Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher may end up with the nation's top-rated recruiting class come signing day Feb. 2.
And that Seminoles coaches have had an increased presence in the Tampa Bay area since he took over has played a part in that.
Two years ago, the St. Petersburg Times reported some area high school football coaches were baffled by FSU's apparent lack of interest in recruiting the second-most populated area in the state. Fisher's staff has done a better job since he took over after the 2009 season, though several coaches believe there's still plenty of room for improvement.
According to Rivals.com, from 2003 to 2008 FSU had seven commitments from bay area players. This year, the Seminoles landed Plant running back James Wilder Jr., one of the nation's top recruits, and Plant City offensive lineman Jordan Prestwood, a four-star recruit. Lakewood junior defensive end Dante Fowler has orally committed, though he is keeping his options open. Fisher was unavailable for comment.
"When Coach Fisher got the job, recruiting the area really beefed up from Florida State," Plant City coach Wayne Ward said. "(FSU assistant coach Lawrence Dawsey) has been doing an incredible job, not just to check in on Jordan but a lot of other kids. They've been coming by, they've been calling. It's been a tremendous change when it comes to Florida State actually recruiting this area."
Armwood coach Sean Callahan said FSU has been doing "much better," though he acknowledged that Florida and Georgia still recruit the area the hardest. The Seminoles have one big thing going for them: momentum.
"Right now, Coach Dawsey is still the same person, recruits the same way," Callahan said. "It's the product he's selling: Jimbo Fisher, winning games, beating Florida, getting James Wilder. It's created some momentum. These things are what kids sink their teeth into."
FSU also has taken advantage of the coaching turnover at UF, with Will Muschamp taking over for Urban Meyer, and at Miami, with Al Golden replacing Randy Shannon. The Seminoles have commitments from five-star defensive back Karlos Williams (Davenport) and five-star offensive lineman Bobby Hart (Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas).
"It goes to show you how quickly things can change," said ESPN recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg, who ranks FSU's class No. 2 in the nation. "Within the last 12-24 months, it was safe to say Florida was the top dog in the state. Right now, you've got to say it's Florida State.
Whether FSU is "top dog" in the bay area, that's up for debate.
Longtime Hillsborough High coach Earl Garcia was one of those surprised that FSU appeared to be neglecting the area in years past.
He had said that in his 30 years coaching in Hillsborough County when Bobby Bowden was at FSU, he had never seen him in person, except for maybe a clinic.
Garcia said Fisher has been on his school's campus once, when defensive back Terrence Mitchell was committed there; Mitchell changed his mind and is now a standout at USF. One of Garcia's former players, defensive tackle Moses McCray, is at FSU now.
"There's more of an FSU presence," Garcia said. "But, personally, I haven't seen a whole lot of Florida State in the area."
Jefferson coach Mike Fenton said Fisher was at his school on the first day he took over at FSU, but he hasn't talked with the school's coaches since the spring. Fenton said FSU initially recruited wide receiver Andre Davis "pretty hard" but not much during the season, and he orally committed to USF.
Fenton says FSU usually comes in late, so he expected to hear from the Seminoles before signing day. But he has been surprised.
"A little bit," Fenton said. "Because I know we have players who are Florida State caliber. …When Bowden was there, I saw Dawsey a lot more than I do now, to be honest with you."
Dawsey, a former FSU and Bucs receiver, has received mixed reviews from bay area coaches since he began recruiting the area for Bowden; FSU doesn't make assistants available to the media for interviews. Plant coach Robert Weiner and Lakewood coach Cory Moore say he's been doing a great job. East Lake coach Bob Hudson, a 1996 FSU alumnus, also has seen 'Noles coaches more. Tom McHugh, who has coached at Pasco High four seasons and had the county's top team over that span, says he has seen FSU coaches once.
Largo coach Rick Rodriguez, who has one of Pinellas County's top programs over the past several years, hasn't seen FSU much either. The Packers are perennial playoff contenders and have former players (Dexter McCluster/Chiefs, Marcus Paschal/Ravens) who have played in the NFL, and several others in Division I-A.
"I haven't seen anybody from Florida State come by," Rodriguez said. "Usually all the schools come by, out of respect. I guess we're not good enough for them. I don't know. I'm real disappointed. Florida comes by, Miami comes by, USF comes by. Florida State doesn't even show up."
By landing some top are recruits, the Seminoles have shown progress.
Weiner said Wilder, a five-star recruit and the Times’ All-Suncoast player of the year, had really liked Florida, as well as Meyer. He was a fan of Georgia, too. But in FSU, Weiner said he "may have more of an opportunity" there to play running back instead of defensive end.
"Hillsborough County, three of us were in the state championship, so they're definitely going to come here," Wilder said of FSU. "They know there's some athletes down here, so they're looking for us and they're finding us."
Prestwood could have picked a lot of places, visiting Alabama, Auburn, Notre Dame and FSU. Newberg said Fowler could be one of the top defensive end recruits in the country by next season, and Moore said Dawsey formed a "very good connection" with the 6-foot-4, 235-pound junior.
"Florida State has stressed about family and him getting a great education, and I think that sold him," Moore said. "I think Florida State is going back to that old time, how they used to be."
Times staff writers John C. Cotey and Joey Knight contributed to this report.