Michael Punzalan came from a football team in rural Tennessee where he did everything.
When his family moved to Franklin, anxiety and stress set in about fighting for a spot on a well-established Franklin-Simpson team.
Turns out good football players are needed anywhere.
In his first and only season as a Wildcat, Punzalan has been the welcome surprise to a Franklin-Simpson defense that entered the season with questions and positions to fill.
“Crucial,” Franklin-Simpson coach Doug Preston said. “I think we have kids who could’ve played the position and been solid, but Michael is not just a solid player, he’s an exceptional player. He’s made a big difference on our defense for sure.”
Punzalan leads the team with 148 tackles through 14 games. He’s led the team in tackles in three straight playoff games – 13 against Taylor County last week and 19 against Madisonville-North Hopkins in the regional final.
Punzalan and junior linebacker Connor Rogers were the answer to a big question after Franklin-Simpson won a Class 4A title in 2017.
How do you replace seven players on a defense that helped win state? Especially when two of those defenders, James Baker and Cade Harvey, were two of the best linebackers to come out of Franklin.
Punzalan and Rogers have stepped into that role well. Rogers is right there with the senior at 131 tackles, and defensive end Collin Preston has 127 stops.
But it’s the 6-foot-2, 210-pound linebacker Punzalan that no one saw coming.
“He’s meant a lot,” Rogers said. “I knew a little bit about him just through Hudl and things and I’ve talked to him before he came here. I knew he was going to be a big help, but now I’m like, ‘Wow, he is a huge help.’ He’s a heck of a football player and an athlete.”
Punzalan’s family moved from Jackson County, Tenn., so his father could be closer to work in Hendersonville and Gallatin. In addition to being drawn toward the school system in Franklin, the Punzalans were motivated by the Wildcats’ football program.
Punzalan played for 2A Jackson County High School and was an all-state linebacker with 124 tackles his junior season and also led the team in receptions. Punzalan said about 30 players were on the team and maybe 13 played regularly. Jackson County never advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs in his three seasons.
That’s why Franklin-Simpson was exciting, but it also came with its challenge. A championship program opened Punzalan’s eyes to work ethic and dedication he hadn’t previously been a part of.
“Everyone is wanting to get after it and wanting to get better,” Punzalan said. “Back in Jackson, there were a select few players and everyone else was there to be there. We didn’t have anybody running a 4.5 to 4.6 speed. It was mostly hillbillies out there hitting people. It was a good experience, but definitely a step up coming here.”
Lucky for Punzalan, Franklin-Simpson needed linebackers.
The Wildcats were replacing seven starters on defense that included Harvey and Baker, both of whom recorded over 100 tackles last season. Punzalan moved to Franklin in June and fit right into what the Wildcats needed.
“It’s a great feeling because that’s one thing I was worried about with moving here was having to fight for my spot and one thing they needed when I moved here was linebackers, so I’m glad I could fit that role,” Punzalan said.
Punzalan said the coaching has been his biggest takeaway and it’s helped his development into a better player. Punzalan and Rogers are the two primary linebackers on a defense allowing 12.4 points per game.
“One thing that’s really helped me is coach Preston has taught me a lot about linebacker,” Punzalan said. “Just little things like not taking false steps, getting your keys and reading offense, guards pulling and things like that. A lot of thanks to coach Preston for teaching me.”
Collin Preston was part of the three-man wrecking crew on last year’s defense with Baker and Harvey. He’s joined Rogers and Punzalan in another 100-tackle season before the team’s third straight 4A title game showdown with Johnson Central on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. CST at Kroger Field in Lexington.
The defensive end said Punzalan’s addition is exactly what Franklin-Simpson needed to post another strong defense.
“He didn’t come from the most winning program and I think that made him a standout as a hard worker and a really diligent guy,” Preston said. “He’s solidified his spot as one of the hardest working guys on our team, too. That makes all the difference replacing last year’s stats and getting us on this run here.”