Recruiting hotbed

Sure, the county has its fair share of future D-I players every year, but the truest measure of the recent success and growth of area programs lies in the number of kids picked by D-II, D-III, junior colleges and NAIA schools.

Published August 25, 2006

Hillsborough County football has improved in the past 20 years, no question about that.

It has gone from an embarrassment (see no playoff victories from any county team from 1986 to 1993 and no playoff teams at all in 1988) to a state-title contender (seven teams in a state final in the past five years, including two state championships, Armwood in 2003 and 2004). Before the 2003 state-final victory, Hillsborough County had not won a state football title since 1969.

The question, the Times wondered, is how does this success translate into recruiting?

Is the "improved" county producing more college recruits?

Are the recruits rated higher?

And has the hype of Hillsborough County football led to more opportunities for players across the board, such as those going to Division II, III, junior colleges and NAIA schools?

In search of answers, the Times dove into college rosters - from the final 2005 BCS poll to the big three Florida schools, Florida State University, Florida and Miami.

The findings began with the fact that big-time schools across the country still recruit most heavily in their own backyards. With that in mind, the search went to five of Florida's backyards - Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tallahassee, Tampa Bay (Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Citrus, Hernando, Bradenton and Sarasota counties).

Rosters were gathered from each of the big three Florida colleges for the years 1985, '90, '95, 2000 and '05, and the numbers of players from the aforementioned backyards were tabulated.

The findings were that big-time Division I recruits from the Tampa Bay area and Hillsborough County, despite the improved overall play and increase in area population, have not appreciably picked up the past 20 years (see accompanying charts).

"It's surprising to me that (Division I recruiting) hasn't picked up more than it has (in the Tampa Bay area)," national recruiting analyst for scout.com Jamie Newberg said. "Now Tampa Bay has always held it's own (in the annual recruiting battles), but you would think with the big increase in population and the improved level of football that you would get that many recruits, but, well ...I can't explain why it hasn't increased a lot.

"The fact is, if you're a Division I recruit you are gifted with certain abilities, and either you have it (speed, strength, agility, coordination, size) or you don't. If you don't have a certain amount of those abilities to begin with no amount of coaching, lifting, running will get you there."

What has increased, according to the resounding trumpeting of county prep coaches, is the recruiting of guys without the "Division I" gifts of ability; the recruiting, that is, of all levels below Division I; recruiting that almost always comes far, far from our backyards.

Places such as Division III Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio, (new football home to 2005 Hillsborough High player Josh Sams), Division II South Dakota (two former Chamberlain and two ex-Robinson players are on the 2006 Coyotes roster), Division II Southwest Baptist College in Bolivar, Mo.,(Riverview's Logan Shiflet signed there last spring), and ...

"And how about (Division III) Massachusetts Maritime Academy (in Cape Cod)?" said Riverview coach Dan O'Regan, who had 12 players sign football scholarships last season, but none to Division I schools.

"We sent (quarterback David Hike) to the Maritime Academy last year."

This year O'Regan might get another quarterback, Dustin Gorenc, into a similar-type school, if, Gorenc says, the school has a strong engineering program.

"I would love to play football at the next level," Gorenc said. "I know I'm not the tallest (6-foot-1), or the biggest (160 pounds) or the fastest but I would really love to keep playing. If that comes together then I will do it."

And 10 years ago - said O'Regan, who has been coaching in the county more than 20 years - Gorenc "wouldn't have had hardly any chance to play anywhere after high school."

What changed?

"No. 1," Hillsborough High coach Earl Garcia said, "the football here got a whole heckuva lot better. Our football players are stronger, faster, more skilled and more knowledgeable because the coaches have helped them get there.

"Fifteen, 16 years ago Hillsborough County football was terrible. I mean, why would anybody go out of their way to recruit here?

"The big-name guys, the ones with over-the-top talent such as Jarred Fayson (last year's Hillsborough High quarterback who signed with the University of Florida) and (Armwood lineman) Torrey Davis and (Jefferson quarterback) Stephen Garcia, they were always found. Those guys are easy.

"The tough ones are the lower-level guys. I think raising the level of football has probably helped those guys the most. And the word is getting out more and more every year."

That's why at last year's annual county recruiting fair at East Bay High, 35 colleges from Wisconsin to Maine to Missouri to South Dakota showed up, and that's why 141 football players (102 below Division I) from Hillsborough County signed some sort of scholarship in 2006.

Plant, for one, had 13 kids last year sign football scholarships at places from California to Maine.

"It's been, and I really do mean this, a miraculous turnaround," East Bay coach Brian Thornton said. "When I came here none of these kids were getting scholarships at these small schools. I mean no one.

"And it truly bothered me because I had played and coached at small colleges (including Division III William Penn for three years) and I knew how great it was to get your college paid for and play a little football as well."

That's why on a Saturday morning every February, Thornton and almost all the county coaches show up with tapes and stats of some of his players. They each set up a table, and the college coaches from all these little schools check out what each high school has to offer.

And sure, the Division I recruiters are still showing up in Hillsborough County to see Davis (No. 1 overall recruit in Florida by Rivals.com who orally committed to Florida) and Garcia (one of the highest-rated quarterbacks in the country).

"Certainly down (in the Tampa Bay area) there have been some tremendous players," Florida State recruiting coordinator John Lilly said. "You know there's going to be great players there every year who you should see."

But along the way to see a Torrey Davis, recruiters such as Lilly may find some well-coached talent playing against a talent like Davis, perhaps someone like former Plant City running backs Joslin Shaw or Robert Hallback (now with Florida State).

"The thing is the football is better across the board and our football players are better across the board," Garcia said.

"It gives everybody a better chance of getting noticed and, most importantly, a chance to play at the next level."