LARGO — Jayion McCluster has plenty to look forward to in the coming years.
The soon-to-be Largo senior is one of the most highly rated inside linebackers in the entire country and announced his commitment to continue his football and academic careers at Florida State University on May 1.
The future is bright, indeed. But the future is just that for McCluster. It can wait. He’ll be donning the garnet and gold soon enough.
Right now, it’s still all about the blue and gold.
“I’m just glad recruiting is out of the way,” said McCluster, who is the cousin of Largo graduate and seven-year NFL receiver Dexter McCluster. “Now I just focus on my team, summer workouts, just really putting myself into the team.”
There’s no getting ahead of himself for Largo’s 6-foot-2, 200-pound leading tackler, and that’s one of the many things there is to like, sixth-year coach Marcus Paschal said after the Packers’ 28-6 spring game loss to Jesuit on May 17.
Watching him on the field during the annual exhibition, there was McCluster, sliding linemen into different gap assignments or waving fellow linebackers to their proper pre-snap locations.
“That’s him. That’s what I expect from him, and it’s hard,” Paschal said. “The caliber of player he is and on top of that he’s lining people up. It takes him out of his game instead of being able to focus and do his job.”
For McCluster, it comes with the territory. Upperclassmen helped him and now it’s his turn.
“I know what’s going on, but like I said, we have young guys playing both ways,” he said. “People get tired and forget their assignments sometimes. It’s just trying to control this team, control this defense, put everyone in the best position to make a play.”
If Largo wants to go far when fall rolls around, that’s the type of commitment Paschal needs from his leaders, and McCluster is all in. Largo won its third straight district championship last year and went 7-4 before bowing out in the first round of the Class 6A playoffs against North Fort Myers, 24-17. The Packers went 8-3 and reached the postseason’s second round during McCluster’s sophomore year. The college decision is in the rear-view mirror. Surpassing that level of team achievement is the goal.
“It’s not necessarily me I want to improve, it’s more like me putting myself into this team,” McCluster said. “I want to take this team far. Me and Coach Paschal, we’ve been at it since my freshman year. We’ve accomplished a lot but this last season we’re trying to go out with a bang.”
The team-focused linebacker and running back certainly won’t be alone Friday nights. Despite losing their fair share of production from graduation or transfers, the Packers have a solid contingent of high-end talent all over the field.
Among the other Division I-offered prospects playing on both sides of the ball are receivers Quavon Matthews and Khaishef Edwards. Having a couple of targets like that will help Paschal work his new quarterback into the offense, rising senior Keylen Gulley, younger brother of last year’s starting quarterback Keon Gulley.
“I don’t think he ever played quarterback in a game because he was always playing with his brother and playing other positions,” Paschal said after the spring game. “This is his first opportunity. He was a little all over the place, had a lot of jitters, but he’s a good player and dynamic player in his own right. I look forward to getting to the film and he’ll be able to see what’s going on and process it a lot better in the fall.”
Despite being without last year’s second- and third-leading tacklers, Paschal believes his McCluster-led defense is ready to lead the team in 2019.
“We’ve got a lot of players on defense; I think that’ll be our strength,” said Paschal, who played at the University of Iowa after graduating from Largo in 2003. “But I think our offense is going to be just as potent. You get a guy back in the fall like Quavon Matthews who’s probably one of the top receivers in the Tampa Bay area. He didn’t play tonight, a couple other guys too. We will be A-OK come fall camp.”
Providing additional help preparing next year’s roster for the adversity of a 10-game regular season and — hopefully — beyond is a challenging non-district schedule. As well as playing their preseason Fall Classic against Lake Wales, the Packers play Braden River, Pinellas Park, Palmetto and Wiregrass Ranch.
“We could’ve easily played a local team and beat up on them,” McCluster said of his coach setting up Jesuit for the spring game, “but he went and got a top-notch talent and we got to see what these guys are made of.”
“If you look back at my first five years here, I’m the type of coach who’s going to play the best,” Paschal said. “Last year for the Fall Classic we went to Orlando Jones.
“That’s what’s going to get you to be a better football team and a better program. I look forward to it.”