Durant High School Cougars team photo.

The Durant Cougars look to build off of last year’s eight-win season, in which the team made their first playoff appearance since 2017-18. Second-year head coach Clayton Varnum and company want to prove that last season wasn’t a fluke and that the Cougars are ready to take the next step and make a playoff run.

Varnum has been a Durant lifer since he can remember. The former Cougars’ linebacker attended Durant games when he was just an 8-year-old kid and has coached football with the program since he graduated from the school in 2011. He took over as the head man last February when 18-year head coach Mike Gottman left to take over the East Bay High School football program. In his first season, his team came up a couple games short of winning the district title.

The Cougars have three sophomore quarterbacks competing for the starting position this fall. Newsome transfer Michael Ryan will get the nod at QB to start the season, replacing two-year starter Marcus Miguele, who graduated. With Hunter Smith and Xavier Irizarry on his heels, Ryan will have to step up with his arm and legs to keep those two at bay. Varnum said that Ryan is more of a traditional pocket passer, is very accurate, does a good job at keeping his eyes down field when he scrambles outside of the pocket and has a keen sense of how to play at game speed.

Durant will primarily rely on the running game in a shotgun-base, four-wide formation under second-year offensive coordinator Jackson Barwick, who was teammates with Varnum at Durant from 2008-11. They hope to be balanced in the run and pass this year, taking what the defense gives them. The Cougars will be more explosive in the passing game with the majority of their skill players returning — five total starters will be coming back. The two running backs that had over 700 rushing yards apiece, junior Alex Daley and senior Calub Connell, will pack a punch. Tackle Ajai Brown is garnering a lot of interest from D-1 schools and will anchor the O-line.

Defensive coordinator Frank Lane will continue to run a 3-4 defense, with five returning starters. They return their whole secondary, which will give them flexibility when it comes to switching coverages on the fly. The defensive line will be stout with three seniors starting and two more behind them. Senior linebacker Jacob Reed is the leader on the defense. Defensive ends Greg Smith and Ty Merkle will be disruptive on the edges. Defensive back Xavier Peavy will help lead the secondary. Defensive back/receiver junior Jayden Forte will be a difference maker in the special teams game returning kickoffs and punts.

Varnum hopes that his team can make the next step and persevere in key situations. Last year, the team came up a little bit short against big teams such as Newsome and Plant by small margins. If the Cougars want to win their district in 2022, they will have to take care of crosstown rival Newsome and an up-and-coming Sumner team. The Cougars were undefeated at home last season, and they will square off against the Wolves at home in mid-October. Varnum is the grandson of Newsome High School founder Joe E. Newsome, which adds flair to the rivalry. The team has a tough schedule but can easily win eight games again.

“In big moments last year, we kind of faltered,” said Varnum. “I want to see our guys this year, when the big moment comes, not flinch — stand in there and make the plays that we have to make because the opportunities were there, we just have to do it.”

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Nick Nahas
Nick Nahas has written for the Osprey Observer since 2016. He has lived in the Valrico area since 2002 and has his bachelor’s degree in mass communications from the University of South Florida. He is dedicated to covering sports in Hillsborough County at every level.