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Is Michael Penix Jr. the best college player Tampa Bay has produced?

The Tampa Bay Tech alumnus is the first Heisman finalist to hail from an area high school.
 
Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr., a Tampa Bay Tech alumnus raised in Dade City, is a finalist for the 2023 Heisman Trophy, to be presented Saturday night in New York City.
Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr., a Tampa Bay Tech alumnus raised in Dade City, is a finalist for the 2023 Heisman Trophy, to be presented Saturday night in New York City. [ LINDSEY WASSON | AP ]
Published Dec. 8, 2023

Penix, the Dade City-reared left-hander who has quarterbacked undefeated Washington to a Pac-12 title and College Football Playoff berth, is a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, which will be presented for the 89th time Saturday night in New York City.

If Penix’s name is called, the Tampa Bay Tech alumnus (he transferred from Pasco High following his sophomore season) would become the first player from a bay area high school to win the college game’s most coveted honor. If he doesn’t, he still has easily propelled himself to the forefront of any conversation regarding the best college player the bay area has produced.

As the announcement nears, we offer our list of the top college players to hail from a local high school, and where Penix lands on it. We’re defining the bay area as Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties (which excludes players like Bradenton Manatee’s Tommie Frazier, Lakeland Kathleen’s Ray Lewis or Bradenton Southeast’s Peter Warrick).

10. LB Maurice Crum

Maurice Crum, left, led Miami in tackles in 1988, 1989 and 1990.
Maurice Crum, left, led Miami in tackles in 1988, 1989 and 1990. [ Times (1990) ]

High school: Hillsborough (Class of 1987)

College: Miami (1987-90)

Crum was drafted out of high school by the White Sox but decided to keep playing football, too. It’s a good thing for the Hurricanes he did. Crum was on Miami’s 1987 national title team, then led the Hurricanes in tackles for each of the next three years (including the 1989 championship team). Crum was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame in 2007.

9. WR Mike Williams

USC coach Pete Carroll, right, celebrates with wide receiver Mike Williams after their 28-14 victory against Michigan in the 90th Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2004.
USC coach Pete Carroll, right, celebrates with wide receiver Mike Williams after their 28-14 victory against Michigan in the 90th Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2004. [ AP (2004) ]

High school: Plant (Class of 2002)

College: USC (2002-05)

A Plant two-sport sensation, Williams’ transition to college was seamless and spectacular. His 81 catches for 1,265 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first season remain Pac-12 freshman records. He followed with an equally dazzling sophomore year (95 catches, 1,314 yards, 16 TDs) before legally challenging the NFL’s rule that a player must be three years removed from high school to be eligible for the draft. That challenge failed, and Williams missed the 2004 season before entering the 2005 draft, where he was the 10th overall pick.

8. RB Dexter McCluster

As an Ole Miss senior in 2009, Largo High alumnus Dexter McCluster became the first player in SEC history to collect 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in a season.
As an Ole Miss senior in 2009, Largo High alumnus Dexter McCluster became the first player in SEC history to collect 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in a season. [ AP (2009) ]
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High school: Largo (Class of 2006)

College: Ole Miss (2006-09)

After mostly nondescript freshman and sophomore seasons, McCluster emerged as one of the nation’s top all-purpose weapons his final two years. In 2009, he became the first SEC player to collect at least 1,000 rushing yards (1,169) and 500 receiving yards (520) in a single season, earning first-team All-SEC and third-team All-America honors. His 282 rushing yards in a 42-17 romp of Tennessee remain a Rebels single-game record.

7. DB Javier Arenas

Javier Arenas was a major part in Alabama's great teams in the early 2000s.
Javier Arenas was a major part in Alabama's great teams in the early 2000s. [ Times (2008) ]

High school: Robinson (Class of 2006)

College: Alabama (2006-09)

The most accomplished special teams player on this list. Arenas remains Alabama’s career leader in punt return yards (1,752), punt return touchdowns (seven) and kick return yards (2,166). He also recorded five interceptions at defensive back as a senior in 2009, when he was named a consensus All-American and SEC Special Teams Player of the Year (15.4 yards per punt return, 29.4 yards per kick return, one punt return TD).

6. QB Shaun King

As a Tulane senior in 1998, Gibbs High alumnus Shaun King led the Green Wave to a 12-0 record and set an NCAA single-season pass-efficiency record (183.3).
As a Tulane senior in 1998, Gibbs High alumnus Shaun King led the Green Wave to a 12-0 record and set an NCAA single-season pass-efficiency record (183.3). [ AP (1998) ]

High school: Gibbs (Class of 1995)

College: Tulane (1995-1998)

If this list were limited to Pinellas players, King might headline it. The first freshman in Tulane history to pass for 1,000 yards, his career hit a new stratosphere in 1997 when the Green Wave hired Tommy Bowden as coach, and Bowden hired Rich Rodriguez to install a then-fledgling offensive scheme known as the spread. In his final two seasons, King totaled 6,842 yards (5,799 passing) and led the Green Wave to a 12-0 finish in 1998. His 183.3 pass-efficiency rating as a senior set an NCAA record.

5. DL Jerome Brown

Jerome Brown was one of the finest athletes Hernando County has ever produced.
Jerome Brown was one of the finest athletes Hernando County has ever produced. [ Times (1985) ]

High school: Hernando (Class of 1983)

College: Miami (1983-86)

Arguably the greatest athlete produced by Hernando High, Brown cracked Miami’s defensive line rotation as a freshman in 1983, when the Hurricanes won their first national title. Three seasons later, he earned consensus All-America honors and was a finalist for the Outland Trophy. The No. 9 overall pick by the Eagles (in 1987), Brown finished his UM career with 183 tackles and 21 sacks.

4. DL Marty Lyons

 Marty Lyons (No. 93) starred at Alabama.
Marty Lyons (No. 93) starred at Alabama. [ AP (1978) ]

High school: St. Petersburg Catholic (Class of 1975)

College: Alabama (1975-78)

Raised in Pinellas Park, Lyons totaled 202 tackles and six forced fumbles in his Crimson Tide career, culminating with a monstrous senior year (119 tackles) in which he earned consensus All-America honors and helped lead the Tide to a national title. Elected to Alabama’s “Team of the Century,” Lyons later played for the Jets’ legendary “New York Sack Exchange” defensive front and for 40 years has used his foundation to help improve the life of terminally-ill kids.

3. QB Aaron Murray

Aaron Murray is the all-time leading passer in SEC history.
Aaron Murray is the all-time leading passer in SEC history. [ Times (2012) ]

High school: Plant (Class of 2009)

College: Georgia (2009-13)

A product of the pre-portal era, Murray stuck around for five seasons in Athens and became one of the SEC’s most prolific passers as a result. A four-year starter for the Bulldogs, he led Georgia to a pair of East Division titles, passing for 13,166 yards and 121 touchdowns. Both remain SEC all-time records.

2. LB Steve Kiner

Tennessee's Steve Kiner was one of the finest linebackers of his era.
Tennessee's Steve Kiner was one of the finest linebackers of his era. [ AP (1968) ]

High school: Hillsborough (Class of 1966)

College: Tennessee (1966-69)

A Terriers multi-sport star, Kiner evolved into a two-time consensus All-American linebacker and College Football Hall of Famer (1999). He had five interceptions as a senior in 1969, when he was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year and led the Vols to the SEC title. His performance in a 41-14 romp of Alabama (14 tackles, interception, forced fumble) gave him legendary status in Knoxville.

1. QB Michael Penix Jr.

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is our pick for the best college football player the Tampa Bay area has ever produced.
Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is our pick for the best college football player the Tampa Bay area has ever produced. [ LINDSEY WASSON | AP ]

High school: Tampa Bay Tech (Class of 2018)

College: Indiana (2018-21), Washington (2022-23)

Penix is one of the all-time great players at two different schools. He led Indiana to its best finish in the Associated Press poll (12th in 2020) in more than 50 years, highlighted by the miraculous, diving upset of Penn State. The Hoosiers were 12-5 when he started and 4-12 when he didn’t, and his 29 touchdown passes and 59.4 completion percentage are both among the 10 best in program history.

Injuries forced him to seek a fresh start at Washington. He merely led the nation in passing last year (4,641 yards) and this year (4,218) with 64 touchdowns spread across them. Penix ranks in the top four in program history in virtually every passing category.

The Huskies were 7-9 and a mess before Penix’s arrival. They’re 24-2 under him. Washington sits 13-0 this season after a pair of fourth-quarter rallies against rival Oregon, including in the Pac-12 title game. He can still add to his legacy; he’ll lead Washington against Texas in the Jan. 1 Sugar Bowl semifinal. Whatever happens, his status as the area’s best college player is complete.

Honorable mention

RB Rick Casares, Florida (Jefferson): Arguably Gators’ first great all-purpose player

DE Darren Howard, Kansas St. (Boca Ciega): Two-time first-team All-Big 12 pick in late 1990s

QB Gary Huff, FSU (Leto): Led nation in TD passes in 1971 and 1972

QB John Reaves, Florida (Robinson): Set NCAA career passing yardage record in 1971

WR Artavis Scott, Clemson (East Lake): Still Clemson’s all-time receptions leader (245)

RB Larry Smith, Florida (Robinson): Three-time first-team All-SEC pick in late 1960s

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