TAMPA — Colleges called Blake High School football coach Darryl Gordon all day Tuesday, just like they had the day before, and the day before that.
They want to know about Shavar Manuel, the hulking 6-foot-4, 260-pound sophomore defensive lineman who now has the full attention of every team in the state, the SEC, the ACC.
Everyone, it seems.
“Biggest part of my job,” said Gordon, of handling the inquiries.
It hasn’t been like this since 1969. And Gordon knows that because he was here then, at the same Stewart Middle School field, leaning against the fence and watching Leon McQuay practice.
“That was the last time it was this exciting around here,” he said.
This spring, Blake is hopping.
A handful of college coaches show up every day to watch Manuel, who has offers from the likes of Florida, Florida State, Miami and Alabama — and has picked them all up since December.
You’d hardly know it, though, because Gordon hasn’t publicized it. He has kept Manuel Mania low key to keep his star from being affected by all the attention, a rarity in a world where kids often tweet their offers from practice and boast about their totals.
Manuel, though, has been perfectly content keeping his fame to himself. But now Gordon is pulling the curtain back on his 17-year-old star recruit, and it is invigorating his program.
Despite a 2-8 season last fall, its 13th straight losing season — and sharing a nine-team district with the likes of state powerhouse Armwood, Jefferson and Hillsborough — the numbers are up for a team that in past years barely had enough to scrimmage. As many as 45 to 50 kids are showing up daily, Gordon said.
For every coach who stops by to watch Manuel, Gordon can sell his other players, like running back Corey Bennett, receiver Juwan Burgess and linebackers Julian Jackson and Marquis Daniel.
“There’s some talent here,” he said. “No one ever bothered to come out and see it for themselves. And the kids have responded. Practices are different this spring.”
Recruiters are coming now because of Manuel, who had 19 sacks last season and 10 the year before. And according to former Tampa Bay Buccaneer lineman Anthony Davis, an assistant coach at Blake, he has barely scratched the surface.
“One thing I let people know is that the way he rushes the quarterback, he can beat you six or seven different ways. You really don’t see that in high school,” said Davis, who has formed a tight-knit bond with his star pupil.
“He can rip you, he can bull rush you, he can spin you, he can shed you, he can do all that good stuff. And his quickness off the ball, the change of direction, it’s tremendous. Watching him learn, it’s been real fun.”
When Davis first met Manuel as a freshman, he remembers seeing the Yellow Jacket trying out — at quarterback.
But Davis rectified that immediately.
“I had a cannon, don’t get me wrong, but it didn’t work out,” said Manuel, laughing.
Davis told Manuel if he wanted to be a great football player, to follow his lead.
“Let’s go,” Manuel said.
Since then, Manuel has racked up sacks and college offers at a startling rate. His first came from Florida around Christmas, and he said he was so excited he was “ready to pad up and show them what I could do.”
He’s getting that chance this spring. The coaches, and offers, are still coming. His combination of size, speed and strength makes him arguably the most unblockable player in Tampa Bay. Recruiting website 247Sports ranked him the No. 2 recruit in the country for the class of 2016.
“Coach Davis threw me in with the big guys my first day and said if I listened, great things were going to happen,” Manuel said. “The man never told me a lie.”
Poised for breakouts
QB Jeff Smith Jr., Clearwater Central Catholic: The dual-threat quarterback took over as the starter midway through last season and helped the Marauders reach the Class 3A state championship game. After missing the first two weeks of spring because he was still playing baseball, Smith is back and is more polished as a passer. He already has offers from Indiana and Wisconsin. “Jeff can sling the football,” coach John Davis said. “He’s looked pretty good so far in practice and should play well for us this season.”
DE Marques Ford, East Bay: Coach Frank LaRosa knew his 6-foot-4, 225-pound monster had the athleticism and size to bloom into a Division I recruit this spring. “I thought he would,” LaRosa said, “but not the way he has.” After amassing 10 sacks and 17.5 tackles for a loss last fall, Ford has become one of Tampa Bay’s top recruits. The three-star prospect has reeled in more than 30 scholarship offers since February, including eight just last week. Miami, USF, UCF and Clemson are among the schools chasing Ford. His biggest assets, LaRosa said, can’t be seen on film. “The work ethic, the competitiveness, the passion for football, the want to be great,” LaRosa said. “Kids talk about it, but very few want to be great.”
FS Craig Watts, Gibbs: The rising junior is another in a line of athletic Gibbs secondary players. At 6-0, 180 pounds, he has offers from Connecticut, Indiana, Marshall and Akron. Watts may also play some at running back in the fall.
S Saivion Smith, Lakewood: The rising junior didn’t get much attention with 3-7 Boca Ciega last season. He played some at quarterback, running back and receiver as well as safety, but will likely be a cornerback for the Spartans. He has gotten interest from big Division I schools Clemson, Florida State, UCF, Florida, Michigan State, Duke, Toledo, Temple and Louisville. “Big-time schools are calling all the time,” Lakewood coach Cory Moore said.
QB James Pensyl, Land O’Lakes: The 6-foot-6 lefty is shaping up to be the North Suncoast’s first Division I quarterback signee since fellow Gator Stevie Weatherford. Pensyl’s 2,300-yard junior season helped land his first offer last week, from Oregon State.
FB Kal-El Williams, Pinellas Park: The 5-11, 230-pound Williams is getting interest from Division I mid-majors like Florida International and Western Kentucky. He was part of a three-man running attack last season and gained 776 yards and scored six touchdowns. Also a linebacker, Williams likely will be recruited to play offense.
RB/LB Tykese Keaton-Baldwin, Plant: Overshadowed by future Longhorn Andrew Beck on defense and the Alex “Buda” Jackson/Patrick Brooks combo in the run game, sophomore Keaton-Baldwin didn’t make a whole lot of noise for Plant last season in its 8A state semifinal run. But coach Robert Weiner is pretty confident that’ll change in the Panthers’ next campaign. Keaton-Baldwin ran for 115 yards last season and had 38 tackles. Weiner, though, expects the soon-to-be junior to have a breakout year as he tries to replace what the Panthers have lost in both Beck and Jackson. “He plays both sides of the ball …and he’s a really powerful kid. Low center of gravity,” Weiner said. “Tykese might be that guy.”
WR Jahrvis Davenport, Robinson: Recent offers from Pitt and UConn are just the latest for the 5-foot-10, three-star athlete. He quietly ranked among Hillsborough County’s leading receivers last fall with 667 yards and eight TDs.
LB Anthony Foster, St. Petersburg: He is getting more and more attention this spring and that likely will be the case in the fall. Foster (6-0, 205), who got his first offer last week from Mercer, had 82 total tackles two sacks as a junior. “He’s a tremendous athlete,” coach Joe Fabrizio said. “We might use him some at fullback, but mostly he’ll be at linebacker. He’s definitely someone to watch.”
WR Kezio Snelling, Steinbrenner: The 6-foot-1, three-star prospect has pulled in offers from Purdue and Eastern Michigan, among others. As good a receiver as he is (556 yards, six touchdowns), it is Snelling’s return game, where he averaged 36 and 25 yards on kickoff and punt returns respectively, that puts him over the top.
DE Malik Barrow, Tampa Catholic: Pasco transfer Nate Craig gets plenty of attention, but the Crusaders’ other elite 2016 prospect has pulled in a half-dozen offers already this spring, including UCF, USF, Michigan State and Mississippi State. The four-star recruit had 13 sacks as a sophomore last fall and could even line up at left tackle. He’s that good.
TE/DL Mitchell Wilcox, Tarpon Springs: The 6-foot-4, 230-pound rising senior came on last season as a pass rusher, registering five of his six sacks in the final three games. He also is a dependable target in the red zone with three of his six catches going for touchdowns. Those numbers on both sides of the ball have got the attention of colleges, with offers coming from Ball State, College of Charleston and James Madison this spring. Wilcox’s athleticism also has coaches tinkering with packages that include him under center. “I’ve been working on some short-yardage and goal-line stuff, you know, Tebow-style at quarterback,” Wilcox said.
LB Jaye Miner, Wiregrass Ranch: His 131-tackle junior season resulted in offers from Eastern Michigan and Georgia State for the two-star prospect.
Staff writers Matt Baker, Rodney Page, Kelly Parsons and Bob Putnam contributed to this report.