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.
11. Jayion McCluster, Largo
Height/weight: 6-1, 206
The nation’s 16th-best inside linebacker in the 2020 class according to 247 Sports had 126 tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery for the Packers. The Florida State commit is part of a star-studded linebacking unit that is one of the best in the area.
’Nole at the next level
In May, McCluster committed to Florida State during a live video on Instagram. He picked the Seminoles over Auburn and Miami. “It was more than just football at FSU for me. I knew anywhere I went I would have the chance to play early. FSU welcomed me every time I visited, and it was always a family atmosphere to me. I also believe in our 2020 class to stay solid and turn things around.”
For years, Jayion was always playing the shadow of his cousin, Dexter, the former Largo standout who ran for a then-Pinellas County record 2,490 yards and scored 39 touchdowns as a senior in 2005. Dexter went on to play at Ole Miss before spending seven seasons in the NFL. Growing up, Jayion idolized his famous relative and hoped to be the next star running back at Largo. Now Jayion is making a name for himself on the other side of the ball as a linebacker. Has Jayion now become the more famous McCluster? “You can say that,” he said.
McCluster wants to major in sports administration or focus on becoming an entrepreneur while at FSU. He also excels at editing videos. He focuses mostly on football videos and makes highlight reels for teammates. The last one McCluster did, which he says is his best, was for himself. His video skills extend to games, too. “I’m the best Madden player around. If anyone disagrees, just hit me up to play.”
Limited mostly to linebacker
For the past three years, McCluster has spent plenty of time at running back. Last season, he rushed for 364 yards and four touchdowns. Because there is plenty of depth at that position, McCluster said he will be limited to wildcat situations on offense. “With the weapons we have on offense this year, I know those guys can take care of it.”
12. Charles Montgomery, Armwood
Position: Running back
Height/weight: 5-10, 185
Montgomery did a little bit of everything for Bloomingdale last year, throwing for 220 yards and three touchdowns, rushing for 864 and 13 touchdowns, and recording 399 yards receiving and three more scores. This year, he’ll be in a new place, but plans to only get better.
Change of scenery
Montgomery has had two successful years at Bloomingdale, but is transferring to Armwood High, he said, where he’s set a goal to reach 1,500 all-purpose yards and be a leader on and off the field. “I just wanted to better myself as a person and I’m in the process of moving over there (Seffner), so I might as well just go there.”
All in the family
Montgomery has two older brothers who were involved in football and baseball. His older brother, Salron Montgomery, was a tailback for Jefferson High School and graduated in 2015 before he went on to play for a JUCO program in Kansas.
Made in the weight room
Montgomery said when he’s not playing football he enjoys working out and bettering his game. Usually he can be found in the weight room, where he can squat up to 405 pounds. “Since eighth grade I’ve seen a difference in the way I run with the ball in my hand,” Montgomery said about the benefit of weight training.
13. Keyvone Lee, Superior Collegiate
Position: Running back
Height/weight: 6-0, 223
For the past three seasons, Lee has appeared in the HomeTeam 100. After debuting at No. 79 as a sophomore, he stayed in the top 15 thanks to his consistent performance on the field. Last season, Lee rushed for 904 yards and seven touchdowns.
Lee has never been overworked. In four high school seasons (Clearwater Academy and Superior Collegiate), Lee has averaged fewer than 10 carries per game. When Lee gets the ball, he makes it count, averaging more than 11 yards per carry throughout his high school career. And the bigger the opponent, the better he plays. Lee had a season-high 200 yards rushing and scored once in a loss to national power IMG Academy last season.
More than a running back
One of Lee’s pet peeves is that people view him strictly as a running back. He has a pinned tweet on his page addressing that topic: “I’m an athlete. I don’t just play one position.” Much like he has throughout high school, Lee played on defense last season. He totaled 44 tackles and had four sacks and two forced fumbles.
The four-star prospect, ranked as the state’s 14th-best player in the 2020 class on 247 Sports’ composite list, reneged on his commitment to Florida last year. He has offers from 26 schools, including Alabama, Florida State, LSU and Penn State.
14. Cam’Ron Ransom, Armwood
Height/weight: 6-3, 210
In his first season as the Hawks’ starting quarterback, Ransom threw for 1,724 yards and 25 touchdowns and ran for another 412 and seven more scores. He also led Armwood to the Class 6A state title game.
On the move
Ransom lived in Lakeland his whole life before moving to Seffner last year. He said transitioning from the starting quarterback at Lakeland Christian to Armwood was not too big of an adjustment."
Like most of his teammates, Ransom’s favorite music artist is Major Nine, the Cleveland Browns defensive lineman whose real name is Chad Thomas. In the spring, Ransom met the rapper but did not go to his concert in Tampa.
Nuts for Napoleon
Ransom’s favorite movie is Napoleon Dynamite, the 2004 comedy about a socially awkward 16 year old from Idaho. “I don’t know; he’s just funny. I don’t really have a favorite scene. I just like the whole movie.”
Heading into the season, Ransom has six offers, including Boston College, Kentucky, UCF and USF. That list is expected to grow, especially considering he is ranked as the 11th-best dual-threat quarterback in the nation’s 2021 class by 247 Sports.
15. Jonathan Odom, Jesuit
Position: Tight end
Height/weight: 6-6, 240
Jesuit, which is known for its use of the tight end, got a lot out of Odom last year, as he tallied nearly 250 yards and eight touchdowns on 19 receptions. Odom, who has football genes, had 35 offers from some of the best programs in the country.
In May Odom committed to Florida, where dad Jason played left tackle in the 1990s. Despite his family connection to the Gators, Odom said his dad stopped taking him to Florida games early on and really helped him keep his options open when it came to finding a college home. “Once I got closer to high school, my dad had a feeling I would get pretty highly recruited so he stopped the bias and I haven’t gone to (a Florida game) in forever,” said Odom, who said he took more than 30 visits before making his decision. “He was just wanting to really make sure Florida was not a decision I made because of him.”
All in the family
Speaking of his father, there’s no doubt where Odom derives his football talent. The elder Odom played football for four years at Florida before being drafted in the fourth round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Jonathan Odom’s older sister Lauren is also an athlete, playing volleyball at Lynn University in Boca Raton. “My parents’ rule was always, ‘You play a sport or you get a job.’”
A late start
Odom didn’t play tackle football until he got to Jesuit three years ago, which was part of a deal he made with his father years earlier. Because Jason Odom — who retired from the Bucs after four years, in part because of injuries — had his own experience with the beating football can take on a body, Jonathan Odom was only allowed to play flag football before high school. “It was kind of easy for me since I was 6-2 at 11 years old,” Odom remembers about his flag football days. “Coaches and parents were yelling, saying I needed to be taken out of the game.”
Little League Hall of Fame
Because Odom wasn’t allowed to play tackle football as a child, he spent many years playing baseball, even competing in the Cooperstown World Series, home of the baseball hall of fame, as a 12 year old. “I got to do the home run derby and out of like 300 kids I came in fifth. It was a lot of fun, that experience.”
Life after football
Even though Odom’s got a bright future ahead, he’s already given a lot of thought to what he’d like to do once his playing days are over. Odom plans to major in journalism or communications at Florida and pursue a career in sports one day. “I thought about starting a career in coaching. I really like being in front of the camera. Maybe I’ll be some sort of sports broadcaster or announcer.”
16. Gage Wilcox, Jefferson
Position: Tight end
Height/weight: 6-4, 228
Wilcox hasn’t seen too starting time for the Dragons yet, but his potential is off the charts, and the junior has more than 15 offers from some of the best programs in the country so far. Wilcox is planning to play on both sides of the ball for Jefferson, and he’s shooting to record as many touchdowns as he does sacks. Here are three things you need to know about Wilcox:
Wilcox’s mother, Nanette, is from Canada, so he goes up north a lot for visits. When he’s there, he’s all about the outdoor activities, including ice fishing and snowboarding. When he’s in Florida, he can be found near the water, lifeguarding or kayaking at Weeki Wachee Springs.
Wilcox began playing football at age 5 for the East Bay Buccaneers, but at the time, his coach didn’t think he was aggressive enough to play defense. In his early years, Wilcox played center or wide receiver before transitioning to defensive end and tight end when he got to high school.
Wilcox’s mother has been a nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital for more than 20 years, and although he’s not interested in the medical field, he would still like to pursue a profession where he helps others when his football days are over. “I’d like to be in the Coast Guard. Or a firefighter.”
17. Ricky Parks, Jesuit
Position: Running back
Height/weight: 5-11, 204
As a sophomore, Parks led all Jesuit rushers with 1,136 yards and 11 touchdowns, helping the Tigers to the Class 5A state semifinals. The junior, who has offers from Penn State, Purdue and Pittsburgh, among others, plans to build on that this year, taking Jesuit even farther.
State or bust
Coming into last season, Parks set a goal of reaching 1,000 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, a benchmark he passed in the last game of the season. This year, though, it’s not about his personal yardage. “My goal is really just to go to states this year and win states. That’s pretty much all I want. Once we go down south, it’s a whole different ball game, because everybody’s faster, everybody’s stronger. If we get past people down south, I think we’ll have a good chance at winning states.”
Keep on running
Parks used to play basketball but gave the sport up at age 12. Now, the only sport he competes in besides football is track. He runs the 100 meters, 200 meters and 4x100 relay for the Jesuit track and field team. “(I do it) for speed and it teaches me how to get my running form better. It’s also a way to stay fit.”
When Parks isn’t on the football field, you can probably still find him playing some type of game. Whether its a board game, a video game, or a game outside, Parks’ competitive streak never fails. “I play a lot of games. I play any game, really,” Parks said. “I like all games.”
Five’s a crowd
Parks comes from a big family, with two brothers and two sisters at home. Although things have recently gotten a little less crowded as his older sisters have grown up and moved out. “It’s hard, because I don’t live in a big house so it’s kind of compact. But we all get along well. I love my family.”
18. Clyde Pinder Jr., Armwood
Position: Defensive line
Height/weight: 6-2, 303
The Rivals’ four-star prospect teams with Desmond Watson to form the best interior defensive tandem in the area. Pinder’s ability to wreak havoc in opposing backfields is getting noticed. Last week, he committed to playing in the All-American Bowl, held Jan. 4, 2020, in San Antonio.
Head over the Tar Heels
Last month, Pinder committed to North Carolina. He made a video for the announcement and shared on his Instagram and Twitter accounts. “I felt it was a great place for me to not just get better as a football player but also as a young man.” Pinder did not really narrow his list of 23 offers down to a top three, but said his other top choices likely would have been Arizona State and Penn State.
Pinder is deeply religious. He has attended Love First Christian Center in Riverview for as long as he can remember. For years, Pinder was an usher and has gone on missionary trips to other countries. His favorite Bible verse is Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him that gives me strength.”
One of Pinder’s passions is cars. The interest began with childhood toys that included a set of matchbox car set. It continued with an impressive collection of Hot Wheels. Pinder’s favorite car is a Hellcat Challenger.
Pinder wears No. 99 to pay homage to his NFL idols, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Hall of Famer Warren Sapp and the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald. “Those two are really big influences for me.”
19. A.J. Mathis, Largo
Position: Middle linebacker
Height/weight: 6-1, 210
The three-star recruit had 86 tackles, five fumble recoveries and two sacks playing for Pinellas Park last season. He transferred to Largo in June, in part to finish his high school career with some of his best friends that he has known since playing youth league football.
In heaven with the Hurricanes
In May, Mathis committed to Miami. He had 18 offers, including ones from Auburn, Florida and FSU. A big reason for picking the Hurricanes was the chance to play right away. “All the starters are seniors and two of the backups are going through injuries so linebacker is a position that’s low on numbers there.”
All grown up
Mathis started playing youth league football with the Pinellas Park T-Birds when he was 7. Among his teammates and close friends were Pinellas Park’s Lawrance Toafili and Brenyen Scott, and Largo’s Khaishef Edwards and Jayion McCluster, all listed in this year’s HomeTeam 100. Mathis originally was the runt of the group but has grown about 6 inches in the past decade.
Last month, Mathis decided to transfer from Pinellas Park to Largo for his senior season. He goes from a team that was undefeated in the regular season to one that reached the region semifinals. “It was no hate or dislike about Pinellas Park. I still got love for my boys there, but it really was because I wanted to run a year with my boy Jayion my last year and play at a more defensive school.”
Video game void
Most of his teammates are obsessed with video games. Mathis has pretty much avoided that phenomenon. “I’ve never really been a gamer. Like, I’ll play Madden with them but other than that I just watch. My Playstation really only gets used for Netflix and YouTube.”
20. Eric Wilson, Armwood
Position: Running back
Height/weight: 5-10, 195
The productive back has a knack for filling in admirably for other Division I-A prospects who either transfer or graduate. When Wilson was at Plant City two years ago, he replaced Treshaun Ward, who transferred to Tampa Bay Tech and is now at FSU. Last year, Wilson moved over to Armwood and took over the rushing load from Brian Snead, who started his college career at Ohio State.
Wilson said people have doubted him since his youth league days. “It’s always, ‘He’s good, but….'” The skeptics motivate Wilson. “Everything is fuel to me.” Last year, he proved plenty of naysayers wrong, rushing for a career-high 1,223 yards and 13 touchdowns to help the Hawks reach the Class 6A state title game for a second straight season.
Reeling ’em in
Wilson goes fishing in his free time, preferring to catch bass in five ponds near his neighborhood.
The Wilsons have become known for high school football in Plant City and Seffner. Wilson’s father, also named Eric, played at Armwood. He left Plant City’s coaching staff last year to become a part of the coaching staff at his alma mater when his son transferred.
Heading into the summer, Wilson had offers from 11 colleges, including Missouri, Purdue, Toledo and Utah. He wants to make a commitment around midseason.
Times correspondent Kelly Parsons contributed to this report.