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Justin Strnad’s difficult path to the draft

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Justin Strnad

Justin Strnad’s lunging attempt to bring down Florida State running back Cam Akers went awry. The Wake Forest linebacker ricocheted off Akers, twirling nearly 360 degrees through the air before landing face-first on the turf. 

After a few minutes of writhing in pain, Strnad headed to the locker room to hear the diagnosis of his right arm.

The news was not good: a ruptured bicep tendon. 

In that moment on October 19, 2019, the former East Lake standout went from the peak of his career to the abyss.

Strnad could not have asked for a better start to his senior season. He was a tackling machine who led the Demon Deacons to a solid record, putting them in contention for a major bowl invitation. The defensive stalwart also was looking forward to impressing scouts at combines and college all-star games to boost his stock in the upcoming NFL draft.

Justin Strnad
Justin Strnad getting pumped

Now all of it was in jeopardy.

Instead, he faced surgery and months of rehabilitation.

Once the injury was confirmed, Strand buried his head in his hands, sobbing.

“I was devastated,” he said. 

The game Strnad loved more than anything was about to be temporarily taken away. He talked about holding on to hope, about why bad things happen to good people. 

It also allowed Strand to put things in perspective. He knew coming back from a torn bicep paled in comparison to what he had already endured. 

In April of 2012, Strand’s uncle, Bubba, killed himself. 

The two were close. They played wiffle ball and tossed a football at nearby parks. They spent hours playing video games or watching movies. 

Justin Strnad with uncle Bubba
Justin Strnad with his uncle, Bubba, at a Chicago Cubs game

“We saw Step Brothers over and over again,” Strnad said. “That was our favorite. I even put a DVD of the movie in his casket before he was buried.”

To cope with that loss, Strand became more involved with suicide awareness. He took part in walks that brought attention to the cause. He talked about the importance of helplines. He wore wristbands to honor his beloved uncle. 

“I just wanted to do whatever I could to spread the word,” Strnad said. 

More heartbreak followed. Strand’s mother has been arrested numerous times on charges ranging from battery to grand theft. It became too much to bear. About three years ago, Strnad severed the relationship. 

“I can’t even remember the last time I talked to my mom it’s been that long,” Strnad said. “I’ve been through so many different situations it made me grow up fast. It helped me overcome adversity.

“Sure, I was down in the dumps after my injury, but I’ve been through worse. It’s not as bad as losing an uncle or not having a relationship with your mother. Life isn’t always filled with smooth roads. There’s going to be bumps.”

The bond with his father, his siblings and grandparents grew stronger. Sports also became Strnad’s sanctuary. He started playing football at a youth league in Oldsmar along with his older brother, Nick. 

Justin Strnad youth league
Justin Strnad in his youth league days

Hardship continued, even on the gridiron. Nick suffered an injury that could have caused permanent spinal damage if he continued playing. 

“My brother became a really good baseball player but football was his first love,” Strnad said. “I felt like I had to play for him because he couldn’t anymore. I know it brings him so much joy to watch me and see me succeed.”

Still, Strnad was not a natural at football. In fact, he decided baseball would be his best path to a college scholarship. That quest was derailed by an arm injury that took away the velocity on his fastball once he arrived at East Lake. 

Eagles football coach Bob Hudson knew Strnad was a good athlete. So he enlisted the help of his son, Jake, to convince Strnad to join the team. Strnad became a defensive force, helping East Lake reach the state semifinals his final two seasons (2013-14).

At Wake Forest, Strnad steadily improved as a linebacker, recording at least 50 tackles in each of his last three seasons. That got the attention of NFL scouts who saw him as a potential pick. 

Justin Strnad on senior night
Justin Strnad on senior night

Then came the injury. Strnad did most of the rehabilitation work at the EXOS Athletes Performance Institute in Pensacola. He decided to go to the NFL Combine despite not at full strength.   

Unable to perform some tests, such as the bench press, Strnad hoped to show more of what he could do during a pro day. He never got the opportunity. The coronavirus pandemic prevented scouts from traveling across the country to evaluate prospects. 

Workouts facilities, including the one run by former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Yo Murphy, were eventually shut down. Nevertheless, Strnad endured. His father went online to purchase workout equipment, turning the garage in his Palm Harbor home into a makeshift gym. 

Strnad gym
The Strnad family gym.

To work on speed and agility, Strnad headed to a local soccer field. The sessions were recorded and sent to NFL teams. 

“I’m not sure there is a person more focused on his goals than Justin,” said his father, Shawn Mazzoni. “I’m not just saying this because I’m his dad but if you ask anyone that was lucky enough to spend a period of time with him they will all say that he is a special kid.” 

Strnad’s draft status never really plummeted. He has gone through video chats with at least 20 different teams. They go over his medical reports. They test his football knowledge. They ask about his character. 

This year’s NFL draft is one of the most unpredictable, especially with teams formulating plans through a virtual setting. Strnad is projected to go anywhere from rounds 4-7. If he is taken, he will become the third player from East Lake picked in the draft in the last five years. 

Social distancing also has forced Strnad’s family to scrap party plans this weekend. His father had reserved the entire third level of the Hooter’s on Clearwater Beach to accommodate friends and family from out of town. Instead, there will be just a handful of people at the house. 

“For Justin to have this opportunity to be drafted means everything,” said his older brother, Nick Mazzoni, now an assistant football coach at Palm Harbor University. “He’s worked so hard and has been through so much in his life. I just can’t wait to see his face when that call comes in.” 

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College Football

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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College Football

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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College Football

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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