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COVID-19 levels the playing field in college football recruiting

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Boca Ciega's Chris Phillips

Bowling Green was the first school to offer Chris Phillips nearly a year ago. The courtship continued through text messages, hand-written letters and phone calls.

The Falcons even added a technological twist in the wooing process by setting up at least three video chats during the current dead period. Their conversations were not just related to football. Bowling Green’s staff continuously checked up on the Boca Ciega running back and his family, including his two-month old daughter, Chrisiah.

“They really did the best job recruiting me,” Phillips said of the Falcons. “They were always in contact. They talked to my mom, too. It showed they cared.”

The offers kept coming from other Division I-A schools: Iowa State, Toledo, USF. Phillips had 13 in all. Last week, the rising senior decided to end his recruitment by picking Bowling Green. 

https://twitter.com/ViralGolden/status/1247714691775967235

The commitment came three days after Jacksonville Trinity Christian Academy’s Jacory Jordan pledged his allegiance to the Falcons. A dual-threat quarterback, Jordan chose Bowling Green over offers from five other schools, including FIU and USF. 

By landing two dynamic playmakers from the state, the Falcons showed they can compete not only with other programs in the Mid-American Conference but also with some of the Power Five teams. 

“Communication is all we can control,” said former Bloomingdale coach Max Warner, now the quarterbacks coach at Bowling Green and the school’s main recruiter for the area. “We are trying to stay in touch with all of our recruits and their families everyday. We put an emphasis on recruiting the family and not just speaking with the kids but also the parents.”

More than customizing their recruiting pitches, the Falcons, along with other schools in the Group of Five conferences, are standing toe-to-toe with some major programs for top-level talent by taking advantage of the current recruiting environment in college football. 

Earlier this month, the NCAA extended the dead period until May 31 due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. That means college coaches cannot have physical interactions with any recruit. Campus visits, junior days, invitations to spring practice — all staples of the latest evaluation period — have been eliminated. 

Typically, big-time programs would blanket the state — and the country —to check out prospects during this time. Once a visit was scheduled, teams could show off their state-of-the-art weight rooms and athletic centers. 

That all changed, at least for this spring, possibly even the summer.  

Bowling Green's Max Warner
Bowling Green’s Max Warner

“We are all on the same playing field now,” Warner said. “In the facilities arms race we can’t compete. We don’t have the recruiting staffs, or the media and graphic staffs as the Power Fives do but being in this situation we can try to out work them with a personal touch.”

The Falcons stay in contact with texts, tweets, Instagram posts, calls and video messages. Since players are unable to be on campus for tours, Bowling Green can take them on one virtually with web presentations.

Other Group of Five programs, particularly ones in the MAC and in the American Athletic Conference, have taken a similar approach. 

“We absolutely are trying to have a big virtual presence,” said former Plant coach Robert Weiner, now the quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator at Toledo. “I’m not quite sure it levels (the playing field), but it certainly gives us some leverage to put our best foot forward.”

The technological edge is limited with some of the Group of Five schools in the state. Take FIU. The Panthers have done well recruiting the Tampa Bay area the past few years. Their success is due partly to having recruits on campus to experience Miami for themselves.   

“The virtual presence has most definitely been emphasized heavily over the last few weeks,” said FIU tight ends coach Drew Davis, son of Panthers coach Butch Davis. “Some schools, depending on resources, have more than others to show virtually. You know, for some, I can see this working to their advantage, and I’m pretty sure everyone is doing the same thing, sending as much virtual campus, facility, dorm, staff and city footage they can get a hold of.

“You know that’s one of our biggest things we think we have for us at FIU. If we can get a kid down to Miami, on campus, around the staff, school, city and facilities, that we can compete with anyone. But right now virtual is the best we all can do. Fortunately for us, and everyone in this state, we all have good weather to sell.”

Tampa Bay Tech safety Stephen Parker knows all about the push from Group of Five and Division I-AA schools. The rising senior gets daily phone calls from North Dakota State and occasional text messages from Georgia State and Western Kentucky. 

Tampa Bay Tech's Stephen Parker
Tampa Bay Tech’s Stephen Parker

Bowling Green took it up a notch, setting up a virtual campus tour before extending an offer to Parker last week. 

“With everything that’s going on, it’s not good enough for schools to just think they can recruit off their name alone,” Titans coach Jayson Roberts. “Now, it’s more about the work you put in to land someone.”

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College football: Athlete update

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The top performances from former area stars in week five of the college football season. 

DB Dane Belton, Jr., Iowa: The former Jesuit standout had one of the Hawkeyes’ six interceptions in a win over Maryland.

QB Devin Black, Sr., Bethune Cookman: The former Armwood standout accounted for 258 yards (131 rushing, 127 passing) and two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) in a loss to South Carolina State.  

DL Zachary Carter, Sr., Florida: The former Hillsborough standout recorded three tackles and a sack in a loss to Kentucky.  

QB Austin Day, Sr., Marist: The former Clearwater standout threw for 149 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Valparaiso. 

RB Jerome Ford, Jr., Cincinnati: The former Armwood star ran for 67 yards on 17 carries in a win over Notre Dame. 

RB Dominic Gonella, So., North Dakota State: The former Bloomingdale standout ran for 37 yards on seven carries in a win over North Dakota. 

WR Travell Harris, Sr., Washington State: The former Jesuit standout had seven catches for 46 yards in a win over California. 

DB Kym-Mani King, Jr., Iowa State: The former Mitchell standout recorded three tackles and picked off a pass in a win over Kansas. 

RB Keyvone Lee, So., Penn State: The former American Collegiate standout ran for 74 yards on eight carries in a win over Indiana. 

DB T.J. Limehouse, Jr., West Florida: The former Armwood standout recorded a team-high 16 tackles in a win over Delta State. 

LB Micah McFadden, Sr., Indiana: The former Plant star recorded eight tackles in a loss to Penn State. 

QB Braxton Plunk, Jr., Mount Union: The former Plant City standout threw for 313 yards and five touchdowns in a win over Otterbein. 

QB Tyler Riddell, Fr., East Tennessee State: The former Chamberlain standout threw for 268 yards and a touchdown in a win over Wofford. 

WR Mike Roussos, Sr., Columbia: The former River Ridge standout averaged 19 yards per kickoff return and 15 yards per punt return in a loss to Princeton. 

RB Deon Silas, Fr., Iowa State: Ran for 30 yards and a touchdown on three carries in a win over Kansas. 

RB Brian Snead, Jr., Austin Peay: The former Armwood standout ran for 73 yards and a touchdown on seven carries in a loss to Tennessee State. 

TE Michael Trigg, Fr., USC: The former Carrollwood Day/Seffner Christian standout had two catches for 51 yards and a touchdown in a win over Colorado. 

RB Treshaun Ward, Fr., FSU: The former Tampa Bay Tech standout accounted for 95 yards (66 rushing, 29 receiving) in a win over Syracuse. 

LB Kee Whetzel, Sr., West Florida: The former Countryside standout recorded 10 tackles and a ½ sack in a win over Delta State. 

WR Mario Williams, Fr., Oklahoma: The former Plant City star had three catches for 29 yards in a win over Kansas State. 

LB Stephon Williams, Jr., West Florida: The former Calvary Christian standout recorded five tackles and 1 ½ sacks in a win over Delta State. 

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Iowa State now a hotspot for local football recruits

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Since arriving at Iowa State five years ago, Matt Campbell has guided the program to four straight bowl appearances, including a Fiesta Bowl win this past season that vaulted the Cyclones to No. 9 in the final AP poll, the highest ranking in school history. 

That success is due in part to the talent accumulated in Florida, especially the Tampa Bay area. 

There are currently five local players on the roster, all of whom were recruited by Campbell’s staff. Anthony Johnson, a former standout at St. Petersburg, starts at cornerback. Two other defensive backs, T.J. Tampa (Lakewood) and Kym-Mani King (Mitchell), should get significant playing time this season. 

It does not end there. 

This offseason Iowa State had perhaps its biggest haul of local talent with three offensive stars — Wiregrass Ranch quarterback Rocco Becht, Tampa Bay Tech receiver Greg Gaines III and Berkeley Prep athlete Xavier Townsend — all committing to the Cyclones as part of the 2022 class.  

Gaines is a four-star recruit while Becht and Townsend are both three-star prospects according to 247Sports. The addition of that trio helped the Cyclones’ current recruiting class rise to No. 5 in the Big 12 and No. 23 nationally. 

The recruiting efforts are not just limited to the staff. Becht, who committed in April, said he tried his best to get more offensive talent from the area to join him. 

“I talked to Greg and Xavier everyday,” Becht said of his recruiting pitch to that duo. “I was on them from the beginning.”

Rocco Becht

Iowa State’s staff also zeroed on those targets — and the area.

“The Tampa Bay area is a huge priority,” said Cyclones assistant head coach/linebackers coach Tyson Veidt, who recruits locally. “Some of our best players are from there and it has helped us develop some all-around continuity.”

Iowa State has a knack for landing playmakers in the bay area, particularly on the defensive side. It started more than a decade ago with linebacker Jeremiah George (Clearwater) and defensive back Leonard Johnson (Largo), both of whom played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during their NFL careers. 

There has been even more of an emphasis on the area with Campbell and his staff.

That comes from experience. 

Before taking over the Cyclones, Campbell was an offensive coordinator (2009-11) and head coach (2012-15) at Toledo. During his time with the Rockets, the program landed several prospects from the area, including former Lakewood star Bernard Reedy, who went on to play in the NFL. 

In fact, Campbell had at least one local commit in each of his recruiting classes as Toledo’s head coach. That helped the Rockets rank among the top two recruiting classes in the MAC in three of the four years during Campbell’s tenure. 

The trend has continued at Iowa State. 

And it is having an impact, especially with the camaraderie among locals. 

“Well, of course, the decision was for me and my future as a student athlete,” said Townsend, who committed to the Cyclones on Sunday. “But it was icing on the cake knowing a couple of my boys are coming up with me.”

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Lakewood’s Amari Niblack commits to Alabama

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Lakewood’s Amari Niblack had offers from 15 schools entering this week, including Florida, Florida State, Georgia and LSU. 

Then Niblack went to a camp at Alabama and picked up an offer from the Crimson Tide. 

That was all the three-star prospect needed to make up his mind. 

On Thursday, Niblack announced on social media that he committed to Alabama. 

A 6-foot-4 pass catching target, Niblack can play receiver or tight end. This past season, he had seven receptions for 126 yards and two touchdowns according to the stats listed on MaxPreps. 

This is the second straight season Alabama has landed an area receiver and the third time in the past five seasons the Crimson Tide has picked a local skill player.

Agiye Hall, who starred at Armwood and Bloomingdale, was part of the 2021 class. He was an early enrollee and has already made an impact with several highlight-worthy catches in the spring game. 

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