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Times' top 5 football classes from the past 25 years

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Sun. February 9, 2014 | John C. Cotey | Email

Times' top 5 football classes from the past 25 years

The latest class of Tampa Bay football recruits is signed, sealed and soon to be delivered to college campuses across the country, from as close as Fowler Avenue all the way out to Pullman, Wash.

The boys of 2014 hold a lot of promise. And maybe one day, they will go down as the best class to ever come out of Tampa Bay. But for now, they have their work cut out for them.

We ranked the top Tampa Bay classes of the past 25 years, taking into account high school rankings, college success and ultimately how much success they found in the pros.

1. 1995
This sparked a debate, because while the 1998 class went deeper, the top of the ’95 class is unmatched over the past 20 years.

The first four players ranked that year — No. 1 Shaun King of Gibbs, No. 2 Keith Newman of Jefferson, No. 3 Darren Howard of Boca Ciega and No. 4 Troy Hambrick of Pasco — had tremendous success in the NFL, accounting for 221 NFL starts, 2,179 rushing yards, 4,566 passing yards and 27 touchdowns, almost 500 tackles and 90 sacks.

King (Tulane) and Howard (Kansas State) were second-round draft picks, and Newman (North Carolina) went in the fourth round. Hambrick was undrafted, but almost posted a 1,000-yard season for Dallas.

We didn’t see another group of four players in the same class that had quite the impact this quartet did. King and Hambrick were former Tampa Bay Times’ all-Suncoast Players of the Year, Newman won the Guy Toph Award and Howard was a Defensive Player of the Year. They managed that success right through college and the pros.

King’s career at Tulane gives the class that special oomph. He led the Green Wave to a 12-0 season in 1998, passing for 38 touchdowns and running for 11, while setting the single-season NCAA Division I-A record for passing efficiency (183.3) and finishing 10th in the Heisman voting.

He went on to quarterback the Bucs to an NFC Championship game in 1999 and is currently an analyst for NBC Sports Network.

2. 1998
Four of the top five players made it to the NFL (and six overall) and this class produced more professional starts than the No. 1 class of 1995 by a 248-221 margin.

But since 171 of those (and counting) are provided by Zephyrhills grad Ryan Pickett, we still don’t see this class as No. 1. It’s darned close, though.

Pickett, the Bulldog legend and current Green Bay Packer, just completed his 13th NFL season and is signed for two more. A first-round draft pick by the Rams in 2001 out of Ohio State, Pickett helped win a Super Bowl in Green Bay in 2011.

But in 1998, he wasn’t even Tampa Bay’s No. 1 recruit. That honor went to Armwood’s hulking lineman, Mike Pearson.

Like Pickett, Pearson was an All-American and started 33 NFL games after being chosen in the second round of the 2002 draft.
Hillsborough linebacker Andrew Williams, No. 4 that year, went to Miami and played two seasons with San Francisco, and No. 5 Donald “Reche” Caldwell had an outstanding career at Florida before San Diego took him in the second round of the draft.

In six seasons with the Chargers, New England and Washington, Caldwell caught 152 passes for 1,851 yards and 11 touchdowns.

The only top 5 player not to make the NFL? No. 3 John Capel, the Hernando and University of Florida speedster who competed in two Olympics and won the 1999 NCAA Championships and 2003 World Championship in the 200 meters.

Capel was drafted in the seventh round by Chicago and saw some camp time with Kansas City, but never landed on a regular-season roster.

3. 2002
This blue-chip class produced six NFL players — three were Chamberlain graduates, two were top 15 NFL draft picks — and for a time looked like it could go down as the greatest class ever.

The class was so deep that while featuring one of the country’s top 10 recruits (St. Petersburg Catholic’s Chris Davis), one of the most exciting college football players ever (Plant’s Mike Williams) and a future Major League Baseball player (Hillsborough’s Elijiah Dukes), it was No. 12-ranked D’Qwell Jackson who has been the most successful.

The Seminole linebacker and Maryland signee is still playing in the NFL, having just completed his seventh season with Cleveland. Jackson has started 96 of 97 games, with eight interceptions, 11.5 sacks and 527 tackles.

The Chamberlain trio of Brodrick Bunkley (No. 3), Brian Clark (No. 9) and Ollie Hoyte (No. 21) all made the NFL.

Bunkley, who went to FSU, was the 14th overall pick in the 2006 draft by Philadelphia. He has started 90 games in eight seasons, including 12 games as a nose tackle for New Orleans last season.

Clark signed with North Carolina State and played parts of six seasons in the NFL, including three with the Bucs, while Hoyte played two years for Dallas.

4. 2006
It’s still early, but this class is already making its mark.

Clearwater Central Catholic wide receiver Riley Cooper and linebacker Colin McCarthy are playing in the NFL for Philadelphia and Tennessee, respectively. Largo’s Dexter McCluster made the Pro Bowl as a punt returner for the Kansas City Chiefs, and Robinson’s Javier Arenas played for Arizona last year.

All four were drafted in the first five rounds (McCluster and Arenas were second-rounders) and have played in more than 200 professional games.

5. 2007
This class has a little bit of everything and is certainly one of the more interesting groups.

While Armwood’s Torrey Davis was No. 1 but never panned out at the University of Florida, he spent some time in Bucs camp.
Nos. 2 and 3, quarterbacks Robert Marve (Plant) and Stephen Garcia (Jefferson), had checkered college careers due to transfers, injuries and off-the-field issues.

But Marve (Miami and Purdue) and Garcia (South Carolina) threw for a combined 11,769 yards and 78 touchdowns.

St. Petersburg Catholic’s Jock Sanders is a CFL star, Bogie’s Josh Bellamy is with the Washington Redskins, Central’s DuJuan Harris plays for the Green Bay Packers, and SPC lineman Elvis Fisher and Newsome’s Chaz Hines have been in NFL camps.

Robinson’s Greg Ellingson, a wide receiver who went to Florida International, had 52 catches for 800 yards last year for Hamilton in the CFL.

But the unsung star of this class didn’t even make our top 25. Listed among those as “also signing,” Lakewood’s Jonte Green signed with Benedict College. After transferring to  New Mexico State, he developed into an NFL player. In the 2012 draft, he was taken in the sixth round by Detroit. He had an interception his rookie season and played in nine games last year.

Almost making the cut
6. 1994

What could have been for Springstead’s Ed Chester had he not suffered two knee injuries at Florida. An All-American at Florida, Chester still had NFL interest despite his injuries but declined to risk further injury.

Others in this class did make the pros, though. One, Jesuit kicker Jay Feely — rated the ninth -best local prospect that year— is still kicking with the Arizona Cardinals.

Though Feely graduated from Michigan in 1998, he didn’t make it to the NFL until 2001, after stints with the Arena Football Florida Bobcats and Tampa Bay Storm.

Lakewood offensive lineman Cornell Green went undrafted after playing at UCF, but started 51 games for five different NFL teams. In 2002, he played in every game for the Bucs and was part of the Super Bowl victory that season.

The No. 2 rated prospect that year found success in baseball. Tarpon Springs quarterback Kris Wilson, who signed with Georgia Tech to play both sports, settled on baseball after coach George O’Leary wanted to move him to tight end.

Drafted in 1997, Wilson — now the baseball coach at Tarpon Springs — went 14-9 in five major-league seasons with Kansas City and the New York Yankees

And let’s not forget Clif Dell, the 1993 Guy Toph winner and state’s leading receiver for King, who went on to be a member of USF football’s first senior class and became an Arena Football star.

7. 1997
Kenny Kelly and Darrell Jackson set national records at Tampa Catholic, and Jackson went on to star at Florida and third-round NFL draft choice of Seattle. Jackson played nine NFL seasons with more than 7,000 yards receiving and 51 touchdowns, including five catches for 50 yards in Super Bowl XL.

Kelly, meanwhile, went to Miami and never found the same success, eventually abandoning football for baseball, where he had been a second-round pick of the Rays in 1997. He played 24 games with Cincinnati and Washington, batting .286 in his final season in 2005.

Another football product, Parade All-American punter T.J. Tucker of River Ridge, signed with the Gators but bypassed college after the Montreal Expos took him with 47th pick of 1997 MLB draft. In parts of five seasons in majors, he was 13-9 with four saves for the Expos and Washington Nationals.

The 1997 class also included successes like Dixie Hollins defensive back Markese Fitzgerald, who started 13 games in four seasons at Miami and helped win a 2001 national championship; Jesuit quarterback George Godsey, who was 17-8 as a starter at Georgia Tech and led it to two bowl games; Chamberlain running back Kevin House, who went to South Carolina and spent two seasons on the Chargers’ roster, earning a starting spot in secondary; Seminole lineman Jay Kulaga, an all-Big Ten guard for Illinois; Armwood wideout Jon Ordway, who played five seasons in the CFL and AFL after a career at Boston College that included all-Big East honors in track and field; and Plant City’s Wayne Ward, a top special teams player at Virginia Tech and now the head coach at his high school alma mater.

8. 2000
Hillsborough placed three players amongst out top seven — No. 1 blue-chipper Shannon Snell (Florida), No. 4 Cedric Edmonds (Syracuse) and No. 7 Preston Jackson (Notre Dame). But the only Terrier other than Snell, who was in a few camps, to make the NFL was J.R. Reed — No. 17 that year. After a good career at USF, Reed was drafted in the fourth round by Philadelphia in 2004, and in four NFL seasons played 43 games.

But Leto’s Mike Jenkins, whom we rated No. 2 behind Snell, turned out to be the star of the class.

After an outstanding career at Ohio State the Falcon was the 29th overall draft pick in the 2004 draft. Jenkins caught 30 or more passes for at least 400 yards in eight straight seasons with Atlanta and Minnesota. Jenkins did not play last year after being released by New England in August.

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