Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Area football recruiting classes in class of their own

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 to Pullman, Wash.

The boys of 2014 hold a lot of promise. And maybe one day, they will go down as part of the best class ever to 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 25 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 starts, 2,633 yards and 14 touchdowns rushing, 4,566 yards and 27 touchdowns passing, 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 he almost posted a 1,000-yard rushing 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, setting the single-season Division I-A record (since broken) for passing efficiency at 183.3 and finishing 10th in the Heisman Trophy voting.

He went on to quarterback the Bucs to the NFC title 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 pro starts than the No. 1 class of 1995 by a 248-221 margin.

But since 172 of those starts (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, a 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 for Green Bay in the 2010 season.

But in 1998, he wasn't even Tampa Bay's No. 1 recruit. That honor went to Armwood lineman Mike Pearson. Like Pickett, Pearson (Florida) was an All-American and started 33 NFL games after being taken 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-five 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 in 2001 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 it looked like it could go down as the greatest class ever.

The class was deep, featuring one of the country's top 10 recruits (St. Petersburg Catholic's Chris Davis), one of college's most exciting players (Plant's Mike Williams) and a future major-league baseball player (Hillsborough's Elijiah Dukes).

But No. 12 D'Qwell Jackson has been the most successful professional.

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, 11½ 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 played parts of six seasons in the NFL, including three with the Bucs, and his North Carolina State teammate 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 (Florida) and linebacker Colin McCarthy (Miami) are playing in the NFL for Philadelphia and Tennessee, respectively. Largo's Dexter McCluster (Mississippi) made the Pro Bowl as a punt returner for the Kansas City Chiefs, and Robinson's Javier Arenas (Alabama) 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 most interesting groups.

Armwood's Torrey Davis was No. 1; he never panned out at the University of Florida but 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 (West Virginia) is with Saskatchewan in the Canadian Football League, Boca Ciega's Josh Bellamy (Louisville) with the Washington Redskins, Central's DuJuan Harris (Troy) with the Green Bay Packers. St. Petersburg Catholic lineman Elvis Fisher (Missouri) and Newsome's Chaz Hine (USF) have been in NFL camps. Robinson's Greg Ellingson, a receiver who went to Florida International, had 52 catches for 800 yards and six TDs 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 this past season.

John C. Cotey can be reached at [email protected]m.


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