TAMPA — It seems you can’t throw a rock in Hillsborough County without it landing on a four- or five-star college prospect.
An explosive defensive lineman with an NFL physique, a shifty running back on the verge of setting the county’s rushing record and a dual-threat quarterback with the ability to run over defenders and throw halfway down the field with ease ... and that’s just a tip of the iceberg.
Hillsborough County will feature the No. 1-rated senior — and junior — in the nation to start the season. Five players from the county are ranked in ESPN’s Top 300 and Rivals Top 250 for this year’s senior class.
For certain, this year’s batch of players will be remembered as one of the most talented to play in the same season in Hillsborough County history.
Where do we begin?
Rivals, a national scouting and recruiting service, has tabbed Armwood senior Byron Cowart, a 6-foot-4, 255-pound defensive end, as the top prospect in the class of 2015. Tampa Catholic junior Nate Craig, who has verbally committed to Auburn, is the nation’s top junior.
A consensus five-star recruit, Cowart helped Armwood reach the Class 6A state title game last season. Cowart racked up 13 sacks and averaged five tackles a game along the way. His offers include Alabama, Florida State, Oregon and just about every other major Division I college in the country.
“This is where the good football is at,” Cowart said. “They say we play the toughest football. The toughest football is played in Hillsborough (County) and Miami. Hillsborough is producing right now, so that’s good.”
Craig, who has received an invite to play in the 2016 Under Armour All-American Game, transferred to Tampa Catholic from Pasco High in January. During his two seasons at Pasco, Craig had 37 catches for 502 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“I finally see that my hard work that I’ve been putting in, on and off the field with my teammates, is showing to other people,” Craig said. “I have to keep working and don’t let (the ranking) get to my head and just stay humble.”
Cowart and Craig are just the headliners. The bulk of the county’s talent comes in many positions.
Three have committed to Clemson, beginning with four-star prospect Deon Cain, who will play quarterback at Tampa Bay Tech but receiver in college. Continuing down the list is four-star Plant offensive lineman Jake Fruhmorgen, rated the eighth-best offensive tackle in America by ESPN, and five-star Sickles running back Ray Ray McCloud III, rated the second-best utility player in the nation.
“It means a lot, being a four-star or a five-star guy,” said McCloud, who has a chance this season to become the Hillsborough County’s all-time leading rusher.
Hillsborough’s Dwayne Lawson, a four-star dual-threat quarterback, has committed to Miami. He’s rated the seventh-best dual-threat quarterback in the country. Last season, he threw for 2,120 yards and 22 touchdowns and rushed for 1,068 and nine touchdowns — and still wasn’t the county’s leading quarterback.
“There’s a lot of big-time players that come through here and are still here in the classes of 2016 and 2017, 2018,” McCloud said. “It’s hard to get it done in Tampa, even though there’s so many schools. Every high school you go to, they have somebody. For college coaches, it’s one of the best counties to recruit from.”
The list goes on and one, with Wharton’s Auden Tate, a four-star receiver, verbally committed to Florida State; Plant City’s Dawson Sawyer,a three-star linebacker, committed to Purdue; and East Bay’s Marques Ford, a three-star defensive end, committed to Tennessee.
In addition to Craig, next year’s senior class will be stacked with top prospects, including Blake junior defensive end Shavar Manuel, rated the third-best prospect in the class of 2016 by ESPN, and Tampa Catholic defensive lineman Malik Barrow, among ESPN’s Top 300 prospects in next year’s recruiting class.
“We have some of the best football in the United States of America,” Craig said. “No one puts it on like the Florida boys. We still have a lot of Tampa guys who should be ranked higher. We’re just (representing) our city.”