Thursday, February 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

For Hargreaves, path to NFL draft came into focus in Tampa (w/video)

TAMPA

Most of the prospects who wanted custom cleats at the NFL combine didn't come in with a design. They only told Mohammed Gafar to design something cool or use a certain color scheme.

Vernon Hargreaves was different.

"Vernon had a specific thing in mind," said Gafar, a co-partner and artist for Dez Customz. "He had to have it representing his hometown."

It had to be big. It had to be bright. And it had to scream Tampa.

No, Hargreaves wasn't born here. It's not where he learned to play ball, either, or where he earned his first college scholarship offer.

But for Hargreaves, Tampa is home.

It's the city where he became a big-time recruit as a do-it-all threat at Wharton High. It's the city he honored on his towel when he established himself among the best of the nation's best. It's the city he asked Gafar to represent on his Under Armours with 90 minutes' worth of airbrushing before the biggest workout of his life.

And next week, it's the city that might help him realize his lifelong dream.

Mock drafts have linked the former Gators cornerback with the Bucs, who hold the No. 9 pick in the April 28 draft. If the pundits are correct, Hargreaves' next step could be back where he took his biggest leap on the path to success.

"He carries himself with that Tampa demeanor — that kind of swag about him," said Chase Litton, his good friend and former high school quarterback. "It's the city that he claims, that made him."

It's the city that made him a star.

•••

Hargreaves didn't have to identify with Tampa; both of his parents are from Connecticut, and he grew up in Miami before starting high school in North Carolina.

When his dad, Vernon Jr., took over as USF's defensive ends coach and special teams coordinator in 2010, Hargreaves and Tampa meshed.

"I think our kids have just grown to be Florida kids," said his mother, Jackie. "They love the state of Florida. Now that he's older, Tampa — it's just been good to him."

Starting soon after he arrived, before his sophomore year of high school.

He didn't say much then. He didn't look like much, either; UF defensive lineman and former Hillsborough High star Jordan Sherit only remembers Hargreaves as a scrawny kid in uninspiring "weird" sneakers.

But a year later, Hargreaves started popping on the national radar. He added 20 pounds to his frame. Offers from UF and Florida State followed.

"You could just tell how bad he wanted it," Litton said. "This guy's the real deal."

He proved that during the rest of his three years here.

He won the Guy Toph award as Hillsborough County's top player. When his star-studded 7-on-7 travel squad needed a play, Hargreaves came through with two interceptions to help Team Tampa win a national championship.

He didn't just participate in the Under Armour All-America Game at Tropicana Field; in a nationally televised exhibition that featured 10 players likely to be drafted in the top 100 picks this month, Hargreaves was the MVP — with his 813 area code beaming from the towel at his side.

"He was the talk of the town," said Washington Redskins running back and former Armwood High standout Matt Jones, who played with Hargreaves for Team Tampa and at UF.

Recruiting analyst Corey Long said Hargreaves' rise coincided with a spike in local talent. Litton helped Marshall to 10 wins as a true freshman, and three of Hargreaves' former 7-on-7 teammates were top-100 NFL draft picks last year.

The Tampa group traveled to tournaments and camps together. They trained at Impact Fitness in New Tampa, not far from where Hargreaves' mother still lives. They started a tradition called Moe's Monday — an after-school workout followed by a stop at the Shops at Wiregrass for burritos.

The relationships — and Call of Duty games — stuck. When Hargreaves' dad took a job as Arkansas' linebacker coach, his mother stayed behind.

"If I'm going back anywhere from Gainesville," Hargreaves said, "I'm going to Tampa."

Tampa became home.

•••

When Hargreaves was dominating at Wharton, lunch-table discussion focused on his NFL prospects, even if neither he nor his family dreamed he could end up playing 25 miles down the road with the Bucs.

"We had a good idea he'd be in the NFL at some point," said Daniel Ibsen, a former Wharton defensive end. "We just didn't necessarily know how he would get there."

Hargreaves got here with nine interceptions in three All-SEC seasons, ensuring the 207-pound 20-year-old didn't need to go back to UF for a fourth.

"Whoever gets him is going to get an incredible athlete, a guy that's as smooth as any I've been around," said Chris Doering, an SEC Network analyst and former Florida/NFL receiver. "He's certainly a guy that can handle the pressure and expectation level that comes with being a high pick and potentially going to your hometown team."

The possibility that once seemed an abstract idea has started to look realistic.

Pundits call Hargreaves a first-round talent, likely to go anywhere from sixth to 20th. The Bucs are expected to take a defensive focus after drafting only one defensive player in the past two years.

Tampa Bay had a strong presence at his pro day; general manager Jason Licht watched as secondary coach Jon Hoke led Hargreaves' position drills. Licht won't reveal much about Hargreaves but said he isn't concerned by his 5-foot-10 frame.

"I like good football players," Licht said. "I like strong football players. I like playmakers."

Whether Hargreaves fits that bill for the Bucs won't be known until draft night. But Hargreaves admitted it would be "amazing" to play for the Bucs and return to Tampa — the city that nurtured his path to the pros.

"That would be interesting, to say the least," his dad said.

"He'd be home."

Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

     
 
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