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How did FSU, USF and Florida let Tampa’s Michael Penix Jr. get away?

The state’s programs whiffed three different times on Washington’s star quarterback.
 
Michael Penix Jr. signed with Indiana after recruiting pushes by Florida State and USF when he was at Tampa Bay Tech. Penix has led Washington to the national championship game.
Michael Penix Jr. signed with Indiana after recruiting pushes by Florida State and USF when he was at Tampa Bay Tech. Penix has led Washington to the national championship game. [ GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES | Times files ]
Published Jan. 4

Though the College Football Playoff has historically been filled with Florida natives starring elsewhere, few defections have stung as much as Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr.

Florida’s programs didn’t merely whiff on the Heisman Trophy runnerup once. They, for one reason or another, passed or missed on him three different times.

“It’s pie on a lot of people’s faces,” former USF assistant and Bucs quarterback Shaun King said.

Pie that was rubbed in when Penix gave a shout out to his hometowns of Dade City and Tampa after leading No. 2 Washington past Texas to advance to Monday’s national championship against No. 1 Michigan. So how did Florida State, USF and the rest of Florida let him go from Tampa Bay Tech to Indiana and Washington?

Washington star Michael Penix Jr. has led the Huskies to the national title game.
Washington star Michael Penix Jr. has led the Huskies to the national title game. [ JACOB KUPFERMAN | AP ]

The answer isn’t ignorance. Penix starred for a well-known, talent-rich school in a well-trafficked recruiting hotbed. As a junior in 2016, he threw to Under Armour All-American Daquon Green, who signed with Florida. As a senior, he handed the ball off to Treshaun Ward, who committed to Maryland before walking on at FSU.

Recruiters clearly knew of Penix. Many just weren’t sold on the wiry, 6-foot-3, 190-pound lefty. One even asked his high school coach, Jayson Roberts, whether Penix could play safety.

“Everybody at that time thought he was just raw,” said John Kaleo, then one of his private quarterback coaches. “They were trying to push him into the category of just an athlete and not a quarterback …

“He was a complete miss (by recruiters).”

Michael Penix Jr. starred at Tampa Bay Tech, a talent-rich school in a talent-rich area.
Michael Penix Jr. starred at Tampa Bay Tech, a talent-rich school in a talent-rich area. [ Times (2016) ]

He was a complete miss by the Gators. Penix worked out at Florida and attended the 2016 spring game but never got an offer; Jim McElwain’s staff prioritized five-star recruit Justin Fields, then settled on top-100 recruit Matt Corral.

He was also a complete miss by Miami, which took a commitment from Artur Sitkowski before switching to top-100 prospect Jarren Williams.

Other state schools at least recognized Penix’s potential. His first offer came from Florida Atlantic in June 2015 after his freshman year. USF offered him the next spring.

“He was my No. 1 guy,” King said. “I saw a kid that was unbelievably accurate, that was calm when everything was chaotic.”

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King’s boss, Willie Taggart, apparently agreed. He offered Penix again a year later after leaving USF for Oregon.

“He was on him big-time,” Roberts said.

It wasn’t enough; Penix committed to Tennessee in the spring of his junior year, ending the state’s first chance to retain him.

Michael Penix Jr. first committed to Tennessee.
Michael Penix Jr. first committed to Tennessee. [ CHARLIE KAIJO | Times (2017) ]

The second came after the Vols’ coaching change from Butch Jones to Jeremy Pruitt forced Penix to reopen his recruitment just before December’s early signing period. USF and Taggart separately pursued Penix again.

Taggart visited Penix during his first week with the Seminoles and got Penix to visit Tallahassee on the final weekend.

“It was very much up in the air,” said On3 national host and producer Josh Newberg, who covered Penix as a Florida-based recruiting insider.

It was up in the air because Taggart hosted another, more coveted quarterback that weekend: Ohio State commit Emory Jones. When Taggart called Newberg a few hours before the signing period began, Newberg said he could feel the coach smiling through the phone.

“At that point, I don’t even think I asked him about Penix,” Newberg said. “He thought he was going to flip Emory Jones.”

He did not. Dan Mullen’s new Florida staff did.

USF made another push for Penix that might have worked if Taggart never left. King said he “was fighting an uphill battle in the building” because Penix is left-handed — a fact that makes some coaches rethink play designs and blocking assignments.

The Bulls’ visit included King (then the running backs coach) and head coach Charlie Strong but not offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Sterlin Gilbert. The Hoosiers, however, didn’t just bring coach Tom Allen and quarterbacks coach Nick Sheridan. They brought everyone else, too.

“I think that’s the first time still to this day I’ve ever had all 10 paid coaches come down for a home visit,” Roberts said.

On signing day, Penix left USF and FSU hats on the table at Tampa Bay Tech’s media center and put on a gray Hoosiers cap in a decision that, Penix later said, even his dad didn’t understand.

Michael Penix Jr. signed with Indiana, not USF or Florida State.
Michael Penix Jr. signed with Indiana, not USF or Florida State. [ Times (2017) ]

Four years later, Florida schools had their final chance to land Penix as he looked for a fresh start after a successful but injury-plagued time at Indiana. He entered the portal for another rapid-fire recruiting process that included a visit to UCF.

He quickly decided on Washington. The trust he built with new Huskies coach Kalen DeBoer — his position coach and coordinator at Indiana in 2019 — trumped any tug to return home.

“The biggest thing was just making sure it was a good fit for myself — and it definitely was, obviously, as you can see,” Penix told reporters before the Sugar Bowl semifinal. “I’m blessed to be where I’m at today.”

Starring far from Florida as another one that got away.

Times staff writer Joey Knight contributed to this report.

If not Michael Penix, then …

The Bulls didn't sign Michael Penix Jr. but got Jordan McCloud in the 2018 recruiting class.
The Bulls didn't sign Michael Penix Jr. but got Jordan McCloud in the 2018 recruiting class. [ SCOTT PURKS | For the Times (2017) ]

The quarterbacks from the 2018 recruiting class Florida schools signed instead of Tampa Bay Tech’s Michael Penix Jr. (with rankings from the 247Sports composite)

Florida: Four-star prospect Emory Jones accounted for 36 touchdowns in four years and took the starting job in 2021. The No. 85 overall recruit later transferred and started at Arizona State and Cincinnati.

Florida State: None. The Seminoles failed to sign a high school quarterback that cycle or the next.

USF: The Bulls added a pair of three-star prospects outside the top 1,000. Tampa’s Jordan McCloud started 17 games before transferring to Arizona and James Madison. Octavious Battle redshirted for a season, then left for Tennessee State.

Miami: Four-star recruit Jarren Williams became the Hurricanes’ starter in 2019 with highs (a school-record six touchdown passes against Louisville) and lows (three interceptions against Florida International). The No. 77 overall recruit later bounced to a community college and USF.

UCF: None. The Knights didn’t sign a prep quarterback in Josh Heupel’s transition class.

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