TAMPA — Hillsborough County has produced some of the top college football players in the country during the past decade.
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 athletes.”
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 that.”
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 Broncos.
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 winning.”
Bethel College, a NAIA program in Kansas, will have 20 incoming freshmen from Florida, five from Hillsborough County, on its 2013 roster.
“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 hotbed.
This past year, Sailor's organization helped 70 seniors land athletic scholarships.
“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?”