Saturday, December 16, 2017

Two Ravens have little in common but a lot of upside

TAMPA — Alonso teammates Gary Brown and Ish Witter used Twitter to announce their commitments to Division I football programs last week within two days of each other.

Brown, a 6-foot-3, 290-pound offensive lineman, is headed to Georgia Tech, choosing the Yellow Jackets from the 17 offers he received. Witter, an eye-catching running back who has already rushed for 480 yards in 2013, chose Missouri — sight unseen, despite taking unofficial visits elsewhere.

Both Ravens have trouble putting into words their excitement about playing football on Saturdays next fall. But the similarities between them stop there.

For Witter, college football is simply the next step in a journey he began long ago. Brown is grateful to be in a place he never dreamed he'd be just three years ago.

"(Witter has) been almost born for this. Gary is the total opposite," coach Brian Emanuel said. "We really had to pull him along and baby him and get him bought in."

A plan progresses

Witter was in class one February afternoon when Emanuel called him into his classroom to take a phone call. A coach from Rutgers was on the other end, ready to make Witter his first offer.

"I couldn't stop thinking about it all day," he recalled.

Since then, the 5-foot-8, 195-pound running back received 14 others. He made trips to Rutgers and Syracuse and enjoyed his time at both places. Throughout the process, however, Witter was impressed by the Missouri staff's attentiveness. Witter said he received mail from Mizzou every day and spoke with coaches on a regular basis.

The Tigers' loyalty — along with the allure of playing in the SEC — was reason enough for Witter to call Columbia his future home.

Witter is averaging almost 7 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns in the Ravens' 56-14 win against Spoto last week. He's only halfway through his senior season, but he's already thinking about the future.

"It's the biggest dream, to make it to the NFL," Witter said. "You've got to get through college to make it to the NFL."

A late start

Three years ago, Emanuel saw a 6-2, 300-pound freshman walking the halls at Alonso. That kid, Emanuel thought to himself, must play football.

He and his staff tried to recruit Brown, to no avail.

"He was all about drawing anime and watching cartoons," Emanuel said. "He didn't want any part of it."

Brown had a short stint with the Tampa Bay Youth Football League but quickly quit after discovering the other kids were bigger than him. As a large high school freshman, Alonso coaches assured him that was no longer going to be an issue.

"All the football coaches kept bothering me about it," Brown said. "So when my sister left (high school) I was like, 'I'm not going to have anything else to do so I might as well play football.' "

Now Brown, who had never lifted a weight before joining the Alonso football team his sophomore year, holds the Ravens' dead-lift record at 605 pounds. Brown, relatively new to the game of football, doesn't speak of professional dreams. In fact, it was Georgia Tech's entrepreneurship program, something Brown hopes to take up one day, that helped him choose the school.

"He's not a football lifer," Emanuel said. "He doesn't know who Derek Jeter is. He's not a sports guy. But he likes playing football and being able to take his aggression out."

Two players, one future

Standing outside of their team's study hall on a Tuesday afternoon, Witter and Brown enjoy the camaraderie forged after having gone through the recruiting process together. During the past six months, Brown said, the two talked about their offers, shared stories from unofficial visits.

Their paths might have been different, but they led to the same place. It's a destination, Emanuel said, both Ravens appreciate equally.

"They understand that this is a great opportunity to get a free education, and that means something to them," he said. "They're both 'yes sir, no sir' guys and will never be a problem for the university. I think that will bode well for them."

Kelly Parsons can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @_kellyparsons.

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