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.
21. Connor McLaughlin, Jesuit
Position: Offensive line
Height/weight: 6-7, 265
McLaughlin, a Stanford commit, has turned into a main force on a team expected to make a strong run toward a possible state title. McLaughlin fractured his left wrist during recent drills but is expected to be 100 percent for the opening game of the 2019 season.
Bursting onto the scene
Few players ever go from completely unknown to a major recruit as fast as McLaughlin. “I went from trying out for the freshman basketball team, and not making it, to getting recruited in football by 30 major Division I colleges by my junior year,” said McLaughlin, who was 6-foot-5, 170 pounds as a freshman. “I only tried out for football as a freshman for something to do, and that was the first time I had ever even played football.” The ensuing journey was painful and full of bruises and sore muscles but McLaughlin persevered and got stronger and stronger until he became the relative beast that he is. “None of this was even on my radar when I was a freshman.”
Peanut butter and weights
To gain weight and muscle — a full 80 pounds from his sophomore to junior year — McLaughlin ate a huge breakfast (often including peanut butter on waffles with eggs, yogurt and fruit), several snacks through the day (mostly peanut butter sandwiches between classes), a big lunch (whatever was in the lunchroom) and a large dinner at home. In between, McLaughlin lifted weights again and again until he could bench press 260 pounds five times and squat 315 pounds 10 times.
McLaughlin’s father, Kevin McLaughlin, played on the defensive line for Jesuit in the late 1980s, an experience that inspired his son to play for the Tigers.
22. Rent Montie, Clearwater
Height/weight: 6-3, 185
In his first season as a full-time starter, Montie went on a record-setting tear to lead the Tornadoes to the playoffs. He is poised to put up even bigger numbers this season thanks to the depth and talent at receiver.
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Growing up, Montie was consumed with the sport. He even wrote essays on the subject in elementary school, prompting a teacher to ask his parents if he could focus on something other than football. That obsession helped Montie set single-season records for yards (2,485), completions (167) and touchdowns (24).
Montie is fluent in Spanish. He went to Ridgecrest Elementary to be a part of the school's Spanish immersion program. Half of Montie's school days were taught entirely in Spanish.
Part of Montie’s pregame routine is eating his favorite meal, a Tasty Turkey from Einstein’s Bagel.
In the spring, Montie picked up a pair of offers. He ended his recruitment in June by committing to Lafayette, a Division I-AA school in Easton, Pa.
23. DJ Taylor, Tampa Catholic
Height/weight: 5-10, 190
Taylor, a shining star last season, has grown even faster and stronger, much like the rest of his team. An Arizona State commit, Taylor also had offers from the likes of the UCF, Pittsburgh and Louisville.
Futbol vs. football
Taylor grew up playing soccer pretty much year round in Brandon before switching to football full time in high school. Now he says he barely thinks about soccer, let alone watches it. “Soccer really isn’t too exciting to watch. I much prefer watching football.”
When he isn’t playing football, you might find Taylor running track, where he has clocked 10.9 seconds in the 100-meter dash and 22.2 seconds in the 200. “There is no doubt that track has helped my speed and quickness in football. Track is great for any football player.”
Taylor said he’s done pushups for as long as he can remember. He even remembers times when his dad was coaching during little league games and he made Taylor do pushups in the middle of games. “I would make a mistake and he’d say give me 10 or 20. I really appreciate it because pushups have helped me grow so much stronger.” Taylor can rip off 75 to 100 pushups without stopping, and, by the way, he can bench press 290 pounds.
24. Adrian Cabrera, Springstead
Height/weight: 6-0, 200
The second-team, all-state selection in Class 6A last season finished second in the state with 169 tackles. That total set the school and Hernando County records for a single season.
More than a tackler
In youth leagues, Cabrera played every position imaginable, even on the offensive line. Last year, he spent time on offense as a fullback, gaining 411 yards and scoring three touchdowns. His most memorable performance came in a 12-7 win over Sunlake. Cabrera had 22 tackles, 118 yards rushing and scored the winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
For the past three seasons, Cabrera has played in the USA International Bowl in Dallas. He has competed against teams from Canada, Japan and Panama, among others. “It’s a great experience. You stay in a great hotel. There’s food 24/7 and the practices are just like they would be in college. And I’ve made some great friends, including some of the international guys that follow me on Instagram. Sometimes, we’ll play video games against each other online.”
Cabrera admits to getting a late start in the recruiting process. “I didn’t think you had to do anything. I thought if you just go out and play well, everything would fall into place.” This summer, he decided attended as many camps as possible to get noticed. Cabrera went to FAU, FIU, Mercer, Rutgers and UCF. It worked. Cabrera has offers from Benedictine College and Jacksonville.
25. Tyler Williams, Mitchell
Position: Running back
Height/weight: 5-10, 180
The Mustangs’ penchant for producing quality backs continued with the emergence of Williams, who rushed for 1,636 yards and set the school record with 24 touchdowns last season.
Williams’ mother, Madonna, was in the Philippines and moved to the United States when she was 8. His father, Matthew, is African-American. “I don’t think a lot of people know about my family’s background and history.”
Before becoming a standout running back, Williams starred in soccer. He started playing soccer when he was 3. Football was something he did not try until eighth grade. Williams still plays both sports at Mitchell. Two years ago, he quit playing club soccer because he was getting burned out and wanted to focus on offseason conditioning for football.
Williams has a 4.1 grade-point average taking all advanced-placement honors courses. He also has scored 1,180 on the SAT.
This season, Williams wants to set the single-season rushing record and surpass the record-setting TD total he had in 2018.
College student or athlete
Without an offer yet in football or soccer, Williams is leaning towards becoming strictly a student in college. Of the two sports, Williams wants to play football at the next level. “Playing football in college is not off the table. It’s just something I’ll have to look at as the season goes on.”
26. Keedrik Murray, Clearwater
Position: Wide receiver
Height/weight: 5-8, 150
As a junior, Murray had a breakout season, catching 58 passes for 1,066 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Tornadoes are stacked with receivers in what should be a potent passing game, but Murray will still be the one counted on the most.
Ready to eat
Murray says he can’t live without food. His favorite dish is cornbread casserole. “It’s cornbread over chilli. Basically, it’s the best dish ever made. My mom makes it. I don’t think it would be too hard to make, but I’ve never tried it on my own. I let my mom handle the cooking.”
It’s not enough to be a good player. Murray also wants to look good — on and off the field. “I like looking fresh when I go out.” His favorite outfit? A Calvin Klein sweatsuit with all white Air Force 1s. He has about two to three other pairs of shoes and a few more outfits “to mix it up.”
Ready for action
Before games, Murray listens to music “to get hyped and in game ready mode.” There’s no particular artist or even genre of music. “If it gets me ready to play, then that’s good enough.”
Murray has offers from Kentucky, Southern Mississippi and USF, but is surprised he doesn’t have more. “It doesn’t make sense that the best receiver in the county only has three offers.” Initially, Murray said he was going to commit in the summer. Now, he is going to wait to see if he attracts more interest.
27. Ajou Ajou, Clearwater Academy
Position: Wide receiver
Height/weight: 6-3, 210
With his size and freakish athletic ability, the Canadian transplant will create plenty of mismatches with opposing defensive backs. He also will be the go-to guy for a receiving corps that lost Jared Wayne, now a freshman at Pittsburgh.
Ajou’s family is from Sudan and he is fluent in Dinka, spoken mainly in the southern part of the African country by about two to three million people. Ajou hails from Alberta, Canada, and is playing stateside for the first time.
Football is not the only sport where Ajou stands out. He is a slam dunk champion in basketball and has cleared 6 feet, 6.5 inches in the high jump. That tremendous leaping ability helps him snag just about any pass thrown his way.
This spring, Ajou had a meteoric rise as a recruit. He is now listed as a three-star prospect by 247 Sports and has offers from 28 colleges, including Alabama and Clemson.
28. Michael Rankins, Lennard
Position: Offensive line
Height/weight: 6-5, 290
With Rankins paving the way, Lennard enjoyed a prolific ground game a year ago, with Tino Hunt benefitting most … to the tune of 1,607 yards and 16 touchdowns. Don’t expect him to miss a step, or block, this season.
Rankins committed to Georgia Tech earlier this month, but before that he had whittled his 15 offers to just three: Auburn, Minnesota and Georgia Tech. Rankins made a pact to visit all three before making his decision, and that’s exactly what he did. But in the end, it was location that played a big role in his choice. “The city of Atlanta, it’s kind of cool. It feels a little like home.”
Fellow Yellow Jacket
When making his college choice, Rankins had several conversations with Plant quarterback Tucker Gleason, who committed to Georgia Tech in early March. Having someone else, especially a hometown kid, to bounce his thoughts off of was helpful during the recruiting process, Rankins said. “We talked about what we both liked about the school. He obviously was already committed so he really liked it.”
While Rankins has tried his hand at defensive line a couple times, he’s strictly been an offensive lineman since he started playing football for Lennard three years ago. But even though he’s newer to the position and the sport, Lennard coach Matt Kitchie said he’s incomparable to anyone else he’s coached in that position. “He’s by far the best kid that I’ve ever coached on the offensive line,” said Kitchie, who has coached high school football in the Tampa Bay area for 18 seasons. “In the area, there’s been some great ones. I personally think he’s as good as anyone in the area.”
29. Jordan Oladokun, Gaither
Position: Defensive back
Height/weight: 5-11, 185
Only a junior, Oladokun is waiting before making a commitment to college. He currently has offers from Florida International and Southern Mississippi but his list is expected to greatly expand after a successful 2019 season. The main focus right now, he said, is helping his team make a serious run into the playoffs.
Oladokun’s brother is Chris Oladokun, a former quarterback at Sickles, USF and now Samford. Jordan and Chris talk just about every day, and Jordan says Chris has always been a role model. “We get along great,” Jordan said. “We always have.”
When football season ends, don’t be surprised to see Oladokun on the basketball court and baseball field for Gaither. Oladokun played all three sports at Academy at the Lakes as a freshman, but after transferring to Gaither last year he focused mainly on football. “I look forward to playing all three sports again. I love something about each one of them.”
In mom’s honor
Oladokun’s mom, Jennifer Carter, battled and held off cancer a few years ago, and ever since then, the Olakokun boys, Chris and Jordan, have played sports in their mom’s honor. Chris Oladokun, in fact, got a cancer ribbon tattoo as a prevalent reminder. Jordan Oladokun might do the same but he’s not allowed to get any tattoos until after he turns 18.
Oladokun’s father, Henry, played football for Gaither in the early 1990s under legendary coach Earl Garcia, who went on to great success at Hillsborough High, where last year he set the all-time Tampa Bay victory record at 255.
30. Johnny Walker, Chamberlain
Position: Defensive line
Height/weight: 6-3, 204
Last season, Walker contributed in a big way to a Chamberlain defense that allowed fewer than 12 points per game, on average. The defensive end led the Chiefs with 20 tackles for loss, including 13 sacks.
All in the family
Walker’s father, Johnny Walker Sr., played football and baseball at Hillsborough High before a junior college stint. The elder Walker went on to play both sports at Savannah State. The younger Walker credits his dad for getting him into football at a young age.
Walker enjoys watching all levels of football and said he would like to emulate Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller. “I want to be better than him eventually. To me, that’s how good he is at his game.”
Leaving on a jet plane
Walker has more than 15 college offers, including ones from Florida schools like Miami, FIU, FAU, USF and UCF. Walker said he’s keeping his options open, but he’s got visits to Washington State and Missouri set for August. “My mom’s kinda anxious about the situation,” Walker said about the distance. “My dad is more like, ‘Go wherever you feel is a good fit.’”
After totaling 13 sacks last year, and 20 in his varsity career, Walker’s only goal is to be better than he was last season. He kicked off the 2018 campaign in dramatic fashion, totaling three sacks in a 21-0 season-opening victory against Gaither. “It was one of the most hype games that we had,” Walker said. “We weren’t really worrying about them, but they were talking trash. It really made it so much better.”
Times correspondents Kelly Parsons and Scott Purks contributed to this report.