Our eighth 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.
81. Christian Carvajal, Plant
Position: Linebacker/running back
Height/weight: 5-10, 185
The versatile playmaker had a breakout season at linebacker in 2018, finishing third on the team in tackles with 102 to go along with two sacks and two interceptions. He will become even more of a workhorse this season as a running back on offense.
Of all the camps Carvajal has attended, his favorite is the one for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. The Panthers usually attend the camp as a team with the players serving as volunteer counselors who provide around-the-clock care and attention for the children. This summer was Carvajal’s second as a volunteer. “What I loved about camp is it teaches you to take care of someone else before yourself. It also teaches you to open your eyes because if you think your life is hard, then try putting yourself in these kids’ shoes.”
Ready for action
Carvajal and his older brother, Alex, a former receiver at Plant, tried action sports such as BMX, mountain biking and snowboarding before focusing on football. Alex took it to another level. He is now a professional bull rider. Christian has yet to ride a bull. “The most extreme thing I’ve done is get run over by a golf cart,” Christian joked. Actually, the most adventurous thing Christian has done is cliff diving. “That’s very fun.”
Carvajal said he will be the only four-year letterman on this year’s team. He became a starter two years ago as a sophomore running back. Now he may never leave the field. Besides playing linebacker, Carvajal should get more carries on offense. His personal goals are to record 200 tackles and eclipse 1,000 yards rushing. “My overall goal, though, is to win a state championship in Class 8A.”st the process.”
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82. Nolan Troyer, Armwood
Position: Offensive line
Height/weight: 6-2, 260
Armwood ball carriers often follow Troyer, who specializes in clearing running lanes. It shows. Armwood has produced a 1,000-yard rusher in each of the past two seasons that Troyer was a full-time starter.
Practice makes perfect
Four days a week, Troyer lines up against some of the nation’s top defensive line recruits — his teammates. Facing Desmond Watson and Clyde Pinder, as well as others before them, in practice was invaluable in Troyer’s development. “Going against some of the best defensive linemen in the country prepares me for anything I go against on Friday night.”
A passion for pancakes
The one thing Troyer loves most about being a lineman is when he leaves a defender overturned, on his back, in what is known as a pancake block. It shows in his Twitter handle: 76Pancakes. “Just taking your guy and absolutely burying him in the turf is the best.”
Troyer has offers from Albany State, Bucknell, Jacksonville, Judson, Samford and Valparaiso. He has not narrowed his choices and said he does not know when he will announce his commitment.
83. Ethan Forrester, Land O’ Lakes
Height/weight: 6-1, 195
Forrester, who will be a three-year starter under center for Land O’ Lakes, made vast improvements as a junior under the direction of first-year coach Chad Walker, nearly doubling his totals in passing yards and touchdowns (1,429 yards, 12 touchdowns). In his third and final year leading the Gators, Forrester only plans to go up from there.
Forrester has been a mainstay for the Gators as of late, but he began his high school career at Tampa Catholic, where his father played linebacker and offensive line. He transferred to Land O’ Lakes after his freshman year.
He may go to a school surrounded by lakes, but Forrester has a special affinity for the Gulf. When he’s not playing sports, Forrester said you can catch him by the water, fishing or free-diving.
Land O’ lifts
On the boys weightlifting team, Forrester competes in the bench press and clean and jerk, in which he can lift 315 pounds and 245 pounds, respectively. Both lifts, he said, are helpful in training for football. “Especially the clean and jerk, because it’s all about being explosive.”
On the trail
Forrester hopes to play football at the next level and plans to let his senior campaign speak for itself when it comes to attracting college coaches. In the meantime, Forrester has been making the rounds at prospect camps this summer, showing college programs what he can do.
84. Andreas Pantouvakis, Nature Coast
Position: Offensive line/defensive line/punter
Height/weight: 6-4, 260
A defensive lineman since his freshman year, Pantouvakis will add offensive lineman to his resume this season.
Just for kicks
He will almost assuredly be the biggest punter in Hernando County. The Sharks didn’t have a punter and asked for volunteers. Pantouvakis threw up his hand and tried out. “I’ve always kicked things so I thought I could do it. I guess they thought I was good enough.’’
Because of his new position on the offensive line, Pantouvakis will rarely leave the field. He has spent all spring and summer learning his new position and believes he can handle it. “You have to learn how to pull and be in the right position. But it’s different than on defense because you don’t have to cover as much field. You just have to learn to hold your blocks longer.”
He has a younger brother who is entering Nature Coast this year, but he also has a 1-year-old sister. When she reaches high school he will be in his 30s. “My parents wanted to start over.”
85. Frank Murphy, Plant
Position: Wide receiver
Height/weight: 5-7, 178
The dependable receiver is trying to make up for lost time after missing last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He is poised to have a big season, especially after Plant graduated its top three leading receivers.
Murphy likes watching anime, particularly Dragon Ball Z and Hunter x Hunter. His fondness for hand-drawn computer animation started when he was a freshman. The biggest attraction is the fighting scenes. “There’s a lot of flashy stuff that goes down in the fights that make you go, ‘Wow.’”
Bust a move
Encouraged by his friends, Murphy made a YouTube video of himself freestyle dancing to Future’s “Too Much Sauce” featuring Lil Uzi Vert. “When I’m bored I just turn up. Not everyone knows, so I’m an undercover dancer.”
Back to form
Murphy hoped to build off his solid performance as a sophomore (738 yards receiving and 12 touchdowns), but he missed all of last season with a torn ACL. He returns stronger, focused and injury free. “It was very hard especially because it was right after my great sophomore season and everyone says you get recruited junior year so that hurt me a little but if it wasn’t for my teammates still encouraging me it would have been a lot tougher.”
Father knows best
Football is in Murphy’s DNA. His father (same name) played six seasons in the NFL, including two stints with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “Really everything I know is from him when it comes to route running and how to set people up,” Murphy said of his dad. “But when It comes to moves and how I should use them and how I run certain routes, that’s more like a feel thing I learned from playing on the field and learning how other people play.”
86. Aidan Bitter, Steinbrenner
Position: Wide receiver
Height/weight: 6-3, 175
Bitter, an Iowa State commit, adds an over-the-top receiving threat to go with the Warriors’ solid running game, another dimension that makes Steinbrenner a legitimate threat for the 2019 season.
When football season ends, Bitter takes to the track, where he has high jumped 6 feet, 8 inches, long jumped 22 feet, 10 inches (finished fifth in the state last year), and run the 110 hurdles in 14.5 seconds. “There is no doubt that track has helped with my speed, quickness and leaping ability in football. I would recommend track for anyone who wants to play football.”
Winning the 50-50s
Bitter not only is tall and can leap high, but he has an inherent ability to come down with the football in a crowd of defenders. No doubt his large hands have something to do with it as well.
Before Aidan Bitter was on the Warriors’ roster, brother Brett played receiver for Steinbrenner. Brett graduated in 2017 and is now studying at the University of Florida, but no longer playing football. “My brother was a big inspiration for me, watching him play for Steinbrenner. He had a similar style to mine, going high for balls and pulling them down in a crowd."
87. Zaequan Gilliespy, Plant
Height/weight: 5-10, 183
As a safety, Gilliespy has developed a knack for bringing down opposing receivers and ball carriers in the open field. He had 103 tackles last season, second-best on the team. That got the attention of major college programs. His stock should continue to rise with two years left to patrol Plant’s secondary.
Gilliespy often goes to McFarland Park on Sundays to spend time with his two younger brothers, Ryan and Ryon. They toss the football and enjoy each other’s company. Ryan plays at rival Armwood, so the brothers become rivals once a year when the two powerhouse programs compete in the regular season.
Gilliespy has played just about every position (even offensive and defensive line) since he started in youth leagues. He said lining up all over the place helps him as a defensive back because he knows what others might do or think at each position. This season, he will take on added duties as a receiver to help Plant compensate for the losses at that position due to graduation.
In the spring, Gilliespy picked up offers from Colorado State and Wisconsin. The three-star recruit is now listed as the 83rd-best prospect in the state, according to 247Sports. Because Gilliespy is only entering his junior season, he has no plans to make a decision or visit any schools in the near future.
88. Keylen Gulley, Largo
Height/weight: 6-0, 165
The three-star recruit, who committed to Iowa last month, put together solid numbers last season with 58 tackles, three interceptions and 1.5 sacks. Gulley can play receiver, but he will be counted on more to lock down opposing pass catchers.
Gulley said he is constantly listening to music, particularly rap. His favorite artists are Da Baby, NBA Youngboy, Rod Wave and Stunna 4 Vegas. The song he listens to the most before games is “How Would You Feel” by Rod Wave.
In the company of others
Because Gulley grew up in a big family, he enjoys being around people. The teammates he hangs out with the most are Khaishef Edwards and Jayion McCluster. “I just enjoy people’s company. I love their energy. And I hate being alone. When I’m alone I just overthink things and I think it causes depression.”
Home in the heartland
Iowa has become a prime landing spot for Largo prospects. Former Packers receiver Calvin Lockett is starting his freshman season with the Hawkeyes. Next year, Gulley and teammate Quavon Matthews will join him. The pipeline started with Largo coach Marcus Paschal, who was a standout at Iowa in the early 2000s. “Iowa made me feel at home. I loved the coaches. I loved what they stood for and how they do things. I loved the people in Iowa City and everyone around you there is all for you, and I love it.”
Keylen’s older brother, Keon, was the Packers’ quarterback last season. His cousin, Tony Brown, also played in Largo’s secondary in 2018 (both graduated). Some of Gulley’s other cousins include Jonathan Crawford, Donavan Hale and Cordell Hudson, all former standouts with the Packers who went on to play in college.
Gulley wears No. 5 as motivation. “Before I graduate I want to be a five star.”
89. Matt Trotto, East Lake
Height/weight: 6-3, 205
Thrust into a starting role last season, Trotto became a leader, throwing for 1,395 yards and 14 touchdowns while helping the Eagles finish with a winning record. He continued to play well in the spring, tossing four touchdowns against Wiregrass Ranch.
A cautious run for the border
A year ago, Trotto professed his love for Taco Bell. He even wants to own a store someday. The affection stems from a particular drink, the Mountain Dew Baja Blast. Trotto calls it “nectar of the Gods.” But he is starting to slow down on those fast food runs. “I have to eat more healthy, so I’m limiting myself.” His favorite healthy meal is a Caesar salad with a side of shrimp. The go-to meal at Taco Bell still is a steak quesarito, a soft taco supreme, a nacho cheese Doritos loco taco supreme and, of course, a large Mountain Dew Baja Blast with no ice so it doesn’t get watered down.
Wheelin’ and dealin’
Trotto has a knack for good car deals, particularly online. Last year, he drove a 2004 gray Mustang GT with black accents. That car now belongs to his older brother, Michael. So Matt scoured the internet for another bargain. He now drives a 2007 BMW 328i coupe.
Cycling crash course
Trotto’s dad, Michael, played baseball and was a BMX racer growing up. One trip on a bike was all it took for Matt to go in a different direction with athletics. “My first bike ride was straight into a tree, and it’s never been my favorite since then.”
Hold that line
To encourage his offensive line to provide maximum protection last season, Trotto said he would shave his eyebrows if the guys up front allowed 10 or fewer sacks. The linemen came close to seeing their quarterback without any eyebrows. Trotto is now trying to raise the standards. He also is working on a new motivational ploy. “Let’s just say I have some ideas.”
Florida-bound backup plan
Trotto’s ultimate goal is to play in college. If that does not work out, he wants to enroll at Florida, where his parents, two aunts, an uncle and older brother attended. He said he would try to get a job with the Gators in any fashion so he could still be involved in football.
90. Harrison Thomas, Clearwater Central Catholic
Position: Linebacker/defensive line
Height/weight: 6-1, 225
The Class 3A, first-team, all-state selection can wreak havoc as an outside rusher. Last season, he finished with a team-leading 11 sacks and had 67 tackles.
Rockin’ with Rod
Thomas said he has to listen to Rod Stewart before every game or else he will play poorly. His go-to song: Everyday which features Stewart along with A$AP Rocky. Thomas knows this from experience. Last season, the Marauders had to rush on the field before their game against rival Jesuit due to heavy rain. Thomas was unable to listen to his favorite artist and said he missed a bunch of tackles and sacks. “I have to listen to Rod. He’s the greatest of all time.”
A travel connoisseur, Thomas said he has visited nine countries. In fact, his nickname is Jett because he is constantly flying around the world. This summer, Thomas went to the Bahamas. His favorite places are Hawaii and California.
In the Army now
This summer, Thomas committed to Army. He chose the Black Knights over offers from other schools such as Southern Mississippi and Youngstown State. “When I was looking at schools I wanted a school that I could win a championship with but get a top-notch education, too. Army is doing a lot of great things over there, and I’m super excited to get started with them.”
Pool of sweat
Thomas said he knows a lot about swimming pools and how to take care of them. After all, his family is in the pool business. The toughest part of the job? “Going out there and dealing with the heat.” Thomas works at various Pinch A Penny Stores. He prefers to stay inside.
Times correspondents Kelly Parsons and Scott Purks contributed to this report.