TAMPA — In a time when it's common for high school football players to change schools looking for the best way to realize their college dreams, Blake High's Michael McFarland is the perfect example of why they don't have to go anywhere.
McFarland's Yellow Jackets have a new coach after winning just one game last season. In his three years on Blake's varsity, McFarland has won just six games while playing four positions. Despite that, the rising senior — who has a qualifying standardized test score (1200 SAT) and grade point average (2.9) — has orally committed to Florida, choosing the defending national champions over Auburn and Boston College.
"People told me all the time, 'If you're good enough, they'll find you,' " McFarland said. "That was my goal coming into high school … trying to get a scholarship and get out of this place. I haven't had the best life in the world. After that came, it put me one step closer to my goals."
That doesn't mean the 6-foot-6, 230-pound McFarland wasn't tempted to transfer. He came close to transferring to Hillsborough during last winter break.
"I had to self-check myself and see all the stuff I'd be leaving behind just to play for a team that's not guaranteed to have a winning season," he said.
McFarland's legal guardian is Blake girls basketball coach Calvin Barrs. McFarland's father, who served jail time during the player's early teen years, is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. His mother died of cancer last year.
"He got confused about it all," Barrs said. "I think he realized how much the people at Blake cared about him, that we weren't just out there for him to help us win a state title."
Lost games don't mean lost offers
Temptation to transfer is especially strong for players in losing programs. But take Leto's Jeremy Deering, one of the state's top running-back recruits despite playing for a team that was 3-7 last season.
Leto offensive coordinator Frank Rose remembers promising a freshman Deering that he would be one of the nation's top recruits as a senior.
"Honestly, I didn't believe it," said Deering, who has 39 Division I scholarship offers, including ones from Purdue, Illinois, Iowa, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Michigan, Rutgers, West Virginia, USF and UCF. He has a qualifying grade point average (2.8) and SAT score (800).
At Leto, where most players have to play on both sides of the ball and the 2008 roster was only 34 players deep, Deering had to play running back, quarterback and defensive back. He rushed for 1,000 yards and threw for 850 last season. Once he received his first offer, from Syracuse, others quickly came in.
The same happened for McFarland. His first offer came from Boston College; Auburn followed shortly thereafter. Then one day he was called to Blake's front office to meet Florida coach Urban Meyer and assistant head coach Dan McCarney.
"I hit the corner, I almost peed myself," McFarland said. "I saw coach Meyer and coach McCarney there with suits on. I was like, 'This can't be happening. They must be coming here for something else.' I thought I was on TV getting punked or something."
Deering and McFarland said that playing at lower-profile schools not only has allowed them to showcase their talents more, but college coaches take their loyalty into account during recruiting.
"The college coaches that recruit you tell you it's a good thing that you stayed," Deering said. "Sometimes they ask you why you stayed. Sometimes it's the first question. They automatically think you transferred in if you're that good."
McFarland echoes that sentiment.
"I know (the UF coaches) trust me because I've been there four years," he said. "You've just got to be patient. When I was a freshman, the big dog here was Ryan Davis. Now I've got his football number and his basketball number. All I had to do was wait my turn."
Transferring also shuts out players who may have been waiting years for their turn to start, then lose their spots to a newcomer. When a student transfers into a program, another kid may have to switch positions or be benched.
One example is Riverview rising senior Ronnie Johnson, who originally attended Armwood and played junior varsity for two years. He returned to his zoned school after former Plant City running back Sir Chauncey Holloway transferred to Armwood, where Johnson had hoped to compete for the starting job in 2008. (Holloway ultimately did not play because he received a one-year suspension for falsifying his address.)
"If Holloway gets to play, that dude starts," Riverview coach Bruce Gifford said. "The guy sitting there for three years is still waiting for an opportunity, and he's still on the bench.
"Anyone that transfers into a new school can potentially bump someone out of another spot. If you have a senior transfer from another school that was a starter and all of a sudden he shows up at your school …"
Jefferson athletic director Bob Morgan said that is a disservice to the player who has waited for his turn: "Plant has a strong tradition of parents and grandparents that went there. Those kids don't get the opportunity to play. There's more importance on playing high school sports and getting scholarships, but you're missing the point of high school athletics — an extension of the academic program or the school as a whole. I'm surprised (transferring is) being tolerated."
Staff writer Izzy Gould contributed to this report.