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.
1. Lawrance Toafili, Pinellas Park
Position: Running back
Height/weight: 6-0, 180
A third-year starter who also saw some playing time on varsity as a freshman, Toafili is a Division I-A running back with several offers, including from Florida State, Michigan and Ohio State. He has rushed for 3,125 yards and scored 38 touchdowns in the past two seasons.
Toafili has nearly 30 family members in the area. They are of Samoan descent and sometimes hold luaus. “We put on the lavalava (Samoan skirts) and do the dances. We have the fire and belly dancers and all of it.”
Life after football
He hasn’t completely decided what he will study in college, but he has thought about what he will do once football is over. On top of the list now is aeronautical engineering. “I was looking into something like that.“I have a cousin who just started in that. I’d have a connection if I did do that. I’m also looking into business and finance.”
There have been several highlights so far for Toafili, and there are sure to be more this season. But he said one that stands out was returning a kickoff for a touchdown in last year’s win over East Lake. “Coach (Kenny) Crawford told me that was the first touchdown on a kickoff he’s had in 10 years of coaching. That was a big accomplishment.”
2. Agiye Hall, Armwood
Position: Wide receiver
Height/weight: 6-3, 190
Unknown by most at the start of last season, Hall made a name for himself by becoming one of the area’s best downfield threats. Now he is a five-star recruit listed as the nation’s second-best receiver and the state’s third-best player in 247 Sports’ composite rankings. Hall had 878 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns in his debut with the Hawks.
Pining for a python
Hall has an affinity for reptiles, particularly snakes. He wants to get a ball python as a pet but has yet to find the courage to ask his parents for one. “I’m working on it.”
Last year, Hall picked up the electric guitar, in part so he could how to play rock songs. He is an old soul. His favorite music group is the Beatles.
Hall made his Home Team 100 debut last year at No. 83. He made such a big leap this season because of his ability to streak downfield on long passes that go for scores. Hall averaged more than 18 yards per catch. Another plus is Hall’s ability to shine at camps. This past week, Hall earned MVP honors at the Prime 21 Camp hosted by Deion Sanders. Hall’s performance got a Twitter response from the Hall of Fame defensive back. “This kid is a straight up DOG! Man he can PLAY! And he has a great personality!!!!”
Hall’s pinned tweet is a list of his 12 college choices: Arizona State, Clemson, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Texas A&M and Southern California. He has already committed to playing in the Under Armour All-America Game held in Orlando. A college decision could take longer.
3. Tucker Gleason, Plant
The dual-threat quarterback became a big-time weapon in the Panthers’ offense last season. Gleason was the only quarterback in the area to finish with more than 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing. Those numbers should only improve now that he has had a year to develop in Plant’s system.
With 14 offers, Gleason had plenty of college options. But he decided to end his recruitment early by committing to Georgia Tech in March. The decision was based in large part on the relationships he developed with the coaching staff. “The two things I was looking for in a school were great academics along with big time football, and that’s exactly what Tech offers. What really sealed the deal for me, though, was the coaching staff. They had more genuine energy and enthusiasm than any other coaching staff I had seen in the country and you could tell right away that they had great relationships with the players.”
Gleason plans to graduate in December. He said after talking with his family that he likely will get a degree in computer science. “I thought it would be really cool because that’s what my dad majored in when he was at MIT.” Gleason is a math geek but likely will not take another course in that subject at Plant. “I don’t even know what’s left to take.”
Gleason credits the success he had last season to the connection he had with Plant coach Robert Weiner. “I really don’t know what exactly it was. But since the very beginning both of our personalities just really clicked. He’s actually gone on every college recruiting trip I went to in the past year.”
4. Mario Williams, Plant City
Position: Wide receiver
Height/weight: 5-10, 165
The dual-sport athlete has been a model of consistency his first two seasons. Williams followed up a stellar freshman debut in 2017 (703 yards, 10 touchdowns) by catching 51 passes for 950 yards and 14 touchdowns. The four-star recruit is listed as the ninth-best player in the state according to 247 Sports’ composite rankings.
Baseball or football?
After being used primarily as a baserunner (14 stolen bases) as a freshman, Williams solidified his status as a baseball prospect this past season. He hit .280 with nine RBIs and 10 stolen bases to help the Raiders win the Class 8A state title. Williams will have some decisions to make in two years about which sport to focus on.
Making the grade
The numbers Williams has compiled in both sports are impressive. So are his stats in the classroom. Williams has a 3.6 weighted grade-point average.
A year ago, Williams did not have any college offers. That had a lot to do with being a rising sophomore. His goal was to have three to four in football by the end of the season. Williams has more than surpassed that modest goal. He now has 24 offers, including ones from Alabama, Auburn and Oklahoma.
5. Desmond Watson, Armwood
Position: Defensive line
Height/weight: 6-5, 315
Ranked 48th in last year’s HomeTeam 100, Watson makes a big leap into the top five. For good reason. The four-star prospect is ranked as the nation’s ninth-best defensive tackle and the state’s best 17th-best player in the 2021 class by 247 Sports. Last season, Watson emerged as a force, registering 44 tackles, six sacks and three forced fumbles.
Shower singing star
Watson can belt out tunes with the best of them ... in the shower. His favorite tunes are R&B, especially from the 1980s and ’90s. The artists he emulates the most are Boyz II Men, Jagged Edge, Anthony Hamilton and Jazmine Sullivan.
Long live the liger
Last year, Watson said his favorite animal is the liger, a hybrid offspring of a male lion and a female tiger. He found out about the animal by watching a YouTube video on hybrids, not Napoleon Dynamite. Nothing has changed. “The liger will probably always be my favorite.”
Watson’s older brother is former Armwood standout Darrian McNeal, now at Oregon. Because they are on opposite coasts, they rarely get to see each other. But Watson said the two talk at least once a week.
In June, Watson tweeted his top 10 list of schools: Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Florida State, LSU, Michigan, Ohio State, Tennessee, Texas A&M and UCF. Watson is visiting the Aggies this weekend. He said he will be ready to make his decision in the spring.
6. Jerzhan Newton, Clearwater Central Catholic
Position: Running back, defensive lineman
Height/weight: 6-3, 250
The former Pinellas County offensive player of the year missed a good chunk of last season after breaking a non-weight bearing bone in his leg. Now healthy, Newton should have a prominent role on both sides of the ball.
Jerzhan will turn 17 next month. He started playing in high school as a 13-year-old freshman. At that time, Jerzhan played with his three older brothers: twins Jervon and Jerquan (West Florida) and Jerjuan (Toledo). With that trio now playing in college, Jerzhan will be the lone Newton playing for the Marauders this season.
Love for soccer
Football has been Newton’s focus throughout high school, but he said his favorite sport is soccer. He plays pickup games with friends at nearby parks and watches soccer, too.
The force is with him
Newton is a big Star Wars fan. His favorite movie is the original in the series: Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope (1977). His favorite character is Luke Skywalker. “(Luke) is just a good person. He’s all about helping his friends, and he saved his people, so I like him.”
The final countdown
Last month, Newton whittled his list of offers to a top five: FSU, Kansas State, Maryland, Miami and USF. “Everybody in my top five shows great interest. I’m still open, just trying to process everything and look at their programs and see which one I fit best in to.”
7. Jaylen Harrell, Berkeley Prep
Position: Linebacker, defensive line, tight end
Height/weight: 6-4, 235
Listed as a four-star recruit in 247 Sports’ composite rankings, Harrell put together a solid junior season, finishing with 106 tackles, five sacks and an interception. He will be counted on as the leader of a team vying for another playoff berth.
Harrell’s talents go beyond the gridiron. He plays the guitar, which he learned in a class at school. His top song is Amazing Grace.
Growing up, Harrell said baseball was his main sport. That changed in high school. Harrell has not played for the Buccaneers on the diamond.
Creating his own path
The Harrells are a football family. His father, James, played at Chamberlain and Florida before embarking on a nine-year professional career that included a stint with the Tampa Bay Bandits. After the elder Harrell’s playing days were over, he started coaching. Most of his time on the sidelines has been with Jesuit and Plant. So it seemed only natural the son would go to one of those schools. Instead, he enrolled at Berkeley Prep as a freshman, and stayed throughout his high school career.
Making the cut
Harrell has offers from 23 schools. He narrowed those down to a short list of Clemson, Florida, FSU, Miami, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State, UCF and USF.
8. Jalil Core, Armwood
The reigning Tampa Bay Times’ Hillsborough County defensive player of the year is the enforcer of the area best’s secondary. Last season, he recorded 93 tackles, three interceptions and two forced fumbles in helping the Hawks reach the Class 6A state title game for a second straight season.
Core grew up in a rough neighborhood in Philadelphia. His mother decided to have the family move three years ago to get away from the violence and because the football competition was better in Tampa Bay. Core has already lost his grandmother, a cousin and close friend. He wears No. 3 to honor his cousin.
Tough and tenacious
Core may be known for inflicting pain, but he can play through it, too. He played every snap of the Class 6A title game against Miami Northwestern with a torn meniscus. Core led the Hawks in tackles with nine in the 22-0 championship game loss.
Growing up, Core played basketball and football. He liked basketball more as a kid but decided to concentrate on football once he moved to Florida. Still, Core likes to play street basketball occasionally.
Core has 14 college offers, including ones from Iowa, FSU and USF. He has yet to trim that list and said he plans to take plenty of time before making a decision.
9. Dylan Ridolph, Wiregrass Ranch
Height/weight: 5-11, 216
The reigning Tampa Bay Times’ North Suncoast defensive player of the year specializes in bringing down opposing quarterbacks. Last season, Ridolph had 22 sacks, finishing a half-sack away from tying the Pasco County single-season record set by Pasco High’s Morgan Flournory in 2012. That total gave Ridolph 37 sacks for his career, which already is a county record.
There are plenty of athletes in the Ridolph household. Dylan’s oldest sister, Kaitlyn, plays softball at Warner. Older sister Alexis played softball at Hillsborough Community College. And younger brother Logan is one of Dylan’s football teammates at Wiregrass. The competition between siblings can get pretty intense. “We can’t even have a family game of UNO without it being kind of cutthroat.” But there also is plenty of support between the four. “We push each other to do well and cheer each other on.”
Ridolph is old school when it comes to his taste in music. He prefers classic rock bands such as Blue Oyster Cult, Foreigner, Journey and Kansas. “I got into it thanks to my parents.”
All about animation
To relax, Ridolph enjoys watching anime and playing video games with his friends. “It’s a nice release from everything.” His favorite games: Rainbow 6 Siege and Minecraft.
Ridolph said he has a lot of interest from Patriot and Ivy League schools but has yet to receive a scholarship offer. “That is a big motivator this season.”
10. Johnnie Brown, Middleton
Position: Defensive lineman
Height/weight: 6-2, 250
The four-star recruit, ranked as the 18th-best defensive tackle in the nation’s 2020 class by 247 Sports, is coming off a solid junior season in which he had 35 tackles, seven sacks and two forced fumbles.
Brown did not waste any time making his college decision. In February, he committed to Florida, becoming one of the area’s first seniors to make an announcement. Brown picked the Gators over offers from Georgia, LSU and FSU, among others. “I decided on Florida because it’s family, and I feel like I’m at home.”
The profile picture on Brown’s Twitter page shows him sporting an orange Florida jersey with the No. 22, the same number Gator great Emmitt Smith wore. Brown wears that number in high school, too. So is the number a tribute to Smith? “No. My favorite player is Cam Newton. I rock that deuce-deuce because I get too live (on the field).”
Brown wants to major in journalism at Florida with a focus on athletics. “The fact that I can stay around sports all my life would be a great lifestyle.”
It has been a tough offseason for Brown and his teammates. In June, Hezekiah B. Walters, an incoming freshman, died after collapsing during a workout. “It’s been rough, but we’ve been fighting back.” According to Brown, his best attribute is leading by actions and not words. He said his goal this season is to stay positive and not hold back.