TAMPA — They said Pete DiNovo wasn't big enough to play college football. They said his arm wasn't strong enough, his aim not pure enough, and there were higher-ranked prospects out at the IMG National 7-on-7 Championships that were everything the East Lake High quarterback wasn't.
Then he went out and outplayed them all with fabulous aplomb, helping Team Tampa capture its first 7-on-7 national championship, and he followed that up with a record-setting season in the fall as his Eagles reached the region championship.
So when Brad Mayes looks at the possibilities this weekend, this is what he sees.
"I can't wait," he says.
Mayes is coming off an excellent spring game, leading his Berkeley Prep Bucs to a victory and throwing for 238 yards and three touchdowns, both better totals than he achieved in any game last fall.
He is 6 feet 2 and has bulked up to 205 pounds. A tireless worker and fearless competitor, Mayes has put in extra work this offseason and blossomed.
He works out with local quarterback guru John Kaleo and is coached at Berkeley Prep by one of the most respected coaches in Tampa Bay in Dominick Ciao, as well as quarterback coach and former Guy Toph Award winner Gary Godsey.
He is well-trained.
"I honestly think I am 10 times better than I was last year," he said.
While no one will mistake 7-on-7 for the real stuff played in the fall, almost everyone who has played for Team Tampa calls it one of the best experiences of their lives. For DiNovo, it was a game changer, giving him a little extra swagger in the fall.
Mayes hopes for the same experience. He already has jumped some of the same obstacles the former Eagle did.
In 2012, DiNovo went into the 7-on-7 season expected to back up Wharton's Chase Litton, a bigger recruit with more college attention.
But DiNovo emerged the starter, and the star of Team Tampa, while Litton took over in 2013 and won the team's second national title.
The day after leading his team to the championship in 2012, DiNovo picked up offers from USF and UCF, and is currently in a battle to be the Knights starter this fall.
Mayes and Hillsborough's 6-foot-5 Miami commitment Dwayne Lawson have gone back and forth this offseason, though it is the Buc senior that will run Team Tampa.
"In my opinion, Brad has a lot of the same intangibles I did," DiNovo said. "He's a good decision maker and accurate with the ball and he's a good leader. I think this is a good stage for him to go make a name for himself."
The similarities don't end there. DiNovo's top target in 2012 was East Lake teammate Artavis Scott and the two took their 7-on-7 experience into a successful fall campaign.
Mayes will play with Berkeley Prep teammate Jacob Mathis, a 6-5, 215-pound target that was most recently offered by Florida.
"He's one of my best friends, and having him out there with me is huge," Mayes said. "It's the best thing that could have happened to me. He keeps me calm, and knows what to say."
Mayes doesn't know if a big weekend will lead to college offers.
The pace of his recruitment has been a source of debate, though he does have offers from UMass, Akron, FIU and, most recently, Lehigh.
His bigger concern is trying to guide Team Tampa to a third straight national championship, and leading the Bucs back to the playoffs in the fall.
The rest will take care of itself, he says.
"There's a little bit of pressure but I have a lot of talented kids around me, from George (Campbell, East Lake) to Auden (Tate, Wharton) to Ryan (Davis, Lakewood) to Jacob, to throw to," he said. "I'm just looking at it as another great opportunity that I'm blessed to have."
John C. Cotey can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6261.