TAMPA — Hillsborough football coach Earl Garcia has sent nearly 20 players to USF to play for coach Jim Leavitt, including true freshman Bulls running back Lindsey Lamar. And before the news of Leavitt’s firing emerged Friday morning, Garcia said highly-recruited senior defensive back Terrence Mitchell considered USF as one of his two favorite schools.
But Leavitt’s removal couldn’t come at a worse time in the recruiting season, just 26 days before national signing day on Feb. 3.
“It’s a bad situation,” Garcia said. “I don’t know what I tell T-Rex (Mitchell). I guess I just tell him to hold tight and wait a bit. But they have to move in a quick manner. I think it will affect their recruiting unless they name a person from the staff not only as the interim, but the coach for 2010.
“Today’s the 8th and signing day is (Feb. 3), so it doesn’t leave these kids a lot of time to make a major life decision like that.”
Gibbs defensive lineman Tim Jackson, one of the top recruits in Pinellas County, listed USF among his top six schools. But he dropped the Bulls from consideration Friday.
“No way I’m going there,” Jackson said. “I made that decision about 20 minutes after I found out what happened to Coach Leavitt. He’s a good coach and a good guy. What the school did was wrong. I’ve heard that the entire coaching staff will be gone, and I don’t want to be a part of that mess.”
Mitchell, who is making an official visit to Florida State this weekend, liked USF and the opportunity to play with Lamar, his cousin, in college. Garcia said he believed FSU and USF were Mitchell’s favorites, with Illinois in the mix, but now, “I don’t even know.”
Mitchell, ranked the fifth-best cornerback recruit in the nation and 14th-best overall prospect in Florida, made an official visit to USF on Dec. 11.
Beyond the bay
On the east coast, Lake City Columbia coach Craig Howard, who coached Tim Tebow at Nease High before taking the Columbia job last year, said his two USF commitments are waiting to see what happens.
Running back Tiger Powell (6-1, 210; Rivals’ 79th-ranked running back prospect in the nation) and receiver Jamaal Montague (6-1, 185) both committed to the Bulls.
“We have not heard from USF as of yet,” Howard said. “One thing we need to know is are the (offers) guaranteed if a new coach comes in. It would put them in a tough position if the college were to drop them.”
Howard said the phones have been ringing as word of Leavitt’s firing spreads. Coaches from FAU, FIU and some MAC schools have expressed interest.
“But the boys would love to go to USF,” Howard said. “Coach Leavitt is a good man and we’re disappointed he won’t be there.”
Uncommitted also waiting
Mid-level prospects hoping to grab Division I offers also are in limbo.
USF has been Alonso quarterback C.J. Bennett’s dream school, and he participated in camps there hoping to impress the Bulls. When a quarterback target committed elsewhere, the Bulls began actively recruiting Bennett, even offering him an official visit for Jan. 22. USF offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Canales just visited him Monday.
The 6-foot Bennett, whose size has scared most D-I schools but was the bay area’s second-leading passer with 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns this season, was eager for the visit and hoped it might lead to a scholarship. But it’s something he has quickly become used to. Kansas became interested in Bennett late this fall, asking for more game film, then Jayhawks coach Mark Mangino resigned amid a school investigation into inappropriate conduct with players.
“It’s hard,” said Bennett’s father, Chip, Friday morning, just hours before Bennett was heading to Division I-AA South Alabama for an official visit. “You just have to wait and see. He developed a good relationship with Coach Canales, so you wait and see where some of those coaches land.”
Garcia said next week’s American Football Coaches Association Convention in Orlando will be an opportunity for the dispatched USF coaches to lobby for work.
“Everyone is talking about this being about Coach Leavitt, but it affects all the assistants, their kids, their families,” said Garcia, a USF alum. “I have friends over there. You have relationships with these guys. And you know Coach Leavitt put his heart and soul into that program.”
Staff writer Bob Putnam and the Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report.