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Former East Lake/Wake Forest star Justin Strnad picked by Broncos

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Justin Strnad

Wake Forest linebacker Justin Strnad, a former star at East Lake, was taken in the fifth round by the Denver Broncos. He becomes the third Eagles player selected in the NFL draft in the past five years, joining Mason Cole (Michigan/Arizona Cardinals) and Tyler Higbee (Western Kentucky/Los Angeles Rams). 

A team captain with the Demon Deacons, Strnad was an all-ACC honorable mention selection this past season despite playing just eight games because of a ruptured bicep tendon.

Strnad 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. 

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 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.”

He still finished his senior season with 69 tackles, two sacks and an interception. Those numbers helped Strnad land on the Bednarik Award watch list and get an invitation to play in the Senior Bowl. 

Justin Strnad
Justin Strnad/Photo credit (including feature above): Wake Forest Athletics

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. 

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. 

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

His continued to stay on the radar with plenty of teams.

Strnad’s family had reserved the entire third level of the Hooter’s on Clearwater Beach to accommodate friends and family from out of town. Those plans had to be scrapped because of the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, there was a handful of people at the house.

They all celebrated.

 

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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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College Football

Football: Local list of 2022 commits

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The Tampa Bay area always produces a tremendous amount of football talent. This year is no different. Several seniors have already pledged their allegiance to colleges. Here is the list, which is expected to grow considerably in the next few months. 

Armwood

WR Kye Stokes

College: Ohio State

Berkeley Prep

LB TJ Bullard

College: UCF

TE CJ Hawkins

College: Florida

Related: Berkeley Prep’s CJ Hawkins commits to Florida

Calvary Christian

OL Preston Cushman

College: Mississippi

Carrollwood Day

DL Brandon Cleveland

College: North Carolina State

Clearwater Academy

CB Rhyland Kelly

College: Minnesota

Clearwater Central Catholic

LB Melvin Jordan 

College: Oregon State

Gaither

DL Mario Eugenio

College: Michigan

Hillsborough

RB Jordaan Bailey

College: Pittsburgh

DB Adrian Ramsey

College: Howard

LB Joseph Sipp Jr.

College: Colorado State

Jesuit

WR Jaydn Girard

College: Wake Forest

ATH Junior Vandeross

College: Toledo

Related: Jesuit’s Junior Vandeross commits to Toledo

King

OT Tony Livingston

College: Florida

Related: Tony Livingston transfers to King

Lakewood

TE Amari Niblack

College: Alabama

Pinellas Park

PK Robert Gunn III

College: Clemson

Related: Pinellas Park’s Robert Gunn III commits to Clemson

Sickles

WR Javohn Thomas

College: USF

Tampa Catholic

OL Chris Williams

College: Florida A&M

Wharton

LB Daveon Crouch

College: Boston College

Wiregrass Ranch

QB Rocco Becht

College: Iowa State

Related: Wiregrass Ranch’s Rocco Becht commits to Iowa State

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