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College Football

Justin Strnad’s difficult path to the draft

Bob Putnam

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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

Seminole’s Chris Miller selected to coach in Tropical Bowl

Bob Putnam

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Seminole’s Chris Miller was named one of the head coaches for the Tropical Bowl, an all-star college football game featuring mostly FBS players who are potential NFL draft picks. 

Miller will coach the American team. He left Thursday to start practices for Sunday’s game, which kicks off at 11 a.m. at Kissimmee’s Celebration High. 

The staff Miller assembled includes Warhawks assistants Rob Ewing and Chris Parker and former Admiral Farragut standout Kreg Brown. 

After spending more than a decade as a player and a coach at Admiral Farragut, Miller left to become coach at Seminole in 2013. 

This is his third year coaching in a college all-star game. He was the receivers coach for the National Bowl in 2018 and was offensive coordinator for the game in 2019. 

Two locals are playing in this year’s Tropical Bowl — USF defensive back Mike Hampton (Hillsborough) and Florida International offensive lineman Shane McGough (Gaither).  

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College Football

National Signing Day: Local list of signees

Bob Putnam

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Armwood

DB Noah Biglow

College: Pittsburgh

DL Chris Davis Jr.

College: Georgia State

QB Cam’Ron Ransom

College: Georgia Southern

DL Desmond Watson

College: Florida

Berkeley Prep

DL/LB Austin Dean

College: Rutgers

WR RJ Garcia 

College: Kansas State

Boca Ciega

LB Evan Graham

College: Georgia State

Bloomingdale

DL Jordan Guerad

College: Florida International

WR Agiye Hall

College: Alabama

DB Briton Pascoe

College: North Dakota State

DB Philip Riley

College: Notre Dame

DB Jayden Williams

College: Florida Atlantic

Calvary Christian

WR Richie Ilarraza

College: Howard

S Makkah Jordan

College: Georgia State

WR Kellyn West

College: Davidson

Carrollwood Day

DL Desmond Mamudi

College: Virginia Tech

TE Michael Trigg

College: Southern California

Clearwater

WR Cardrece Mobley

College: USF

Clearwater Academy

RB Brendon Barrow

College: Stanford

DL/LB Nathan Carabatsakis

College: Robert Morris

DL Ebenezer Dibula

College: Bethune Cookman

DB Shakespeare Louis

College: Robert Morris

DL Yonatan Marmour

College: Youngstown State

DL Tristan Marois

College: Robert Morris

DB Cyrus McGarrell

College: Northern Illinois

LB Darius McKenzie

College: Maine

OL Albert Reese

College: Mississippi State

WR Nickolas Tshivuadi

College: USF

Durant

OL Wyatt Lawson

College: Florida International

East Lake

LB Dylan Rosiek

College: Illinois

Gaither

QB Kiael Kelly

College: Ball State

RB Ricky Parks

College: Utah

LB Hayden Reed

College: Army

DB Jordan Young

College: Florida

Jefferson

TE Gage Wilcox

College: Florida

Jesuit

QB Joe Pesansky

College: Holy Cross

Lakewood

WR Artez Hooker Jr.

College: Florida International

Lennard

DL Jhalin Hobbs

College: USF

Plant City

WR Mario Williams

College: Oklahoma

Tampa Bay Tech

DL Henry Hughes

College: Rutgers

DB Steven Parker

College: UNC Charlotte

Steinbrenner

DB Matthew Durrance

College: South Dakota State

RB Deon Silas

College: Iowa State

Tampa Catholic

DL/TE Cole Essek

College: Appalachian State

OL Jaden Sandlin

College: Florida Atlantic

OL Jordan Sandlin

College: Florida Atlantic

Wiregrass Ranch

TE Gabriel Thompson

College: Army

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College Football

Football: Live early signing day updates

Bob Putnam

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This football signing cycle has been unlike any other. A dead period that has lasted for more than eight months. No live evaluations from coaches. No personal visits to check out campuses. Just about everything was done in a virtual setting because of the coronavirus pandemic. Which all leads to today, the start of the early signing period. Most of the ceremonies will not have as much fanfare as year’s past, due largely to social distancing requirements. But for the players, after months of Zoom meetings and virtual tours, will finally get some relief knowing where they will go to college. Better still, they will soon get to see their new campus — in person as a member of the team.

Check here for updates throughout the day.

A local flip

USF lost one of its commitments when Carrollwood Day’s Desmond Mamudi, a three-star recruit, decided to attend Virginia Tech. Mamaudi had pledged his allegiance to the Bulls this summer and stuck with that commitment throughout most of the season. The Hokies became the first Power 5 school to offer in mid-November.

Two locals stay loyal to Illinois

East Lake’s Dylan Rosiek and Tampa Catholic’s DD Snyder both committed to Illinois this summer, in part because of their connection with head coach Lovie Smith.

Their devotion to the program was tested this week when Smith was relieved as coach. Still, it did not take long for the two to decide to stick with the Illini.

Rosiek made it official Wednesday morning.

Snyder, ranked among the nation’s top safeties, was not too far behind, making it official by late morning.

Nation’s top receiver is officially a Sooner

Plant City’s Mario Williams, the nation’s top-rated receiver according to ESPN, has officially signed with Oklahoma. Williams committed to the Sooners this summer. The two-sport star also plans to play baseball in college.

Florida’s class features plenty of area stars

Four local standouts — Armwood defensive lineman Desmond Watson, Armwood athlete Charles Montgomery, Jefferson tight end Gage Wilcox and Gaither defensive back Jordan Young — all made their commitments to Florida this summer and are expected to sign today.

Watson and Wilcox have already made it official.

Andrew Kilfoyl is the first local in USF’s class

Despite losing Carrollwood Day’s Desmond Mamudi, USF is expected to have plenty of area players in its early class. Gaither lineman Andrew Kilfoyl became the first, signing with the Bulls this morning. Kilfoyl’s older sister is former Academy at the Lakes softball star Lexi Kilfoyl, now at Alabama.

USF was not finished. Joining Kilfoyl as part of a strong contingent of locals was Clearwater receiver Cardrece Mobley and Clearwater Academy receiver Nickolas Tshivuadi. Both committed to the Bulls this summer and made it official on Wednesday.

Berkeley Prep’s RJ Garcia signs with Kansas State

RJ Garcia, a dynamic receiver for Berkeley Prep the past two seasons, made his college plans official by signing with Kansas State. He is the second Buccaneers player to join the Wildcats in the past two seasons. The other, Joshua Youngblood, had a stellar college debut as a kick returner last season before entering the transfer portal. Youngblood signed with Rutgers this morning.

Berkeley Prep ties pay off for Rutgers’ Greg Schiano

Rutgers coach Greg Schiano has plenty of connections to Berkeley Prep. After all, his son played at the private school . And Schiano spent two years volunteering with the football program following his departure with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Those ties have paid off in recruiting. Two years ago, Schiano, then an assistant head coach at Ohio State, was instrumental in getting five-star Berkeley Prep offensive lineman Nicholas Petit-Frere to commit to the Buckeyes. When Schiano began his second stint taking over the Scarlet Knights this offseason, he landed another former Berkeley Prep standout in Mayan Ahanotu, who transferred from Minnesota. 

Now, add Austin Dean and Joshua Youngblood to the list. 

Dean, a linebacker/defensive lineman who helped the Buccaneers reach the Class 3A state semifinals, made it official by signing with Rutgers. He picked the Scarlet Knights over offers from Florida Atlantic, Harvard and Yale. 

Youngblood, who transferred from Kansas State, led the nation with three kickoff returns for touchdowns as a freshman last season and was named an All-American by several publications. He signed Wednesday morning, too.

Rutgers’ early class is expected to add another local, Tampa Bay Tech defensive lineman Henry Hughes. But there were some misses. The Scarlet Knights lost out on Clearwater Academy offensive lineman Albert Reese, who committed to Rutgers this summer before signing with Mississippi State.

Isaiah Bolden becomes first local recruit for Deion Sanders at Jackson State

Former FSU star and NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders is filling out his first signing class at Jackson State by leaning heavily on transfers.

On Tuesday, Sanders’ son, Shilo, announced would be leaving South Carolina to play for his father.

Sanders added another prized prospect with former Wesley Chapel standout Isaiah Bolden signing with Jackson State on Wednesday. Bolden spent the past three years at FSU before entering the transfer portal in September. He announced his commitment to Jackson State in November.

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