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.
61. Zamir’ Knighten, Plant City
Position: Running back
Height/weight: 5-9, 175
In Plant City’s pass-heavy offense a year ago, Knighten excelled on the ground, surpassing 1,000 yards. Knighten, however, still awaits college offers, a dream he feels will come after completing a solid senior season.
Climbing the ladder
From the time Knighten was 5, he has been running the rope ladder — step, step, step, step, step — constantly. “I would be on the sideline at (youth league games) and I would run the ladder. I still do it every day.”
Knighten’s father, Timothy, played for Plant City in the early 2000s. Unlike his son, Timothy was not a running back, but a safety. Timothy did not play football while attending West Virginia University.
Chip on his shoulder
Because Knighten has almost always been smaller than his teammates, he has felt like he had to work harder than everyone else. Now, heading into his senior year, his results are sparkling. Knighten, for instance, has increased his bench press from 170 pounds as a freshman to 270 as a senior and improved his squat from 300 pounds to 465. “I’ve had to work hard for everything I’ve achieved. But that’s okay; that hard work has made me a better person.”
62. Omarion Coleman, Blake
Position: Running back
Height/weight: 5-9, 175
Last season, Coleman was responsible for more than two-thirds of Blake’s total rushing yards, averaging nearly 7 yards per carry. In fact, Coleman will be looking for his third 1,000-yard season this year, adding to his more than 2,100 career rushing yards as a Yellow Jacket.
Coleman cites his dad, Donald Mitchell, as his biggest inspiration in football. Luckily for Coleman, Mitchell isn’t too far away on Friday nights. Mitchell, who played wide receiver at Armwood in his day, serves as Blake’s offensive coordinator.
When it comes to family members on the sideline, Mitchell isn’t the only one in Coleman’s corner. Coleman’s older brother, Joey Chatman, is also a Yellow Jackets senior, playing quarterback and defensive back. “It’s cool because we grew up with each other, so we just have that chemistry. We know when each other’s down, and we know each other’s games, so it just helps us out that way.”
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Coleman said he would like to continue playing football in college, but when his playing days are over, he’d like to pursue a career as a dietitian, putting his interests in health and science to good use. “I try and calculate my calories and stuff like that.”
Small but mighty
At 5-9, Coleman isn’t the bruising type of power running back, but he likens his style to that of a fellow 5-9 player, former San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore. “I’m patient and consistent.”
63. Zac Elam, Clearwater Central Catholic
Position: Offensive line
Height/weight: 6-2, 265
Considered one of the best centers in the area — and the state — Elam is a mainstay on a line that will be counted to help out an offense that is breaking in several new starters at the skill positions.
Dingers for days
Elam started playing baseball when he was 4 years old. His specialty was hitting homers, especially in meaningful games. When Elam was 12, he hit a walk-off homer in the Dizzy Dean World Series. He won a lot, too. Elam was a five-time state champion in Dizzy Dean. Baseball gave way to football once Elam entered high school.
No more tip-toeing around
As a child, Elam always walked on his tip toes. “I have no clue why, but every video or picture we had I was on my tippy toes.” Does he still do it? “Only when I get my height measured.”
Father knows best
For the past 12 years, Elam has been coached in football by his father, Mike. “Toughest coach I’ve ever had. He’s always pushing me to be the best man I can be on and off the field. I love putting on a show for him every Friday night. All the sacrifices he’s made to make sure we’re on the right track. He coaches defensive line (at CCC) so he tries to help people beat me during practice which is kinda funny.”
Elam’s older brother, Marshall, is a receiver at West Florida. His younger brother, Shane, will be a freshman at CCC this season. “I’ll be taking him under my wing.”
A coveted recruit, Elam has 10 offers from colleges. He has narrowed that list to a top three: Air Force, Middle Tennessee State and Southern Mississippi. He is in no rush to make a decision. “I’ll probably do that closer to signing day.”
64. Jordan Young, Jesuit
Height/weight: 6-0, 185
Young’s college stock shot up like his height and weight the past year. Even though Young is heading into his junior year, he already has offers from several major college programs, including Alabama, Florida and Florida State.
Teammates in training
Young not only learned how to play the game from his cousin, 2016 Jesuit grad Travell Harris (now at Washington State), but he also got plenty of football tutoring from former teammates Kendrick Torain (2017 grad now at Duke), Dane Belton (2018 grad now at Iowa), Anthony Nelson (2018 grad now at Harvard) and Larry Hodges (2018 grad now at Miami). “You couldn’t find a much better group to learn from. They were constantly teaching me things.”
Laying down the law
When asked what he would do if he wasn’t playing football, Young didn’t hesitate: “I want to be a lawyer. I’m very good in a debate.”
All boys, no girls
Young was a little worried about going to Jesuit, which of course, is an all-boys school. “It was a little strange at first but I’ve grown to love it. It’s a real brotherhood here. Everybody cares about everybody else. I couldn’t get a better education anywhere else.”
65. Mike Lofton, Calvary Christian
Position: Offensive line, defensive line
Height/weight: 6-3, 320
In his second year as a starter for the Warriors after transferring from Mitchell. Lofton still lives in Pasco County and commutes to Calvary Christian. A recent UCF commit, he is one of the biggest offensive linemen in the area.
Yes, he has seen the movie Blind Side. And, yes, his teammates call him “Big Mike.” “I get compared to that a lot. I actually like that. I mean, (Michael Oher) ended up going pretty far so I’ll try to follow in his footsteps.”
Too big to play
As a kid, Lofton was too big to play pee-wee football. He was over the weight limit and not allowed to play. It wasn’t until middle school that he got to play in a game, and he said he wasn’t very good at it. “I’ve always had that fire to play football but I was always too big. I never played in an actual pee-wee game. Then when I got to Mitchell they put me on varsity and I started to put on muscle.”
Going both ways
Lofton is a two-way player. But he will play offensive line in college. “I like O-line better. I like the physicality, I like to hit people. I like to line up against somebody and hit them every time. And I don’t even get in trouble for it.”
Where’s the Gatorade?
He has several pre-game rituals, but one is non-negotiable. “I have to my Gatorades lined up before the game. Doesn’t matter what flavor. But it has to be Gatorade. No other kind.”
66. Fabian Burnett, Nature Coast
Position: Quarterback, cornerback
Height/weight: 6-0, 210
This will be Burnett’s third year as the Sharks’ starting quarterback. He is a dual-threat player who threw for more than 1,000 yards and ran for 760. He will also play in the secondary on defense.
What’s in a name?
His nickname is “2Fabe.” “My dad is Big Fabe so they didn’t want to call me Fabe, too. So they came up with 2Fabe.”
Like father, like son
Speaking of his father, Fabian Burnett Sr. was a big influence on him. He played high school football before joining the military and is still involved with his football. “By the looks of it I was better than him. I’ve been playing football since I was 3.”
His uncle is Jerome Brown, who starred at Hernando High, Miami and the Philadelphia Eagles before he died in a car accident at the age of 27. “I admire him the most even though he died before I could meet him. I admire the things he did for our city and our family. He was himself no matter where he went.”
He can rap. In fact, Burnett released a song called Techway about this year’s football team. He said it has 18,000 hits on SoundCloud.
67. Kaleb Long, Chamberlain
Position: Wide receiver
Height/weight: 6-5, 178
Six Chamberlain players had at least 100 yards receiving last season, and Long led all returning Chiefs with 34 receptions for 455 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s got lofty goals and wants to almost double his yardage in his final year at Chamberlain.
One for the ages
Of all the receptions he had last season, Long said nothing beats a 35-yard touchdown in a 46-12 victory against Spoto. In that game, Long had six receptions for 88 yards and four scores.
Making the rounds
Long, who has more than 20 offers, has already visited Florida, UCF, Georgia and Alabama. “I’m looking for somewhere that can develop me. A school that’s like a family, has a good atmosphere, good structure.”
Long is the only one in his family to play football, as many of his other family members, including his father, played basketball. Although Long has never been on a basketball team, he tried his hand at baseball for a few years, playing every position but catcher. “I stopped when it got boring.”
Long has lofty goals for his senior season, including scoring eight touchdowns. It’s a goal he thinks he’ll be able to achieve because of his chemistry with soon-to-be starting quarterback, Bruce Jackson. “We practice a lot together.”
68. Brenyen Scott, Pinellas Park
Position: Cornerback, running back
Height/weight: 5-7, 164
Scott is a very lean, versatile player for the Patriots. He will likely be used at running back until teammate Derek Bryant returns from an ankle injury. His main spot is at cornerback, where he will start for a second straight season.
He said he was the class clown as a freshman. But he later realized that he needed to change. “I was the person on the team who always used to goof around. I never took anything seriously. That kind of messed me up. By my junior year I learned to take things more seriously. I wasn’t hanging out in the hallways as much.”
Life after football
He said he could see himself being a businessman when he gets out of college. “I’d like to be an entrepreneur.“I think I’d like to study sports management and maybe do something with sports equipment.”
If he had to choose one meal for the rest of his life, it would be fried chicken with potato salad. But not just any fried chicken. “It has to be from Publix.”
69. Richie Ilarraza, Calvary Christian
Position: Wide receiver
Height/weight: 5-10, 165
Ilarraza was the main target in the passing attack last season as a sophomore. He had 63 catches and scored 10 touchdowns, both team highs. A transfer from Clearwater Central Catholic after his freshman year, this season could be even better.
Playing through pain
He came down with turf toe in his right big toe as a freshman but played through it. As a sophomore, the pain was too much and he had surgery to remove a bone in his toe. After two weeks off, he came back against Carrollwood Day in a memorable way. “I caught a slant on one of the first passes thrown to me. I had one guy hit me, then another guy hit me. Then I spun off of another kid and went in the end zone. It was two games before playoffs and I felt I had to come back.”
His favorite movie is Rocky, even though it was made well before he was born. “I like to watch it for motivation.”
When he is not on the football field, he usually wishes he was on the football field. More than anything, he likes to catch footballs. “Me and (Calvary quarterback) Harold (Cook) are always at the field.”
Down the road, Ilarraza said he would like to be a physical therapist or perhaps a wide receivers coach. “I always want to stay around sports.”
70. Kiael Kelly, Jesuit
Height/weight: 6-1, 195
Back under center for Jesuit, Kelly is tasked with leading the Tigers back to the Class 5A state final four following a sophomore campaign in which he threw for 1,320 yards and 15 touchdowns while adding 298 on the ground and running for two more scores.
A transfer tale
Kelly might now be leading the way offensively for the Tigers, but before that he was set to take over the starting position at Jesuit’s bitter rival, Tampa Catholic. Kelly spent his freshman year with the Crusaders before transferring to Jesuit in the 2018 offseason. Adding more drama to the head-turning move? Kelly’s dad, Kenny, was a star for the Crusaders in baseball, basketball and football. “I’m sure at first he was kinda questionable about it, but he was onboard once everything was done,” Kelly said about his dad’s reaction. “When we played them, he was on my side, cheering for us.”
Dad knows best
Speaking of Kenny Kelly, Kiael Kelly cites his dad as one of his biggest influences in football. The elder Kelly, who went on to be a quarterback at the University of Miami before playing Major League Baseball, makes a habit of helping his son study the game and improve his skill set. “We watch film every Saturday after the games. He tells me what I need to do better and what I did well.”
Following in his footsteps
When he’s not playing football, Kelly said he enjoys spending time with his 5-year-old brother, Jai. And just like his older brother, Jai seems to have a knack for the family game. “He’s already playing football. He’s scoring touchdowns.”
Down the road
Though still early in his recruiting process, Kelly boasts offers from Kansas, Illinois, Indiana and Coastal Carolina. The junior said he enjoys math and hopes to study business in college.
Times correspondents Kelly Parsons and Scott Purks contributed to this report.