Our fifth annual countdown of the top 100 football players in Tampa Bay — consisting of athletes who attend a public or private school in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco or Hernando counties. Past performances — spanning the fall, spring and summer — and promise of big things to come are all taken into consideration.
21. Amari Burney, Clearwater Central Catholic
Position: Wide receiver/defensive back
Height/weight: 6-2, 205
Jay Nolan, Special to the Times
Why we ranked him: On a team loaded with talent at the skill positions, Burney still established himself as a playmaker on both sides of the ball. He finished last season with 20 catches for 404 yards and seven touchdowns, and had two interceptions and two forced fumbles on defense. The bigger the game, the better he played. In the final two playoff games, Burney averaged four catches on offense and eight tackles on defense. In the state semifinal loss to Delray Beach American Heritage, Burney had a touchdown catch and scored on an interception return. He currently is listed as a four-star receiver by 247Sports and has 10 offers, including Auburn, Florida, Miami and Michigan.
22. Thomas Allen, Plant
Height/weight: 6-3, 235
ZACK WITTMAN | Times
Why we ranked him: Allen, the son of former USF defensive coordinator Tom Allen, arrived at Plant last season when his family moved to Tampa, and immediately he made an impact on the Panthers' stingy defense. The senior Indiana commit had 62 tackles, 27 for loss, four sacks and a fumble recovery in 2015. And though his family has moved to Bloomington, Ind., where his father has taken over as defensive coordinator for the Hoosiers, Allen will remain in Tampa — living with his grandparents — to finish his high school career at Plant.
23. Jermaine Eskridge, Jefferson
Position: Wide receiver
Height/weight: 6-3, 185
MONICA HERNDON | Times
You were deemed ineligible for most of the season last year after transferring. What did you learn from that experience?
"You talk to everybody you don't know, family, coaches, friends. I like to stay focused, too. I don't get caught up in all the hype."
What do you like the most about going to Jefferson?
"School first off; it's a great academic school. The coaches are great. Players are great, too. The team, that's the difference, the team. Everybody's going to get equally treated."
How's your chemistry with starting quarterback Cade Weldon?
"Me and Cade's got a great chemistry off the field. He teaches me a lot of things on the field."
What's the biggest thing you've been working on with your game?
"My routes. Getting more skinny on my routes and getting more physical."
What do you like to do when you're not playing football?
"I play Madden a lot. … I usually play with the Bucs.
24. Mekhi LaPointe, Armwood
Height/weight: 6-2, 180
LOREN ELLIOTT | Times
Five things to know about LaPointe:
1. Last season, LaPointe led Hillsborough County with 10 interceptions. He also had 53 tackles and 130 interceptions return yards. "I've just been working on my game lately, trying to read the quarterback," he said. "I don't know if it's a trick, really, it's just good instincts."
2. LaPointe — who had an interception in nine of 15 Armwood games, including two against Chamberlain — said his most memorable interception of the season came against King, when he returned the ball 40 yards for a touchdown. The score was the first in his career at Armwood. The Hawks beat the Lions that night 40-3.
3. This offseason, LaPointe tore his meniscus when he planted his foot and leaped to get a ball. He spent some time on crutches but expects to heal in time to play this season.
4. One of the best students on the football team, LaPointe makes good grades and is especially interested in engineering and physics. He said splitting his time between football and schoolwork every day isn't always easy. "Getting home from practice at like 7 o'clock, it's tough," he said.
5. LaPointe has 11 offers, including ones from USF, N.C. State and Cincinnati. He said he hasn't decided where he'd like to go just yet but is interested in what the schools have to offer academically. "I would like for them to have a good medical program, a good engineering program and just a good student body," LaPointe said.
25. De'Vonta Smith, Central
Position: Running back
Height/weight: 5-11, 185
BRENDAN FITTERER | Times
Smith had a spectacular junior year, rushing for 2,193 yards and 19 touchdowns. But he was only the second-best Smith to rush the ball on the North Suncoast in 2015. His cousin, Nature Coast's DeShawn Smith, who was named Florida's Mr. Football, rushed for 3,715 yards and 60 touchdowns.
While the bar is set exceptionally high, Smith said he is going to do everything he can to surpass his cousin.
"He had a tremendous season but I told him I'm coming to break those records," Smith said. "And with him being my cousin, I'm motivated to do it. He just said, 'We'll see.' "
For sure, everything must go right for Smith to get near 4,000 yards. This will be his third season as Central's feature back. As a sophomore he gained 833 yards for a 2-8 team. And as further motivation, DeShawn Smith gained 1,498 yards and scored 14 touchdowns in his junior year, both lower than De'Vonta's stats.
Central's offense also appears to be better. Senior Sam Garner has a strong arm and will step in for his first year as a starter. Dominique Walker, who transferred from Springstead for his senior year, will spell Smith some at running back. The offensive line is big, and a core of wide receivers should make the Bears more than one dimensional.
"I think we have other good players back there who are going to take eyes off of me," Smith said. "That's going to help a lot. Dominique can run it, Sam is good at quarterback and we have good receivers. We should be good on offense."
26. Jabreel Stephens, Armwood
Position: Defensive end
Height/weight: 6-5, 220
John C. Cotey, Special to the Times
Five things to know about Stephens:
1. This offseason, Stephens transferred to Armwood from Jefferson. A Seffner resident, Stephens used to wake up at 5 a.m. to get to school on time. Now he looks forward to a much later wake-up call and being a part of a powerhouse defense. "I like the coaches, I like the defense, I like the environment," Stephens said. "It's a good football team."
2. Last year at Jefferson, Stephens had 88 tackles, 19 for loss, and five sacks. He also recorded two interceptions, a forced fumble and five defended passes.
3. Stephens said he primarily played on the defensive line toward the end of last year, but at Armwood, he'll join a linebacking corps that graduated most of its big tacklers. It's a move the senior is looking forward to. "There's more versatility, more movement," he said. "You get to work in space."
4. Stephens transferred to Armwood around the same time as former Lennard quarterback Devin Black. The Hawks have a history that goes back farther than their new school. "I've known him since I was a kid," Stephens said about his teammate. "We used to play football for the same youth team, the South Shore Longhorns. It's pretty cool."
5. Stephens, a three-star recruit, has 18 Division I-A offers, including ones from California, Louisville, Florida and North Carolina.
27. Erin Collins, Armwood
Position: Running back
Height/weight: 5-10, 180
LOREN ELLIOTT | Times
Why we ranked him: Collins was one of Armwood's most versatile offensive weapons last season, as he rushed for 688 yards on 81 carries and added 442 yards on 17 receptions. Collins returns as just one part of the trio — alongside RB Brian Snead and ATH Darrian McNeal — that rushed for a combined 3,153 yards, carrying the Hawks to the state championship game against Miami Central. In that loss, Collins was one of the bright spots for Armwood, kicking off the afternoon with a 90-yard rushing touchdown on the Hawks' first offensive play of the game.
28. Austin Sessums, Tampa Catholic
Height/weight: 6-1, 180
LOREN ELLIOTT | Times
Sessums threw for more than 2,500 yards as a junior, completing 168-of-249 attempts and racking up 32 touchdowns through the air.
How's the offseason been going?
"Now that we've got workouts going and stuff, I think we're going to be better this year than we were last year (Class 3A state semifinalist). Everyone thinks that since we lost Nate (Craig-Myers), we're not going to be that good. But I'm not worried about it."
How does it feel having so many good skill players around you?
"It makes my job easy because I have so many people to throw to. It's easy for me. … When you know you can just throw the ball up and (Darius Corbett) can go grab it, it's good. Nate (Craig-Myers) was the same way. They're both really good weapons."
Your brother is a quarterback, too. Do y'all train a lot together?
"He goes to Wiregrass Ranch. I help him out a lot, but we're both competitive with each other, too. We want to be better than each other. We train with the same quarterback trainer, I help him with throwing and footwork and all that."
What has been your most memorable Tampa Catholic game?
"Since I just transferred to TC last year, it'd have to be the Jesuit game. I've never seen a crowd like that before, so it was crazy seeing a crowd that big."
Are you excited for a rematch with Jesuit?
"At first I didn't understand the rivalry that much, but now we're going to beat them this year. I want to beat them real bad."
29. Nicholas Petit-Frere, Berkeley Prep
Position: Offensive line/defensive line
Height/weight: 6-6, 250
David W. Doonan, Special to the Times
Petit-Frere by the numbers:
0 Sacks Petit-Frere said he remembers allowing last season.
1 Other language (Creole) Petit-Frere spoke sparingly when he was a child. His grandparents are Haitian. His last name means "little brother" in Creole.
2 Sacks Petit-Frere recorded in the spring game as a defensive lineman.
6 Times Petit-Frere eats each day (three regular meals, three snacks). He consumes 4,000 calories daily.
8 Pounds (and 14 ounces) Petit-Frere weighed when he was born.
10 Offers Petit-Frere has from Division I-A programs, including Auburn, Florida, Miami, Michigan and Ohio State.
30. Zamari Maxwell, Pinellas Park
Position: Cornerback/wide receiver
Height/weight: 6-1, 175
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Maxwell had an eye-popping seven interceptions last season. He is expected to be one of the top defensive backs in Pinellas County again this season.
You excelled at cornerback and you also played wide receiver. Do you have a preference?
"When I was younger my dream position was always wide receiver, until I came here. We are run heavy here, so the transition favored a DB more. It bothered me when I first got here. I was like, 'Dang, really?' I had a choice to either go here or Northside Christian. I felt like Northside Christian was too far away. I'm right down the street here. I made a good decision."
It's worked out well so far …
"Well, in the beginning I was kind of in a drought. I started off slowly, but then the week before the Countryside game I just started going on a streak. It was just technique and confidence. I was getting pass breakups before that, but then I started getting picks."
As a cornerback you have to be the last line of defense. Do you like that part of the position?
"It's a lot of responsibility, but I'm up for it. I'm not going to turn down that challenge. And this season they're going to put me on the best receiver. I might as well get used to it because in college there's going to be that competition every day."
You have a lot of colleges to choose from, right?
"It's going to be a hard decision. I'm taking it day by day. I've heard from Iowa, Tennessee, Kentucky, USF, UCF, Coastal Carolina, Marshall. I've just heard from Virginia Tech. I'm going to go on an official visit to Iowa. I might go to Iowa State in late July. I've visited North Carolina and Wake Forest."
What about expectations for this team?
"I think we should be pretty good as long as everything falls into place. Our district is ridiculous. St. Pete is good, East Lake is East Lake, Countryside is always good. But we'll be up for the task."
Compiled by staff writers Rodney Page, Kelly Parsons and Bob Putnam, and correspondent Scott Purks.