Speed, swagger define Florida prep football


Based on population alone, the Sunshine State has to figure prominently on the national landscape of high school football. With more than 18 million inhabitants, Florida is the country's fourth-largest state.

So it's no surprise a state so large would produce two Heisman Trophy winners (Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow), five Pro Football Hall of Famers (with Pensacola native Emmitt Smith soon to join them) and 92 NFL first-round draft picks since 1988.

Thing is, Florida might be even bigger than you thought, and not just in terms of population. Check out this bit of geographical trivia:

It would take you about 13 hours to drive one-way from Pensacola at the western tip of the Florida Panhandle to Key West at the Southernmost Point in the U.S. That's about the same amount of time it would take to drive from New York to Chicago. And it's two hours more than it would take to drive from Los Angeles to El Paso, Texas.

So, what's the point? Florida is so big, so culturally diverse, that football players in Tallahassee, Lakeland, Fort Myers and Fort Lauderdale might as well be playing in different states.

Yet, as big as Florida is, with distinct cultural regions ranging from the Panhandle to Jacksonville to Orlando to Tampa Bay to Lake Okeechobee to Miami and points in between, one quality binds the state together.

"It seems like, for some reason -- I don't know why -- but everybody says Florida has speed," said University of South Florida quarterback Matt Grothe, who graduated from Lakeland Lake Gibson High in 2005 and was a finalist for Florida's Mr. Football award in 2004. "Why that is, I don't know. But it seems like the top speedsters going to big colleges come out of Florida. There's been some really fast guys come out of here."

Anyone who has seen Chicago Bears receiver Devin Hester (Riviera Beach Suncoast High, Class of 2002) dash downfield on one of his many kickoff returns for a touchdown has witnessed Florida's velocity at work.

Hester is, perhaps, the flashiest current example of Florida-born speedsters to make an impression at the highest level of the game. But he's far from alone, and college recruiters know there is always more where that came from.

No self-respecting college program can afford to overlook the depth of football talent found even within the smallest of Florida's eight classifications. The latest ESPN150 player rankings for 2009 tell the tale.
Of those 150 top prospects, 24 (16 percent) are Floridians. In addition, six of the most recent ESPN RISE FAB 50 teams are from Florida -- and that elite half-dozen doesn't even include defending national champion Miami Northwestern.

Where, then, does it come from? How did Florida, which celebrated its high school football centennial in 2007, become the 21st century's go-to state for fast, athletic, highly skilled players?

Dwight Thomas, who won two Class 5A state championships and coached Smith at Pensacola Escambia in the 1980s, has a pretty good idea. Simply, said Thomas, they just play a lot more football in Florida than in most places.

Organized spring football practices begin the month of May and exhibition games end it. There are countless summer camps and combines.

There are preseason exhibition games, or Kickoff Classics, before the regular season begins in the fall. After a 10-game regular season, 192 teams advance to the playoffs in eight classifications.

By the time a player on a perennial powerhouse team, such as defending Class 4A state champion St. Thomas Aquinas, has finished his high school career, he might have participated in nearly 50 varsity games -- many more, if he played varsity as a freshman.

And, even though Florida also has a reputation for producing outstanding baseball talent, football really is king in the Sunshine State.

"We don't battle basketball and some other things that some other states battle to get their athletes out there," said Thomas, who is a recruiting specialist for LRS Sports in Springfield, Ill., and spent three decades coaching in Florida. "We want them to play other sports because of the competition. In the fall, we're going to play football. In the winter, we're going to be on the weightlifting team. In the spring, we're going to run track.

"We have year-round that we can work out, year-round that we can be running and doing plyometrics and doing explosive lifting and all those things. Naturally, we're going to be bigger, faster and stronger than other people when they get into competition for that scholarship."

The depth of talent and the consistency of play also have made Florida football an attractive option for the expanding coverage of games on national telecasts. Rashid Ghazi of Paragon Marketing in Chicago books teams for games shown on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU.

In the 19 games scheduled for broadcast this season on the ESPN networks, eight Florida teams will be showcased. What makes Florida football worth watching?

"Florida's got a couple of advantages," Ghazi said. "One of the things is they have spring football. They have Kickoff Classics. They play a lot of football. There are a ton of 7-on-7 camps that the kids go to as well. In Illinois, Indiana, some of those places, kids aren't playing football year-round.

"In Florida, the No. 1 sport by far and away is football. There's an emphasis on it. It's part of the culture. There's better training, year-round training, more camps. So, they're going to be more developed than kids from other parts of the country."

Thomas, the former coach turned recruiting specialist, sees just about every one of the more than 500 football teams in Florida each year as he compiles video and reports on players for the more than 100 college programs that subscribe to LRS Sports' service.

In 2006, according to a survey conducted last year by the Florida High School Athletic Association, Florida's 502 high school football teams had 38,744 players. Track and field had the second-most participants with 15,020.

That's a lot of football video for Thomas to shoot and distribute, but he says every tape is potential recruiting gold.

"There's a lot of states that you have to put on a lot of video to find one Division I player," Thomas said. "You can't put on one tape from the state of Florida where there's not a D-I player on it. When you put on our tape [from Florida], everybody is running to that football. When you put on other tapes [from other states], you don't see that speed level that we're talking about."

University of South Florida coach Jim Leavitt can attest to that. His 12-year-old football program can attribute much of its rapid rise to national prominence to its location in the Tampa Bay area. By taking advantage of the depth of talent in its own back yard, USF has ascended from Division I-AA neophyte in 1997 to perennial contender for a Big East championship and a BCS bowl berth.

Leavitt, who played his high school football at St. Petersburg Dixie Hollins, made a concerted effort early in his tenure with USF to focus on local talent as the foundation of his fledgling program. He continues to scour the state for talent that might have been overlooked by the long-established programs at the University of Florida, Florida State and Miami.

Of the 108 players listed on USF's 2008 roster, 98 played high school football in Florida.

"It's a huge factor," said Carl Franks, who helped build coach Steve Spurrier's successful University of Florida teams in the 1990s before becoming USF's running backs coach and recruiting coordinator six years ago. "I'm not discounting the fact that everybody behind it had the passion that was involved. I'm not discounting that. I'm just saying the location made it possible for it to build faster than it would have."

Many of those USF players, like Grothe, have varying opinions on what distinguishes Florida high school football from the rest of the country.

"I think everybody just works hard," said All-America defensive end George Selvie, who played at Pensacola Pine Forest. "Everybody has speed and stuff like that, but I think everybody works hard to get where they're at. That's what Florida football's all about: speed and working hard."

Defensive back Nate Allen, who played at Cape Coral in southwest Florida, said the weather played an important role in his development.

"Being out in the sun all the time, running around," Allen said. "I mean, as a little kid, that's all I did, go outside and play football. It starts young."

In the Lake Okeechobee region, where USF receiver Jessie Hester starred for Belle Glade Glades Central, legend has it that little kids chase rabbits flushed from the sugarcane fields in order to develop speed.

"Yes, it is true," Hester said. "It's true. I did it when I was younger. It helps you get faster, but we eat rabbits down there. So, that's what we did to eat. That's what that's about, really. But the natural speed that comes out of that area is ridiculous."

The same could be said of Miami-Dade in Southern Florida, where USF senior linebacker Brouce Mompremier was a two-time All-State selection for Miami Edison High. They don't chase rabbits in Miami, but they do start young.

And it stays with them.

"Kids down there, we don't have anything else to do," Mompremier said. "Football's all we have. And we're doing it so young. We're playing out in the streets, in the backyards. Football's like everything to us."

Carter Gaddis is a freelance writer in Florida.