A gorgeous Sunday afternoon just begged for some football, and while not the real stuff, a 7-on-7 scrimmage between Unsigned Preps and the Next Level Nighthawks at Ferrell Middle School seemed a worthy way to catch some rays.
Unsigned Preps has a nice little squad, and Next Level was clearly no match. I didn't keep score, but there were very few possessions that Unsigned Preps did not score on, and very few that Next Level, comprised mostly of kids from Plant City, Strawberry Crest and Spoto, did.
Last year, Team Tampa won the national championship at IMG, and has lots of 247Sports and ESPN juice behind it. Predictably it has another big-time squad. But it will have a big bull'-eye on its back, as well as some legitimate local competition from Unsigned Preps, this year.
Next Level has a ways to go, though it could have made the case for having the best player on the field in Chargers rising senior Alex Carswell, who was terrific. But the overall level of competition was not up to Unsigned Preps' standards, so take Sunday's dominance with a grain of salt.
Here are 10 things from Sunday:
1. Pasco's Malik Johns was the most productive player out there Sunday. He returned punts for touchdowns in the first six games last season for the Pirates, and his speed is legit. He'll excel in the slot for Unsigned Preps and was uncoverable Sunday. Either he split defenders down the middle of the field for catches, or he simply used his speed out of the break to leave them behind. He also showed off his athleticism with a leaping catch for a score, and pulled down another pass that was bobbled and tipped with a defender draped all over him.
Most often, the 7-on-7 game comes down to this: quarterback. This will be the big debate between Team Tampa and Unsigned Preps: who has best one? Team Tampa alum and Louisville-bound Richard Benjamin, who was working out Sunday and engaged Sailor in a friendly debate, says Team Tampa has the edge with Wharton's Chase Litton, Gaither's Alex McGough and Berkeley Prep's Brad Mayes. As far as stature goes, he's right. Those might be the three biggest names at that position heading into the fall.
But Sailor argues that no one has thrown for more yards and touchdowns on Friday nights the past two seasons than Porter, an under-the-radar talent. Litton actually has more yards (4,788 to 4,166) but played four more games in the playoffs, while Porter has the touchdown advantage 44 to 33.
That may all be a moot point, however, as word out of Team Tampa camp is that Mayes has been the best and most consistent quarterback so far. But we're not ready to compare teams just yet, so back to Sunday's action.
3. I heard someone say that whomever doesn't make the cut at quarterback for Team Tampa has to be picked up by Unsigned Preps. Sailor's reaction Why? He's been pleased with the guys he has. Though with Cain being just a sophomore and McIntyre just a freshman, a little experience might not hurt. But he's not looking and may have a few surprises down the road.
4. Unsigned Preps' defensive backs are quite good. Jefferson's Chavez Pownell had two interceptions Sunday, including one terrific leaping catch, and Largo's Cordell Hudson matched him with a leaping catch on the other side of the field. Hudson did have to do 10 push-ups for dropping an easy interception, but he had blanket coverage all afternoon. As much Twitter run as Hudson has been getting, thanks to a very good outing at the Ignite Combine last week, Sailor says Pownell has been his best cover guy through four practices.
And Sickles' Ray Ray McCloud and Boca Ciega's Kenyatta Anderson, a pair of rising juniors, also had interceptions and looked good.
Johns and rising Pasco sophomore Nate Craig, who made one crazy catch on the first drive of the afternoon and added a touchdown, are great finds for Sailor, who has also reached up into the North Suncoast for big receivers Rohan Blackwood and Jonathan Thomas out of Nature Coast. If he can keep them driving all that ways for practices, he's pulled off a coup.
5. Two guys to keep an eye on -- Boca Ciega rising sophomore Saivion Smith and King rising senior Darian Wright. Both are slightly built, but made some catches running the shorter routes. Wright had a nice conversion catch in traffic. Smith will start at quarterback for the Pirates in the fall, but he's playing wide receiver for Unsigned Preps.
6. Unsigned Preps has nice size and speed on the outside with the 6-3, 200-pound Craig and Jefferson's 6-1 Derrick Ingram, who will also be playing lots of safety for the team as colleges really want to him at that position, but they have some soft-handed running backs that made plays all afternoon. In fact, you could say that the stable of backs, if you include Johns, though he's more of a slot receiver, is the best thing about the team, based on Sunday's performance.
Tampa Bay Tech's Deon Thompson turned some short catches into long gainers, and made an increible leaping catch in the end zone as two Nighthawk defenders crashed into each other in mid air trying to stop it. It was one of those catches that makes teammates high five each other.
McCloud had some nice moves in the open field as well. And in warmups and the scrimmage, I'm not sure I saw Durant's Chris Atkins drop a ball.
"We're all pretty elusive,'' Thompson said. "It's a chance to show we can do more than just run the ball. Everyone knows we can do that. But we get some work here on running routes and making some catches. I want people to know that I'm not just an average back.''
7. Plant City's Jyquis Thomas (listed at 6-1, 180 on last year's roster though he looks bigger) used his long arms to his advantage breaking up two passes, and he passes the eye test for sure. Great looking prospect. He made a nice pass breakup in the corner of the end zone in front of one recruiting analyst, who hustled over to the Nighthawks sideline to grab his phone number.
8. Carswell, who at 6-4, 200 is an intriguing prospect at either wide receiver or defensive end, is good. Really, really good. He made an excellent leaping catch for one of Next Level's few touchdowns, leaping over Hudson, and will have the added benefit of playing with his high school team quarterback, Tristan Hyde, on this all-star team.
He's already the next Karel Hamilton in one way: I can't believe he doesn't already have an offer, or some strong interest from a bunch of schools, though he says Kentucky has definitely shown the most.
9. Sailor spent a good 10 minutes going over a player's grades with his father after the scrimmage, explaining the forms he needed, the tests that had to be taken and the grades the player needs to be getting. Good stuff.
10. The first real test for Unsigned Preps comes March 2 when the team competes at the AIRO 7-on-7 tournament in Pembroke Pines. The top two teams from that event will qualify for the IMG South Regional championships in April.
Bonus: The rallying cry for Unsigned Preps so far? "We're the real Team Tampa!" The argument, all in good fun, is that Unsigned Preps has far more Tampa players on its team, and that the best players on Team Tampa are from Pinellas County. It's true, considering the impact East Lake, Northeast, Lakewood and Largo will probably have for Team Tampa, but what's in a name?