DADE CITY — Here in the rural community that spawned him, where the county fair and Kumquat Festival remain the biggest annual draws, they still call him Little Mike.
No amount of college football immortality is likely to change that. Within weeks, University of Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. could be awarded his sport’s most coveted honor. But for the 23-year-old left-hander who spent the bulk of his youth in East Pasco County, such prestige would simply mean he’d have two labels — Heisman Trophy winner and Little Mike — affixed to him for life.
“That’s all you’re going to get around here,” said childhood friend Nate Craig-Myers, who also played Power Five college football and now serves as a UCF offensive and recruiting assistant.
“Don’t too many people call him Michael Penix. Everybody knows him by Little Mike.”
Little Mike has spent most of the autumn torching defenses across the Pacific time zone, deftly positioning himself to become the first player from a Tampa Bay area (Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas) high school to win the Heisman.
Entering Saturday night’s game at No. 10 Oregon State, Penix had led his school to its second 10-0 start and a No. 5 national ranking. His 353.3 passing yards per game led the nation, and he ranked fourth in touchdown passes (28), sixth in passing yards per attempt (9.7) and eighth in pass efficiency (170.5).
In consecutive October weekends, he helped engineer fourth-quarter comebacks against then-No. 8 Oregon and Arizona State. Bestowed with the frame (6-feet-3, 213 pounds) that fits well within the NFL’s unstated prerequisites, he has swayed Heisman voters with his velocity and vision, proficiency and poise.
And in a nod to the keenness of hindsight, those peers from his youth said they saw that potential years ago. Really, they did.
“He always had an arm, that’s for sure,” said former Pasco High teammate Grant Starling, the Pirates’ senior starting quarterback in 2014 when Penix served as his freshman backup.
“Even back then, the way that he would get upset with himself, not just for throwing an interception but just if he missed a read or the way he carried himself and expected to be, that want to compete and succeed, it’s always been there.
“I knew just talent-wise, the way he threw the ball and the zip he had on it, I was like, ‘You’re going to get to pick where you want to go (to college). It’s just a matter of time.’”
‘Buffalo Soldier’ at birth
Penix was born in Cookeville, Tennessee, home of Tennessee Tech University. His mom, Takisha, ran track for the Golden Eagles. The elder Mike Penix, a 1,200-yard rusher and first-team all-state defensive back as a Pasco senior in 1991, ran for more than 2,000 career yards at Tech. His 261 rushing yards in a 1993 win against Southeast Missouri remains the Eagles’ single-game record.
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“Buffalo Soldier,” the iconic song by Bob Marley and the Wailers, happened to be cued up on mom Takisha’s playlist when she delivered the oldest of her three kids on May 8, 2000. The next milestone moment in Little Mike’s life would occur in Dade City, where his parents raised him.
Little Mike took his first steps in the south end zone of W.F. Edwards Stadium at Pasco High.
“I put him on the ground and he walked, because I always took him to practice with me,” said the elder Penix, then a Pirates assistant. “And the trainers would watch him while I practiced.”
As a toddler, Little Mike would run through the house, tossing tiny footballs in the air and catching them. His dad also insists he could whack a baseball 20 or 30 yards at that age. Ultimately, his parents let him try everything — football, baseball, basketball, track and soccer.
But few doubted his destiny would involve spirals instead of sliders.
“Just his mindset, being (more) mature than his age, being able to see the game different at a young age,” said Craig-Myers, who evolved into an all-state receiver (and Auburn signee) at Tampa Catholic after starting his career at Pasco.
“You could see at a young age, he had flashes. He could run, he could throw it. He could sling the rock.”
It was Little Mike’s paternal grandmother, of all people, who insisted he needed a private quarterback coach to help refine his burgeoning skills. Ultimately, the family reached out to Chip Bennett, whose Tampa-based QB training academy (The Stable) has spawned at least four players who made an NFL roster or practice squad.
Bennett, whose staff then included former Maryland and Tampa Bay Storm quarterback John Kaleo, drove to Pasco Middle School to work out Penix — who hadn’t yet started high school — on the school’s practice field.
“And he was raw, but I remember getting in the car and calling John Kaleo saying, ‘We have a Power Five quarterback,’” Bennett recalled.
Also recognizing the lofty ceiling was Starling’s father Brad, then offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Pasco. To hasten Little Mike’s development, Brad Starling suggested to the elder Mike Penix that he allow his son to play varsity as a freshman to log practice reps against older, bigger players.
“He had a rocket of an arm,” said Brad Starling, who quarterbacked Pasco to an undefeated regular season in 1983. “At that age, he could throw it. ... You could see the raw talent was there. Just physically, he was still kind of lanky.”
When Grant Starling was sidelined by an ankle sprain, Little Mike made his first varsity start in a must-win district showdown against rival Hernando on Oct. 17, 2014. The Pirates committed three early turnovers and gave up a safety when a tailback was tackled in the end zone, but Little Mike responded with touchdown passes of 19 and 4 yards to help rally his team to a 24-2 victory.
He earned the starting job the following season and shredded Wiregrass Ranch with five touchdown passes in a 53-41 spring game victory, but struggled with his consistency that fall as the Pirates transitioned to a wing-T offense under a new coordinator. After a 4-6 season ended with a 50-16 loss to rival Zephyrhills, the Penix family decided a change was needed.
“Don’t get me wrong, Pasco High is where I went to school at, and I’ll always have something special for the red and black,” the elder Penix said. “But as a parent, you have to look over that kind of stuff.
“You can’t have a quarterback like Michael in the wing-T. He’s never been a running quarterback. That’s what people don’t understand — he’s never been a running quarterback, ever. Now, people think he can’t run, but they’re dead wrong. ... He just doesn’t like to run, that’s not his game.”
A fresh start
Bennett, who still was working with Little Mike roughly twice a week, suggested the family look at Tampa Bay Tech, which had an established coach (Jayson Roberts) who oversaw a spread-style system more conducive to Little Mike’s skill set.
Ultimately, the family moved to Riverview and Little Mike arrived at Tampa Bay Tech in the spring of 2016. At that point, the Titans were participating in an offseason seven-on-seven league when the immediate future of Roberts’ program flashed before him.
“He threw an out from one hash to the (opposite) sideline on a frozen rope, and everybody kind of stopped,” Roberts recalled. “And it was a deep out. My (offensive coordinator) and I kind of looked at each other like, ‘That ain’t normal.’”
Shortly after that workout, returning Titans quarterback Trent Wyatt, who had helped lead the Titans to the playoffs the prior season, informed Roberts and coordinator Anthony Palmer he’d be willing to change positions to accommodate the new guy.
Little Mike threw for more than 2,000 yards with 31 touchdowns and only one interception that season, leading Tampa Bay Tech (9-2) to the second round of the postseason. In a 48-45 double-overtime win against St. Petersburg in a first-round playoff game, his 55-yard fourth-quarter strike to Daquon Green set up the game-tying touchdown by — of all people — Wyatt.
That poise and proficiency hit another level in his senior season. The Tampa Bay Times’ Offensive Player of the Year for Hillsborough County, he passed for 2,165 yards, 30 touchdowns and only two picks, leading the Titans (11-2) to the Class 6A region finals. In two full seasons at Tampa Bay Tech, Little Mike totaled 61 TDs and three interceptions.
“Two were tipped passes,” insists Roberts, who also watched his QB excel in basketball (as an above-the-rim forward) and baseball (as a centerfielder) for the Titans.
“He is just incredibly accurate with his ball placement, and he’s just probably the best student of the game I’ve been around. He knows what he’s looking at, he knows what the defense is trying to give him, what they’re taking away, what’s going to be open, what’s not going to be open. He’s just uncanny at throwing to guys open and with his ball placement.”
Shortly before Christmas 2017, Little Mike pledged to Indiana, where he’d spend his first four collegiate seasons. The announcement capped a frustrating recruiting odyssey that included a commitment to Tennessee before Volunteers coach Butch Jones was fired in November of that year. Roberts still maintains his most prominent quarterback ever was under-recruited.
He knows what his eyes witnessed for two full seasons.
Same thing Little Mike’s buddies had seen years before.
“I know (his Heisman candidacy) is huge for everybody in (Dade) City,” Craig-Myers said. “We’re loving it. He’s bringing hope back home.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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