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.
71. Jeff Miller, Armwood
Position: Offensive line
Height/weight: 6-3, 280
Miller is part of a heralded group of linemen who have become the foundation for the Hawks’ success on offense. He returns from an ACL injury that sidelined him throughout the postseason last year.
Miller’s ACL injury was the first major one he had in high school. It could have not come at a worse time. He watched as Armwood lost to Miami Northwestern in the Class 6A state title game for the second straight season. “It was really hard. That was definitely a tough time for me because I’m very competitive. And it hurt a lot not being able to help my teammates this time around, especially when we were playing the same team again.”
Doctors told Miller it would take about six or seven months before he was cleared to resume conditioning. Miller ignored conservative prescriptions for recovery and was back in roughly five months. Armwood coaches kept him out of spring practice as a precautionary measure. His first contact came at a team camp recently in Valdosta.
No more college concerns
Miller worried colleges would view him as damaged goods. But he still had plenty of interest. He now has offers from Appalachian State, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Campbell, Eastern Michigan, Georgia State and Tennessee State. “Once I got my first offer it was a huge relief.” Miller narrowed his choices to Appalachian State, Bowling Green and Georgia State and hopes to make a decision before the start of the regular season.
Miller enjoys video games, preferably playing as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Madden or the Los Angeles Lakers or Houston Rockets in NBA 2K. He says he can beat most of his teammates in both.
72. Jack del Rio, Clearwater Central Catholic
Height/weight: 6-3, 215
The three-star recruit has a breakout season as a junior, finishing second on the team in tackles (78) with three sacks. He also has a fondness for collecting everything from skateboards to stuffed animals.
Beanie Babies bonanza
Out of summer boredom, del Rio started collecting Beanie Babies about four years ago. He got some from his friends. Most of them were online orders. The collection grew to about 15 before he stopped. His favorite? A 2003 Japan Tie Dye Bear. Del Rio plans on keeping a few.
Stacking the tech decks
Another favorite past time for del Rio is playing with tech decks, a type of fingerboard (miniature replica skateboard). He started collecting them when he was 8 and still has about 50. Del Rio loves skateboarding, too. He used to skate in Dunedin and Palm Harbor.
You dread almost bringing it up. “So about your name ...?” Don’t worry. Del Rio knows it’s coming. That’s what happens when you have the same name as the former NFL player and head coach. The two are not related. “They usually ask if I’m his son or a nephew, but I think I’m the real Jack del Rio.”
73. Chris Phillips, Boca Ciega
Position: Running back/wide receiver
Height/weight: 5-9, 172
Phillips made a big statement last year when he gained 946 yards and scored 13 touchdowns as the team’s No. 2 back. This year, the speedy Phillips will also add receiver to his list of duties. He said he has spent the summer at various camps learning to play receiver.
All in the family
He is following in his older brother’s footsteps. Dsoni Ross was the Pirates’ main back in 2016-17 and gained 941 yards as a senior. Phillips was a freshman on that team and a backup running back. Last year he moved up to starter and took his older brother’s No. 7 jersey. “He always told me that I was going to carry on his legacy but he never expected me to get his number. So I surprised him when I got it.”
He’s got the beat
In middle school, Phillips played the snare drum. He thought about playing drums in the marching band in high school. He quickly realized that playing varsity football and being in the band was too much to handle. “Football practice and band practice are at the same time. The band teacher wanted too much of me. I couldn’t do both. But I will say that anybody who does sports or band after school I have respect for.”
In the zone
Like most players, he has a pregame routine. The team meets in the library after a team meal at least two hours before game time. After that he sits by himself and watches highlight tapes of (Giants running back) Saquon Barkley and (Patriots running back) Sony Michel. “By game time I’m zoned in.”
Speed to burn
He is also a sprinter on the track team. He ran the 100, 200 and 400 meters. He said this summer at the Gators camp in Gainesville he ran a 4.42 in the 40.
74. Quavon Matthews, Largo
Position: Wide receiver
Height/weight: 5-11, 165
After tearing his ACL in last season’s kickoff classic, Matthews is motivated to put together a solid senior season. The lack of numbers — and film — did not deter colleges. Matthews has already committed to Iowa.
Matthews started wearing No. 13 as a tribute to his favorite NFL player, Odell Beckham Jr. In the spring of 2018, he severely sprained his ankle. Once healed, Matthews played in the preseason game, only to go down with a torn ACL. That put an end to No. 13. “Odell still is my favorite receiver, but I just felt 13 was bad luck so I had to get out of it.” This season, he’ll wear No. 2. “No special reason for wearing that number. It was just available.”
Competitiveness cut short
Matthews thrives in competition, especially on the football field. He said that desire showed in a win over Clearwater two years that clinched a district title (Matthews had two catches for 40 yards). Unable to play — and compete ― was the toughest part of last season. “It was tough knowing I could have contributed a lot to the team. My goal is to be one of the top receivers in the county and help out as much as possible because I couldn’t last season.”
In love with Iowa
A month ago, Matthews ended his college recruitment by choosing Iowa over offers from North Carolina and Southern Mississippi. He became a Hawkeye because of his relationship with the coaching staff. As a bonus, Matthews might be able to room with Largo teammate Keylen Gulley, another Iowa commit. “I admire coach (Kirk) Ferentz a lot, like everything he’s done for Iowa and the things he’s still doing. I also like (receivers) coach (Kevin) Copeland. He was very straight-forward on how I’d make an impact on the team.”
75. Jackson Hacker, Plant
Height/weight: 6-0, 195
The edge rusher shined in his first season as a full-time starter, registering 15 sacks and 80 tackles. He is among the leaders of a veteran linebacking unit that will be the strength of the Panthers’ defense.
Hacker has a weighted 6.0 grade-point average, taking all honors and advanced-placement courses. He also has done well on tests, scoring 1,360 on the SAT and 30 on the ACT. But not well enough for his standards. Hacker wants to score above 1,490 so he can beat his brother, Jordan, a former swimmer at Plant who is now a student at Florida. Classwork is not the only thing that keeps him busy. Hacker is on the school’s executive board as the vice president of the senior class.
On most Saturday mornings, Hacker volunteers at First Presbyterian Church. He serves breakfast to the homeless with his mother, Maria Sanchez. It is something that Hacker has done periodically for the past three years. He said he will have to stop once the football season starts because the team breaks down film on Saturday mornings.
Panther pass rusher
Hacker plays the “Panther” on Plant’s defense, a hybrid position typically reserved for the team’s top playmakers. James Wilder Jr., Orson Charles and Micah McFadden are among the former stars at the school who played the position. Hacker also will take on the added responsibility of playing tight end on offense. He has the blocking part down. After all, Hacker was an offensive lineman in youth leagues.
Future in football?
There are opportunities for Hacker to play in college. He has an offer from Division II Shorter. Next week, he is visiting Harvard and Yale, schools that have both showed interest. But Hacker is unsure if he wants to continue playing at the next level. “”We’ll see where life takes me.”
76. Brandon Coppola, Largo
Height/weight: 5-10, 190
The strong-armed signal caller has a knack for taking care of the football, throwing just one interception last season while leading Pinellas Park to an undefeated regular season. He goes from one playoff team to another after transferring to Largo last month.
It’s all about the shoes
Coppola describes himself as a sneaker head. He owns about 30 pairs that are displayed on a rack in his closet. His favorite are a pair of “gym red” Jordan 12s. The most he paid for shoes was $220. Coppola also is an entrepreneur. He sold another pair for $350.
Crazy for kayaking
One of Coppola’s favorite activities is kayaking with family and friends. His favorite spot is Weedon Island in St. Petersburg, where you can spot flying mullet and paddle through tunnels created by overgrown mangrove trees.
The move to Largo for his senior season was a puzzling one considering Pinellas Park was coming off its best regular season in school history, but Coppola said he made the decision based on academics and the connection he had with some of the Packers. “The reason I came to Largo was to improve my academics and my SAT score, and play football with childhood friends.” Though Coppola transferred about a month ago, he said he has already adjusted to a new offense and teammates. “ “I like my group of guys, and I’m ready for the season to start.”
Searching for scholarships
Coppola has yet to pick up a college offer. He went to camps this summer to change that. Now, he’s counting on a strong senior season to get the attention of schools. “The overall goal is to help make this team the best we can be and to go as far as we can. My own personal goals are to throw for 3,000 and to run for 500.”
77. Joe Hodge, Chamberlain
Position: Wide receiver
Height/weight: 5-7, 155
Hodge, who averaged almost 11 yards per reception last season, is playing for his third school in four seasons after attending Tampa Catholic and Jefferson in the previous three. Every move was for family reasons and now with the Chiefs, Hodge says he has never felt more at home.
Hodge said he has learned solid life lessons at every school he has attended. At TC, it was how to be a better student. At Jefferson, it was how to better manage social situations. At Chamberlain, it’s the value of caring more for your teammates and coaches. “I feel like I have taken something good from every place. Now I feel real good about this upcoming season.”
No cleats, no problem
Hodge loved playing football so much that in little league games he played in basketball shoes because he didn’t have any cleats. “I just wanted to play so bad that I didn’t care what kind of shoes I had,” said Hodge, who played defensive line in little league. “There were games we played in the mud and I would slip and slide all over the place. But I just kept going because I had to play.”
Hot and cold
Hodge’s college offers range from northern schools like Bowling Green and Eastern Kentucky to Florida schools such as Florida A&M and Florida Atlantic. Hodge, who grew up in Florida, said he wouldn’t mind at all going to school up north. “I just want to go where it’s right for me.”
78. Taffrey Peterman, Boca Ciega
Height/weight: 6-2, 188
The Pirates didn’t really know what to expect when Peterman took over as the starter last season. What they got was a quarterback who threw for 2,264 yards and 19 touchdowns in a 7-3 season. Now with a year of experience under his belt, Peterman should be even better this season.
As a sophomore he decided it would be fun to take up the piano. His older brother had a keyboard at the house he rarely used, so he took an elective class on how to play at Boca Ciega. “I was one of the best ones in the class." He will continue to take piano classes at the school and also plays the old keyboard at the house. He says he has already learned how to play John Legend’s All of Me and 7 Years Old by Lukas Graham. “I’m the only one in my family who plays music.”
Expect a more well-rounded player this season. Peterman said he was so focused on learning how to throw as a sophomore that he didn’t run a whole lot. This season he plans to change that. “When they did put me in on JV I used to run a lot. I might get back to that a little bit more.”
Work, work, work
Peterman is putting in the work again this summer. He trained with Boca Ciega coach Max Smith one-on-one last season and is doing the same this season. On Wednesdays, the two work on drills together. He said he also works out with the team and has attended some camps.
79. Greg Gaines III, Tampa Bay Tech
Position: Wide receiver
Height/weight: 6-0, 170
Even though he’s a sophomore, Gaines is already getting interest from some major colleges, including the likes of Florida State, Georgia and Penn State.
Five years ago, Gaines went to a playoff game at Tampa Bay Tech where Deon Cain, who went on to play receiver at Clemson and is now with the Indianapolis Colts, played quarterback. “I remember (Cain) having a great game and breaking free for a long run at the end of the game. After that (Cain) became my role model and he is the main reason I wanted to come to Tech.”
Gaines said there has never been, and will never be, a Coke can in his house. No way. His father, Greg Gaines II, has worked for Pepsi his entire career. “You have to drink Pepsi. It’s family policy.”
The tall and short of it
Gaines is by far is the tallest member of his family, towering over his dad, mom, brother and two sisters, who are all no more than 5 feet 9. “I guess I get the height from my mom’s side of the family. She is pretty tall for a female (around 5-9).”
Greg Gaines II played football for Bloomingdale back in the day, but dad got more action carrying the ball rather than receiving it.
80. Hunter Helton, Wiregrass Ranch
Height/weight: 6-2, 165
Last year, Helton served as Wiregrass Ranch’s backup quarterback behind Grant Sessums, lending a hand at wide receiver in the meantime. This year the starting job is his, and Helton said he is ready to use that experience at receiver to help him connect with the weapons he’ll have at his disposal.
Sunshine State transplant
Helton was born and raised in the mountains of North Carolina, but in the seventh grade his family moved to Florida, in part, because of the better opportunity for competing at a high level in youth sports. “The transition was very difficult, especially with all my extended family living up there. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
He might be living close to the beach now, but Helton misses the mountains and the country way of life. Helton said he loves to fish, hunt and drive his Jeep, complete with its camo interior. “(Wesley Chapel) is a little too city for me. I carry those mountains with me.”
Not only has Helton been playing football since the age of 4, but he’s been playing quarterback since that very young age, too. Helton’s earliest memories are from the football field. “Football’s been my whole life.”
When he’s not playing football, Helton can be found on the basketball court at Wiregrass Ranch. Helton has been a point guard on the varsity team since his sophomore year. “It’s hard to just split time and try and be at both. Being with one team and also trying to be as reliable as you can.”
Times correspondents Kelly Parsons and Scott Purks contributed to this report.