School Spotlight: Escambia High School (Pensacola, FL)

Escambia High School located Pensacola, Florida is one of the most historic football programs in the Florida Panhandle producing a couple of state championships in 1984 and 1985 which so happened to be led by NFL’s all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith, who was a graduate at Escambia High School where he ran for over 8,000 yards and 106 touchdowns as a Parade All-American.

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The Dallas Cowboys legend was just one of many great football players to ever set foot in The Swamp, which is Escambia’s stadium as former Alabama and NFL running back Trent Richardson also suited up for the Gators back in his prep playing days.

Led by one of the biggest coaching legends in the Florida panhandle in Mike Bennett, the Gators have become a consistent contender in the state championship race. Since Bennett took the head coaching job back in 2016, the Gators have won 72% of their games with a 67-25 record including a couple of semifinal appearances and even a state runner-up finish in 2019.

This stop at Escambia is not the first rodeo for the former Coach of the Year as Bennett is entering his 39th year in coaching, which also includes a longtime run at nearby Pensacola High School where he led the Tigers to three region titles, five district championships, and a state championship in 2009.

“We got a lot of great players. We might not have as many as in the Miami area. They got a lot more kids, but we have put out some great players. In the 80’s and 90’s, this was the hotbed with Emmitt Smith there and Derrick Brooks there. I am telling you Pensacola is a great place to coach.”

Escambia High School (Pensacola, FL) Head Coach Mike Bennett

“The community is great. The school is unbelievable. We play in a great stadium. It’s a great place to coach at. A bunch of good coaches, a good administration, and there are a lot of talented kids here at Escambia.”

Escambia High School (Pensacola, FL) Head Coach Mike Bennett

Even with Coach Bennett’s years of experience and through all his success, he is also the first one to tell you that his success correlates to the people that he surrounds himself with as well as his ability to adjust and evolve as a coach.

“Find coaches that are smarter than you and don’t have that ego of we are going to do it my way and only my way. You got to let your coaches coach. If they do something you don’t like, then you need to bring them to the side and say, Coach, I don’t know why we are doing that. You got to let your coaches have input and you have the final say. You also got to discipline your players and you got to stand firm on them. You got to treat every player the same.”

“Also, if you keep your staff together, the better you are going to be. All of my coaches have been with me for over 20 years. They have either played for me, coached with me, or we have just been together for a long time. When we changed schools, everybody came with me. I can never do this by myself. This includes the coaches, players, trainers, etc. This is everybody. There is no time in the day to do it all by yourself. When you think you can do it by yourself, that is when you are going to be 0-10.”

Escambia High School (Pensacola, FL) Head Coach Mike Bennett

Coach Bennett is modest about his success, but his assistant coaches appreciate the businesslike approach and his ability to get his players in shape for the state of the season.

“He (Coach Bennett) is the best at conditioning kids and having them ready to play. The first three to four games of the season, we always win a lot of them just because we are better conditioned. That’s not easy to do, but it pays off the first couple of ball games. It really does.”

Escambia High School (Pensacola, FL) assistant coach Jim Nunnelee

Coach Bennett also said that having great players make good coaches great and he has been fortunate to send hundreds of players to the next level.

“On that 2019 team, we had Frank Peasant who was a running back on that team and signed with Middle Tennessee. He was a special player. Reggie Smith played at South Alabama and was a center for us. Aric Harris started for Maryland the last two years. Jacob Copeland just signed with Pittsburgh and of course, he went to Florida and Maryland. I’ve had some really good players here at Escambia. Damarious Randall actually didn’t want to play football at first and then, he decided to play. He led the nation in interceptions, went to junior college, and went to Arizona, and became a first-round draft pick with the Green Bay Packers. I have been fortunate to be around a lot of good players over the years wherever I’ve been. The coaches have worked really hard to get them in college and it’s tough now. It’s tougher to get them in college than it ever was.”

Escambia High School (Pensacola, FL) Head Coach Mike Bennett

Coach Bennett and his coaching staff continues to help their players and give them exposure. The best example of this was last December as he was the head coach of the West Team at the Gridiron Football All-American Bowl Game where he brought four of his top seniors last fall in quarterback Anthony Hall, linebacker Jaylin Harris, defensive back Tadarius Wright, and defensive lineman Ryan McVay to play one final game. Now, all four players have signed to play college athletics.

“Ant (Anthony Hall) is a really good baseball player and a really good outfielder and pitcher. He may play college baseball. Ryan is at Pearl River. TD (Tadarius Wright) went to West Alabama. We are excited about those guys and the next chapter of their life. It is also pretty close that we get to go see them play.”

Escambia High School (Pensacola, FL) Head Coach Mike Bennett

The Gators all had their say in the Gridiron Football All-American Bowl Game as Tadarius Wright had an interception and Ryan McVay forced a fumble. As the head coach of the West Team, Coach Bennett led the team to a 14-7 win over Team East.

“It was a great experience. I thought it was run extremely well. Our kids had a great time. The coaches had a great time. The athlete from Neville (John Michael Sampognaro) definitely knew how to run the option. He told us just give him the ball and he was going to score. He did. Whoever got him is going to get a winner.”

Escambia High School (Pensacola, FL) Head Coach Mike Bennett

Winning the bowl game played a part, but it was much more than the game that made the experience a memorable one for the Escambia crew.

“The bowl game went really well. I love the draft last year. I thought it was great for the kids. Andy and his staff does a great job promoting the kids and taking care of the kids while they are there. There is nothing bad that you can say about that All-Star game. That was one heck of a game. The game was fun and I will also tell you something. We talk about the seafood in Florida, but nobody has po-boys like y’all do in Louisiana.”

Escambia High School (Pensacola, FL) Head Coach Mike Bennett
Escambia High School Head Coach Mike Bennett with the Team West coaching staff at the Gridiron Football All-American Bowl Game (Photo taken by Jason Saucier)

Coach Bennett also got to enjoy the trip to the bowl game as he brought his assistants in his son Brett Bennett longtime friend Gary Cowart.

“Brett is the offensive coordinator and Gary is the defensive coordinator. It makes it a lot easier on me when they are calling the plays. Gary and I have been together for over 20 years. He knows what I want and I know what he is looking for. We talk often about our players and where we should move them. We always figure it out and Brett’s mind offensively is great. We have been near the top in the offensive rankings in the state both passing and rushing. Both are excellent football coaches. I thought I was going to lose Brett. He was offered a job and declined it. He came back and we are so excited that he is still with us.”

Escambia High School (Pensacola, FL) Head Coach Mike Bennett

After another spring in the books, the Escambia Gators will once again have another talented team that is looking to build on an 8-4 campaign from the year before.

Here are some players that Gator fans and Florida high school football fans should keep an eye on.


Replacing a productive quarterback in Anthony Hall, who threw for close to 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns last fall, is going to be a challenge, but Mason Moore, Clayton Sanders, Kyron Perry, and Nino Freeman, who is a very talented quarterback with a lot of upside at 6’5, 180 pounds coming in as a transfer.

The coaches love Mason Moore, who is a jack of all trades as he can do it all. He can play quarterback, tight end, H-Back, and is also the team’s punter. If it is not at quarterback, it is clear that there is going to be a role on the team for the versatile senior.

Running Back:

With a lot of questions about the passing game, the Gators will rely on the strength of their team, which is the offensive line that returns all of their starters and their bell cow running back in Dorrion White, who at 6’0, 205 pounds, is fresh off a 1,000 yard season rushing for 1,233 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Wide Receivers:

Diego Dukes is the only returning starter at wide receiver after he had 40 catches for 538 yards last fall, but Coach Bennett likes the young players in that room including Daniel McDaniel, James Simpson, and Lamarcus Legree. The Gators will also utilize the talents of Squirrel, which is their four star safety that you will read about later.

The coaches are also really high on Javontae Gray, who is only a sophomore, but at 6’3, 170 pounds with big hands, can be a big playmaker in this offense.

Defensive Line:

On the defensive line, the Gators will have to replace Ryan McVay, but there are some young talent that the coaching staff likes including Justus Payne, who is only a freshman, but has a lot of potential. At 6’3, 310 pounds with good speed for his size, he has the potential to be the next great defender for the Gators. De’Shaunte Gaston returns back to the team and with a new change of position as he is making the change from offensive line to defensive line. After losing weight and gaining speed, the coaches like the move of putting him on defense.

At defensive end, Andrion Battle returns after he had 45 tackles and four sacks a season ago. He will be joined by Antonio Boston and Zechariah Ransom.


The Gators only return one starting linebacker and that is Jakye Hopkins, who Coach Bennett has raved about after having a great spring and is position to have a strong senior season. He is coming off a junior campaign in which he had 33 tackles, an interception, and two sacks.


Despite losing Ta’Darius Wright, the Gators’ secondary is the strength of this defense. It helps having one of the best players in the state of Florida in 2025 four star safety Ladarian Clardy, who has received 42 Division I offers. He is coming off a spectacular junior season in which he had 57 tackles, four interceptions, eight passes defended, and six touchdowns. The coveted Gators defensive back recruit will be entering his fourth year as a starter.

At cornerback, Taiylor Bradsher also joins Clardy in the secondary as a returning starter after he had 45 tackles and two interceptions last fall. Finally, Maximus Cauthen and Carmelos Colley are two seniors that the coaching staff trust in the backend.

Special Teams:

Morgan Stancliff shows that she can hang with the guys as she nailed all six of her extra points last season against Niceville. She is pretty much automatic when it comes to hitting her extra points.

The Gators also have a four star long snapper in Wyatt Reed, who is one of the best long snappers in the country.