TAMPA — A challenge was issued, and Vanderbilt coach James Franklin sidled over to that side of the field to see what would come of it.
Instead of throwing passes as per usual, Jefferson High School quarterback Deiondre Porter was going to have to defend them — and a steady procession of top high school receivers — for the afternoon at Vanderbilt’s football camp.
That’s what brought Franklin over to watch and even call some of the play-by-play action. What he saw was Porter making six interceptions, of varying degrees of difficulty, and breaking up two passes during one-on-one drills.
The Commodores coach, like most everyone else in attendance, came away impressed with Porter’s breakout performance.
“It was one of those days where I was just feeling it,” Porter said. “To have (Franklin) saying that he liked me …that meant a lot.”
Porter has earned lots of admirers in the past few months, including some over at USF, where he orally committed Wednesday after receiving a scholarship offer during an on-campus workout.
He was recruited by the hometown Bulls as a cornerback, the position he’ll play after a final season at the helm of one of the bay area’s most-prolific offenses.
While Porter projects as a top college defensive back prospect, he currently ranks as one of the best quarterbacks in the area after a junior season that earned him recruiting looks from several lower-level FBS schools.
And he’ll certainly be one of the top quarterbacks at this weekend’s inaugural Battle of the Bay 7-on-7 tournament, played on his home field.
Last fall, Porter completed 61 percent of his passes for 2,276 yards and 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, and rushed for nearly 400 yards and five more scores. He led the inexperienced Dragons to a 6-4 record and within a game of making the playoffs despite playing one of the area’s toughest schedules.
Porter proved himself a worthy heir to the proud quarterbacking tradition at Jefferson, putting up the kinds of numbers and highlights that recalled the exploits of former Dragons stars Stephen Garcia (South Carolina) and Quentin Williams (Bethune Cookman).
“He’s as good an athlete as we’ve ever had here,” Jefferson coach Jeremy Earle said. “The only thing he can’t do on the field is play (defensive back) for us. And that’s because I won’t let him.”
But it’s not difficult to understand how so many people could look at Porter and dream up an alternate vision of his future.
He is 6 feet 1 and 185 pounds of boundless athletic potential, with speed, smarts, agility and ball skills that make him appealing to major college programs as a defensive back or wide receiver. At a recent camp at Florida International, Porter won an award for being the fastest player there.
“Most people don’t even see how athletic he is while he’s playing quarterback,” said Ricky Sailor, who runs the Unsigned Preps 7-on-7 team that Porter plays for in the spring and summer. “When he plays at defensive back, he’s a blur when he runs.”
Franklin saw it for himself when Porter went to Vanderbilt as part of Unsigned Prep’s summer bus tour of colleges.
Even Sailor, a former star defensive back at Leto and Texas Tech, left impressed by Porter’s quick grasp of the position — one that he’s almost wholly untrained at so far.
“It’s hard to get six interceptions in one-on-ones,” Sailor said. “Everyone was really intrigued.”
Much the same happened during Porter’s swing through USF on Wednesday, when he worked out at defensive back with some of the Bulls staff.
Before Porter could leave for the day, several Bulls coaches — including head coach Willie Taggart — came over and told him they were prepared to make him a scholarship offer.
“They just wanted to see if I could move my feet a little bit,” Porter said. “But I was real smooth and ran a 4.5 in the (40-yard dash) after a three-hour practice at Jefferson that morning. That sealed the deal.”
Porter committed on the spot.
Still, most people — who aren’t college coaches, at least — won’t see Porter play on the other side of the ball until the fall of 2014. He still has unfinished business at Jefferson, where the only way to earn mention alongside Garcia and Williams is to make the playoffs and compete for a state championship.
“I’ve told him to go get himself a ring,” said Williams, who led the Dragons to a state title in 2010. “It’s on Deiondre, if he wants to be up there with me and Garcia. I believe in him. He’s got all the talent to make it happen.”
Porter said he and the Dragons are up to the challenge.
“This year, it’s going to be a whole different ball game,” he said. “This is going to be our year.”
HomeTeam Unsigned Preps Battle of the Bay
What: 7-on-7 football tournament
When: Saturday. Pool play starts at 9 a.m., quarterfinals at 3, championship at 4:30
Field: Alonso, Armwood, Boca Ciega, Dixie Hollins, Countryside, Gaither, Hernando, Jefferson, Largo, Nature Coast Tech, Pasco, Plant, Plant City, Tampa Bay Tech, Tampa Catholic, Zephyrhills
Admission: Free. Fans welcome to attend.
Outlook: The inaugural event serves as a fundraiser for Unsigned Preps. The nonprofit organization, headed by former Leto star Ricky Sailor, helps high school players find colleges through a bus tour to campuses across the South and provides guidance counseling as well as SAT and ACT prep courses. After pool play, teams will be seeded into a single-elimination bracket that will lead to a final between the best team from Hillsborough County against the best team from Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando.
Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jdhometeam.