WEEKI WACHEE — Marcus Applefield was as hidden as a 6-foot-7, 275-pound teenager could be.
He had the quickness, good grades and blue-collar work ethic of a blue-chip recruit, but he seemed stuck at an obscure new program in an out-of-the-way Hernando County town more famous for its landlocked mermaids than massive linemen. His parents almost shipped him to Plant High to get stars and offers added to his nonexistent recruiting profile.
Even when Weeki Wachee High coach Mark Lee called and emailed colleges across the country to tout his cornerstone tackle, recruiters were skeptical.
“They’re like, ‘Where are you at? We don’t even have you guys on the map,’ ” Lee said. “I told them …‘I’ve got a guy that’s gonna put us on the map.’ ”
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Applefield has always had to search out competition. When he was a scrawny 5-year-old, he’d leave his peewee flag football practices to hit with his older brother’s team — if he could keep his giant pads from slipping off.
“He didn’t mind playing up with the big boys, so we let him do it,” said his stepfather, Caristilde Charles. “He took it from there.”
By the time the Spring Hill native reached Weeki Wachee as part of the school’s first freshman class, Applefield looked like a future left tackle.
He grew so fast his knees hurt, sprouting from a 6-foot, 190-pound eighth grader to a heavyweight without losing the athleticism he gained playing lacrosse and basketball. He can still throw down dunks on alley-oop passes off the backboard just as easily as he can plow over a lineman and a linebacker on the same play.
“Every game he’s pancaking kids,” Hornets running back Jonathan King said.
Last spring, Lee pegged Applefield as the school’s first Division-I recruit because of his fast feet, 3.4 grade-point average and lean frame colleges can easily fill past 300 pounds. Lee started Applefield’s recruitment last summer by sending his future star to camps at USF, Florida and Florida State.
When the Hornets’ first all-varsity season ended with three victories last fall, he sent Applefield’s junior film to contacts he trusted.
The reaction was positive, but Lee still had to navigate receptionists and voicemails and directories to get those highlights to recruiters who would actually watch them.
“The biggest problem I had with that,” Lee said, “was, ‘Coach, we didn’t even know you existed.’ ”
Which is exactly what Applefield’s parents feared would happen.
In the past decade, Hernando County has produced only one BCS signee — Nature Coast’s Ja’Juan Story (Florida). Recruiters are more likely to camp out in Hillsborough or Pinellas, counties with a proven history of producing prospects, than make the 50-mile drive from Tampa International Airport to uncharted Weeki Wachee or Spring Hill.
“We’re like a tiny dot on the map,” Applefield said, “if it’s a dot you can even see.”
His parents thought the lack of exposure hurt their older son, Josh Colon, as he tried to land a big-name scholarship out of Central High. So when Applefield began to sprout up and fill out, they thought about transferring to a high-profile high school to make sure recruiters saw him.
“Take him to Plant,” said his mother, Michelle. “Rent a house. The exposure would have been there.”
But Applefield wanted to make history as part of Weeki Wachee’s first four-year class, and his family wanted to remain loyal to his coaches.
After Lee sent film to more than 50 colleges, Applefield finally jammed his size 151/2 cleat in the door when Marshall gave him his first offer in March. Since then, recruiters from 25 colleges have made the journey up U.S. 19, 6 miles north of Weeki Wachee Springs’ famous mermaids, through the love bugs and horseflies to a 1,300-student high school in a town with only 12 listed residents.
“It’s really special to finally get this school looked at,” Applefield said.
In one 12-hour period this month, Applefield landed offers from three state schools (USF, UCF and Florida International) plus his first from the SEC (Vanderbilt). Although he’s still unranked by every major recruiting site, Missouri, Rutgers and Georgia Tech are among the 16 offers he had received this spring heading into Friday night’s spring jamboree against Gulf.
“He is really gonna blow up,” said Jamie Newberg, Scout’s national recruiting analyst. “You just don’t find kids that are that big that move like that.”
Even when you do, colleges still have to discover them.
Lee grew up in West Virginia, so he tried to get the Mountaineers to evaluate Applefield early. Lee served as a grad assistant with the Mountaineers and even based Weeki Wachee’s logo off the interlocked WV symbol.
But he had to call and email repeatedly to convince a recruiting coordinator just to watch Applefield’s film. By the time West Virginia set up a visit, Applefield held a handful of offers.
And when the Mountaineers hit U.S. 19 last week on their way out of Weeki Wachee’s hectic football office, Tampa Bay’s hottest recruit had one more.
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.