your top quarterback.
Cornelius said the challenge may be in finding ways to make sure they can get Culpepper the ball, since defenses will certainly be keying on him.
“I’ve got to do a better job this year of putting Tobias in different spots,” Cornelius said. “I’ve always talked to him about adding more than just the deep ball, being able to catch the intermediate balls and becoming a complete receiver.”
The Miner offense is far from one-dimensional however. On the scoring drives, running back Ryan Fulse had five runs of five yards or better, and running back Tyler King ripped off gains of 10 and seven yards right before the long scoring pass.
There are other receiving threats as well.
“We also have Malik Mills and Malik Brown that can make plays,” Cornelius added. “If other teams make Tobias the focal point, we can get the ball to them as well.”
Despite allowing the long scoring drive, Cornelius was generally happy with the defensive effort too.
“Overall, I feel like we got a lot of questions answered on defense,” the coach said. “We played hard and ran to the ball, so that was nice to see that. We saw some good things on both sides of the ball.”
After Friday night’s season and home opener against Mulberry, the Miners will hit the road next week for a clash with southern rival Hardee before returning home Sept. 13 to host Avon Park.