TAMPA — Hillsborough County has produced
some of the top college football players in the country during the
From athletes like former Plant High quarterback Aaron Murray,
now a Heisman Trophy candidate at Georgia, to ex-Chamberlain High
defensive lineman Brodrick Bunkley, an All-American at Florida
State who was the 14th overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft, the
county is one of college football's top suppliers.
“Tampa seems to produce a tremendous number of top
offensive linemen that can make an immediate impact,” said
Steve Berrey, publisher of FlaVarsity.com, the state's premier high
football recruiting site. “Plant has been known as
Quarterback U and Armwood for defense and incredible
On National Signing Day this past February, roughly 90 seniors
from the county signed letters of intent to play for Division I
programs like the University of Florida, South Florida, Southern
California, Iowa State, Memphis, Villanova and Georgia, down to a
small NAIA school in Kansas and junior colleges. Dozens more signed
as the school year continued into the summer, brining the total to
more than 120.
The number of football signees has not only become common, but
expected as well.
“You have so many good players in this area,” said
first-year USF football coach Willie Taggart, who played high
school football in Manatee County. “It's only right to
recruit this area hard because you can fill a team in your own
backyard. They can represent their hometown. It's pretty cool to
do. Lot of kids want to do that. It's a great idea to have a
college football team in Tampa. Whoever thought of that was pretty
smart. Now it's on us to make sure we take advantage of
This year's senior recruiting class features an All-American
offensive lineman committed to two-time defending national champion
Alabama, a linebacker headed to the University of Texas, and a
four-star safety committed to Vanderbilt, as well as a slew of
athletes headed to USF.
FlaVarsity.com, powered by national recruiting site Rivals.com,
a partner of Yahoo! Sports, recently released a top 10 list of the
all-time five-star high school football recruits in the state of
Florida since 2002. Tim Tebow, who won a state title his senior
year at Ponte Vedra Nease High before graduating in 2006 as the
top-rated quarterback in Florida and second overall in the nation
behind Matthew Stafford, did not make the cut.
2013 Wharton High graduate and defensive back Vernon Hargreaves
III, now a freshman at Florida, was No.2. Andre Caldwell, a 2003
Jefferson graduate who went on to win a national championship at
Florida, was No. 4. Caldwell is now a receiver for the Denver
During the past two years, the top-rated player in Florida has
come from Hillsborough County, with Hargreaves taking the title in
2013 and Berkeley Prep's Nelson Agholor, now a receiver at Southern
California, owning the position in 2012.
“That speaks volumes,” Berrey said.
The eighth-largest school district in the nation and
third-largest in the Florida, college coaches flock to the Tampa
area to recruit from an abundant pool of diverse of talent.
“You've got to work hard because everybody else is trying
to get them, too,” Taggart said. “You've got to work
really hard and show them why, understand why they should be here
and help you win ballgames here. A lot of that has to do with
Bethel College, a NAIA program in Kansas, will have 20 incoming
freshmen from Florida, five from Hillsborough County, on its 2013
“If you're not recruiting in Florida, you don't know
recruiting,” said first-year Bethel coach Marty Mathis.
Mathis, who also recruited the county as an assistant at Marian
University, which won the 2012 NAIA national championship, said
Hillsborough County prospects rank among the nation's best.
“It's one of the top 10, top five in the country,”
he said. “There are so many kids that want to play ball and
get that college degree.”
Berrey said it's the county's winning culture that spawns
talented players and attracts college coaches. Until last year, at
least one team from the county had played in a state championship
football game since 2001.
“That's how dynasties are created,” Berrey said.
Ricky Sailor, a former Leto High running back and assistant
coach at Jefferson, created Unsigned Preps in 2011 in an effort to
add exposure to undiscovered prospects. Each year, Sailor takes 40
to 45 high school players on a college bus tour to schools
throughout the Southeast where they participate in football camps.
The tour has added to the county's reputation as a football
This past year, Sailor's organization helped 70 seniors land
“We all have contacts,” Sailor said. “Our high
school coaches reach out to these college coaches and tell them
“we have guys you need to see.'”
“Nowadays, you have so much access to colleges and other
teams,” Taggart said. “(There's) a lot more information
out there for high school coaches to help them. You look at high
school games now, I think Plant is playing on TV. You've got to be
kidding me? National TV? It's a lot bigger than it was.”
For the past nine years, the Tampa Bay Sports Commission has
funded the National Football Foundation's Small College Recruiting
Fair, held just a few weeks after National Signing Day. This past
February at Jefferson High, 45 college coaches from across the U.S.
representing NCAA Division II and III programs, along with along
with schools from the NAIA to meet with 295 unsigned seniors. In
some instances, scholarships were offered on the spot.
After years of attending the fair, Mathis is still amazed by the
quality and quantity of talent residing in Hillsborough County.
“Every year, you can sit there at one table at one of the high schools and see six kids and say, “Wow, they're still out there?”
Story courtesy of Nick Williams; Tampa Tribune.