Juwan Burgess is considered one of the top 25 athletes in the country by recruiting services. He was previously committed to Southern California and has offers from major college programs such as Alabama, Clemson, FSU and Michigan.
Last week, Burgess spurned all of those schools, opting to go to Indiana, a program that has had only two winning seasons in the past 23 years and has not won a bowl game since 1991.
"For me, Indiana was like a brotherhood," he said.
While many experts did a double take, the decision should not be that surprising considering the Hoosiers' recent success of landing recruits from Tampa Bay.
Burgess made his commitment on Jan. 20, two days after Plant High teammate and best friend Whop Philyor, a receiver, announced he would be attending Indiana. They join another Panther standout, linebacker Thomas Allen, son of the head coach.
That is not all. Two others, Northside Christian offensive lineman Tyler Knight and Clearwater defensive lineman Tramar Reece, each pledged their allegiance to the Hoosiers earlier this season. That gives Indiana five local commits for the 2017 class, more than any other school in the country, including Florida and USF.
The list could grow. Largo defensive lineman Bobby Roundtree and Tampa Catholic running back Devan Barrett, currently an Auburn commit, are taking their official visits to the school this weekend.
So why the influx of locals? It starts with the coaches. Greg Frey, a former standout at Clearwater High and FSU, is the Hoosiers' co-offensive coordinator and has been on staff for the past seven seasons. Frey had previous coaching stops at USF, West Virginia and Michigan.
Frey also is Indiana's main recruiter for the bay area. His penchant for landing locals began in 2011 when former Largo standout Adarius Rayner signed with the Hoosiers.
There was a connection. Packers coach Rick Rodriguez was Frey's offensive line coach at Clearwater. That helped Frey and the Hoosiers land more Largo players. There are currently two former Packers on the roster — defensive back Jonathan Crawford and receiver Donavan Hale. Another local, former Hudson offensive lineman Grayson Stover, signed last year.
"The reason Indiana is having so much success in the area is all because of Greg Frey," Largo football coach Marcus Paschal said. "I have a great relationship with him that goes back a long way. He knows Rick Rodriguez, who I played for. Frey even recruited me when I played at Largo and he was an assistant at USF."
Paschal said the key for Frey and the Hoosiers is getting to kids early. Crawford and Hale picked up offers from Indiana when they were sophomores.
"I often call Greg and say you need to look at this kid because he is going to be a player," Paschal said. "And they get a jump in the process by offering before most other schools and sticking with that player. That is big.
"I've tried to tell (Willie) Taggart when he was at USF and now (Charlie) Strong that they have to do the same thing. You can't wait until a kid has four or five offers from other schools before jumping in. If you like a kid and know he's good, get that offer in early."
As the numbers of locals on Indiana's roster has increased, so have the wins. The Hoosiers have won six games and went to bowl games each of the past two seasons. Area players are contributing to the turnaround. Crawford has recorded a combined seven interceptions in his first two seasons and was an honorable mention Big Ten selection this past season.
The local connection was bolstered further in December when Indiana promoted defensive coordinator Tom Allen to head coach. Allen was a head coach at now defunct Temple Heights Christian in the early 1990s and was an assistant at Armwood High and the defensive coordinator at USF.
Allen's son graduated early and is already enrolled. Now, two other Plant players are coming, including Burgess.
"I know a lot of kids say a school has a family environment," Burgess said. "But that really is the case at Indiana. Coach Allen is a father whose kid played at Plant and is now with him at Indiana. We got to see what the coach was like at our school and we know he'll take care of us."