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HomeTeam 100 football countdown: Players 21-30

Times file (2017)
Times file (2017)
Published Aug. 1, 2018

Our seventh annual countdown of the top 100 football players in Tampa Bay — consisting of athletes who attend a public or private school in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco or Hernando counties. Past performances — spanning the fall, spring and summer — and promise of big things to come are all taken into consideration.

21. Michael Weston, Nature Coast

Year: Senior

Position: Running back, inside linebacker

Height/Weight: 6-2, 210

When Weston was a freshman in 2015, he played behind all-everything back DeShawn Smith, who gained 3,715 yards as a senior. Last year he emerged as the Sharks' top back and carried on the school’s running back tradition. Here are four things to know about Weston:

Confidence: He led the team last season with 99 carries and 1,135 yards. He has much higher goals this season. “I want to be the best back in Hernando County. Wait, make that the best back in Florida.”

On the mat: When he is not running over tacklers, Weston is trying to pin opponents on the wrestling team. He wrestles in the 220-pound weight class and said it helps him on the field. “It’s made me stronger. And it keeps me in shape."

His turn: Weston shared the ball with T.J. Owens in his sophomore year and with Fabian Burnett last season. Burnett is also returning. Weston said he felt comfortable on varsity after the first carry of his sophomore year. Now he wants to dominate. "When it’s finally your turn you have to do what you gotta do to stay there. This season I’m not going to be sharing the ball much. I want to carry the ball as much as I can.”

Both sides: Weston is listed as a linebacker, but he will mostly play at running back. “We’ve got a lot of other players who are good at defense.”

Courtesy of Pinellas Park
Courtesy of Pinellas Park

22. Alvin Mathis, Pinellas Park

Year: Junior

Position: Linebacker, running back

Height/Weight: 6-1, 201

Known to his teammates and friends as A.J., Mathis is mainly a defensive player who may also get some chances on offense. A varsity player since the middle of his freshman year, he is one of the top juniors in the area. Here are five things to know about Mathis:

Top recruit: Mathis is being looked at by several schools as a linebacker. He has offers from both Florida and Florida State. Indiana, Iowa State, North Carolina and Kentucky have also shown interest. Expect many more schools to get onboard before his high school career is over. “I think I’m going to wait to decide until before my senior year.”

Best buds: Mathis and Patriots’ running back Lawrance Toafili have been on the same football teams since they were 8 years old. They started with the Pinellas Park T-Birds and have been together ever since. They both played junior varsity as freshmen and both moved to varsity for the final four games of the season. Like Mathis, Toafili is a top recruit. “You could tell L.T. was going to be good even back then.”

A chance on offense: The Patriots are fairly stacked on offense, but Mathis is too talented to keep off the field. He could get some carries as a pounding fullback or he could catch some passes. “I think they might try me as a slot receiver.” But his first love will always be defense. “I like hitting people too much.”

Part-time work: This summer, Mathis has worked part-time at the Sky Zone indoor trampoline center in Largo. After working there in the mornings, it’s off to summer workouts at Pinellas Park.

Down time: When there is time to relax, Mathis said he takes it. But usually he gets antsy and has to find something to do. “I really don’t do too much. If I have some free time I usually hit the basketball court with some friends.”

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

23. Jerjuan Newton, Clearwater Central Catholic

Year: Senior

Position: Athlete

Height/Weight: 6-0, 170

It is hard to pin down what position Newton plays because he does so many things for the Marauders. Last season, he had 314 yards rushing, 318 receiving and another 380 in returns. He also had 86 tackles and three interceptions on defense. Here are three things to know about Newton:

Quantum leap: Newton made one of the biggest jumps on the HomeTeam 100 list, going from 81 last year to 23. A big reason is his versatility. Newton can line up at just about any skill position and is just as reliable in the secondary.

Football family: Two years ago, Newton played with his three brothers, Jervon, Jerquan and Jerzahn. Identical twins Jervon and Jerquan graduated and are now at Marist. The brothers also like to pay homage to each other. After wearing No. 22 two years ago, Jerjuan started wearing No. 4 last year, the jersey Jervon had previously worn.

All-purpose all-star: The three-star prospect is being recruited mostly as an all-purpose back. He has 12 offers, the biggest ones coming from Florida, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times
MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times

24. Brandon Gary, Clearwater

Year: Senior

Position: Middle linebacker

Height/Weight: 6-1, 230

A first-time starter last season, Gary developed into a major Division I-A prospect, finishing with 88 tackles and four sacks. Here are four things to know about Gary:

Guardian angel: Gary lived a vagabond life, bouncing from one group home to another. When Gary came to Clearwater in January 2017, Jordan Lemery became Gary’s case worker, as well as his de-facto guardian. She set him up in a foster home and became a stabilizing force in his life. “(Lemery) helped me with everything, especially my mental stability. She stayed with me at the foster care office all hours of the night. She got me to school early in the morning. She dealt with my attitude. And the biggest thing is she made me realize there is more to life than just Pinellas County. She’s just amazing, like she’s been here since day one Day 1 and never gave up on me.”

Raw potential: At first, Clearwater coach Don Mesick did not know what position would suit Gary best. Middle linebacker turned out to be the ideal spot. The stats Gary posted last year were even more impressive considering he was doing it more on just athletic ability. “Brandon is a real student of the game. He works just as hard in the classroom and gets mad when he doesn’t get an A. He has a qualifying test score, too. He’ll be unbelievable this year,” Mesick said.

Remembering his roots: Gary wears 9 because the number is part of his former address, 119th St. in Largo. “It’s just a personal representation of where I’m from.”

Career considerations: The three-star recruit picked up an offer from Florida International recently, bringing his total to nine. Gary likely will not make his college until sometime during the season, or after. He said he wants to major in criminal justice and forensic science and would like to work for the FBI or DEA as a forensic investigator/agent.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times
OCTAVIO JONES | Times

25. Romain Mungin, Plant

Year: Senior

Position: Defensive back, receiver

Height/Weight: 5-10, 155

The three-star athlete made the biggest plays in the secondary for Plant last season, finishing with 91 tackles, three interceptions and two forced fumbles. Here are five things to know about Mungin:

The No. 1 Panther: Mungin switched jersey numbers, going from 21 to 1. But he did not get the number simply by requesting it. Mungin had to earn the right to put on that jersey. “I’m wearing it to show that Coach (Robert Weiner) can trust me to be a captain and leader for the team and help the team out. Coach gives that number to the person he sees will be a leader on the team.”

Up in Smoke: Mungin goes by Smoke. His name is even listed as Smoke Mungin on Plant’s MaxPreps roster. The moniker started in youth leagues. “I got the name from my TBYL little league coach in like 2010 when he saw that I was the fastest on the team. He started to call me that and ever since then it just stuck with me.”

Mr. Sunshine: One of Mungin’s best qualities is his personality. “I’m funny once people get to know me. It’s just stuff I say in conversation. I try to put a smile on people’s faces.”

Playmaking idols: Mungin said he models his game after NFL superstars such Antonio Brown, Tyreek Hill, Deion Sanders and Sean Taylor, all known for making plays with a certain flare.

Boston College bound: In June, Mungin ended his recruitment, picking Boston College over offers from 12 other schools. He wants to major is business or sports medicine.

Courtesy of St. Petersburg Catholic
Courtesy of St. Petersburg Catholic

26. Keenan Hester, St. Petersburg Catholic

Year: Senior

Position: Defensive end

Height/Weight: 6-5, 260

There are not many defensive linemen in the area more sought after than Hester. He is getting interest from several Division I-A schools and the offers will keep coming. Here are four things to know about Hester:

Relative newcomer: Hester quit playing football in the fourth grade to concentrate on his favorite sport, basketball. He still plays hoops (he averaged 13 points per game as a junior) and plans to play both this season. “I just started playing (football) again last year. I stopped so I could play basketball. I’d say that basketball is my favorite sport.”

Different game: Hester can be physical while playing basketball, but not like he can be on the football field. That’s why he wanted to make a return to the sport and the main reason he is being looked at by college coaches. “I just like the basic fact that you can hit. There really isn’t anything that I dislike about it.”

Recruiting game: Hester was an unknown this time last year. Now Georgia, North Carolina, Boston College, Cincinnati and Kentucky are some of the schools who have offered him. “I try to handle the attention as humbly as I can. I can remember a year ago when I didn’t get any attention at all. I plan on making some visits (in the fall). I know Nebraska wants me to come when school starts back up. There should be some other schools in the works.”

Off the field: Of course, Hester loves playing pickup basketball when he’s not knocking down a quarterback. And he also plays on an AAU team. But he said he likes playing the video game Fortnite when he has time to relax.

SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times
SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times

27. Khaishef Edwards, Largo

Year: Junior

Position: Wide receiver

Height/Weight: 5-10, 155

The Northeast transfer will try to build off a stellar sophomore season in which he led Pinellas County in receiving with 1,138 yards and 10 touchdowns. Here are four things to know about Edwards:

Got jokes? Edwards aspires to be a stand-up comedian. His favorites are Kevin Hart and Haha Davis. So what is Edwards’ best joke? “Every joke I say is the best in my opinion.” When pressed, Edwards comes up with one. “What’s the difference between a guitar and a fish? You can’t tuna fish.”

Speedster: A track athlete, Edwards says he is faster than anybody. “I have ‘run away from the cops’ speed, but don’t worry about me running from the cops because, man, I’m scared.” The speed comes from Edwards’ father, Kevin, who played football and ran track at Gibbs and St. Petersburg.

Leaving for Largo: Edwards said he became a Packer to be in the Excel program. But he also wanted to attend Largo to see if he could get more college exposure.

Getting noticed: Edwards has offers from two schools, Morgan State and Florida Atlantic. The FAU offer, his first, came on May 3. “It was amazing, I got it on my way to the state track meet.”

SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times
SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times

28. James Gordon IV, Plant City

Year: Senior

Position: Linebacker, receiver

Height/Weight: 6-1, 220

The Minnesota commit will be counted on as the leader of a defense that is aiming for significant improvement this season. Here are five things to know about Gordon:

The horse whisperer: Gordon has three horses, Lucky, Torch and Bobby. He developed his love of horses through his grandfather, also named James. Gordon trains and rides them once or twice a week on the 100-200 acres of property his grandfather owns in Plant City.

Second home: Gordon’s other passion is working out. He trains about 3-4 hours on weekdays. Gordon does an upper-body routine on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and works on his lower body Tuesdays and Thursdays. “The weight room is my home away from home.”

Putting in the work: The weight room is not the only place where Gordon devotes time. He also concentrates on his schoolwork, a habit he developed on his own. Gordon has a 4.1 weighted GPA and has scored 1200 on the SAT.

Kicking up dirt: Gordon also rides dirt bikes. He started riding when he was 6 and motors around on his grandfather’s property.

Future plans: The three-star prospect, ranked as the nation’s 64th-best linebacker in 247Sports’ composite list for the 2019 class, chose Minnesota over offers from 21 other schools. He wants to major in sports medicine or strength and conditioning. Gordon said he would like to be a trainer if he does not make to the NFL.

ANDRES LEIVA | Special to the Times
ANDRES LEIVA | Special to the Times

29. Johnnie Brown, Middleton

Year: Junior

Position: Defensive tackle

Height/Weight: 6-2, 250

Brown also plays basketball, but it’s football where he dominates, as his college offers — from the likes of LSU, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and USF — attest. Here are four things to know about Brown:

All about J.Cole: “My man is cold-hearted; ‘Kevin’s Heart’ is my favorite song,” he said. Brown gets wrapped up in J.Cole’s music because the artist speaks the truth. The majority of Brown’s playlist consists of J.Cole, who helps him get his mind right before a game. A lot of songs and lyrics speaks to Brown but his favorite line is “What’s done in the dark will always find a way to shine.”

Eat, sleep and fish: Sometimes in the morning, Brown will get a quick workout in the morning then head to the water. “Fishing is my thing, because I’m outside by myself I can just vent to get some self time." At Brown’s old school, Tampa Catholic , some of his friends would join him.

Brown’s angel keeps him humble: Life hasn’t always been easy for Brown. He remembers when his family decided to take his grandmother off life support. “She’s not worried anything except my high school diploma and that’s what I have to strive to get. When I get it, I’ll put it on her gravesite.” Brown says she wanted him to stay true to himself and be humble. “I love her but she always would find something that I’m doing wrong so it wouldn’t get to my head.” Brown writes her nickname, “KeKe,” on his cleats or arm to keep him motivated. “I always keep her close to me.”

Pen and paper it is: Brown wants to major in journalism in college because he has always had a passion for writing. “I just want to change kids’ lives. I feel like I was put in a position to help other kids to give back.”

ANDRES LEIVA | Special to the Times
ANDRES LEIVA | Special to the Times

30. La’Darius Henry, Gibbs

Year: Senior

Position: Cornerback

Height/Weight: 6-2, 159

Henry enters his final season with 17 offers from colleges. He initially had committed ot USF (more on that to come) but backed away from the Bulls. Here are four things to know about Henry.

Top three: Initially a USF commit, Henry had backed away from the Bulls before announcing via Twitter that he had narrowed his final three college choices to Iowa State, West Virginia and Minnesota. He said his final list was based on the schools’ engineering curriculums and developing relationships. And it appears West Virginia has won out; he committed to the Mountaineers over the weekend.

Overcoming negative comments: Just like Biggie Smalls’ teachers said Biggie wouldn't amount to anything, this also happened to Henry. A former coach in Georgia told him when he was in eighth grade that he wasn't good enough to play on his team. Henry stopped going to practice and eventually moved to St. Petersburg to live with his mom. “At first I thought maybe I’m not good enough but when I moved down here I've been doing good ever since. Been on varsity since my freshman year.”

Living out a shared dream: One of Henry’s close friends was Brandon Doe, who was killed in an armed robbery last year. “We grew up together; he was one of the best running backs in Georgia and he was hanging around with the wrong people and made a bad decision.” Doe even received the Region 1-AAA Offensive Player of the Year award in 2016. Henry is pursuing his dreams for his family, but also for Doe. He continues to remember that Doe would always say, “keep going, don't stop.”

Georgia on his mind: Henry wears the No. 22 because of his old area code (229). This fall he plans to wear 2 to continue to rep his former state. Georgia molded him into the young man he is today and sparked his interest for football, he said. But he has no interest in moving back.