Our seventh annual countdown of the top 100 football players in Tampa Bay — consisting of athletes who attend a public or private school in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco or Hernando counties. Past performances — spanning the fall, spring and summer — and promise of big things to come are all taken into consideration.
1. Will Putnam, Plant
Position: Offensive line, defensive line
Height/Weight: 6-4, 285
Will Putnam pushed and poked his opponent relentlessly, gaining enough of an advantage to hold on to a slim lead.
Once the match ended, Putnam was overcome with emotion. He took off his headgear. He raised his right arm in triumph. After months of tossing, turning and taking down other behemoths, Putnam ended his junior season at Plant High as an undefeated state wrestling champion.
Standing at the top of medal stand, Putnam knew this could be the final moment of his wrestling career.
While Putnam may be good at pummeling opponents on the mat, he is even better at flattening them on the football field.
A four-star prospect, Putnam is ranked as the nation’s third-best offensive guard prospect in 247Sports’ composite list for the 2019 class. The 6-foot-4, 280-pound senior already has whittled down his list of 29 college offers to a short list that includes Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Florida State and Georgia.
Once Putnam completes his official visits, he will make his decision, which should happen during the season. He also is thinking about graduating from Plant in December so he can become an early college enrollee.
Wrestling season does not end until early March, so if Putnam graduates early, his days as a grappler are over.
“I went into the season with the thoughts that this could be the last time I ever wrestle again every match,” Putnam said. “Going undefeated and winning a state title, I couldn’t have done much better than that so I’ve accepted it and enjoyed it to the fullest extent.”
Still, it is hard to give up the sport. Putnam started wrestling when he was 4. His older brother Cornelius wrestles for Oklahoma State.
Sibling disputes were usually settled on the mat.
“We kept the roughhousing to a minimum,” Putnam said. “We’d get into some fights when we were younger, but we were usually good about it. Since we are both wrestlers we’d just be able to wrestle either each other or other people at practice and let it out.”
Putnam also got an early start in football. He was an offensive lineman in first grade who was already being pegged for stardom.
“I’ve had people telling me I’d be playing college football one day when I was in elementary school,” Putnam said.
He showed his talents across the country. The son of an Army colonel, Putnam was always on the move. He was born in Michigan and lived in Virginia, Hawaii and Illinois before coming to the area last year.
Plant coach Robert Weiner found out he was getting a lineman after watching a video of Putnam announcing his intentions to enroll.
“We knew he was big, and he was supposed to be pretty good,” Weiner said of Putnam. “Since he’s come, he’s far exceeded the accolades that he’s had.”
Weiner has had plenty of good linemen who played at the Division I-A level. All were sound technicians in the zone-read scheme. All masters of using angles to shield off defenders.
Putnam is different. He is a mauler who sends opponents in reverse, forcefully and repeatedly. To Putnam, all defenders are potential pancakes, to be knocked helpless and flat on their backs.
“Will is a devastating finisher who plays to the echo of the whistle,” Weiner said. “Still, he knows where to draw the line because is as much of a technician as he is a mauler. What’s amazing is he did not have a penalty called against him last year.”
Putnam credits wrestling with his ability to become one of the best offensive lineman in the country.
“I believe that hand placement is a big skill that translates from wrestling to football, also just understanding leverage,” Putnam said, “Wrestling also helps you keep a solid motor throughout the game. Honestly, I have never done a sport as hard as wrestling; in my opinion there is no sport that is more physically, mentally, and emotionally more draining.
“That why I feel like that any good competitive wrestler that plays football has an edge that others don’t have.”
Soon, wrestling mammoths will no longer be subjected to Putnam’s competitive edge.
The same cannot be said for defensive linemen and linebackers.
2. Jaquaze Sorrells, Largo
Position: Defensive tackle
Height/Weight: 6-2, 292
Editor’s note: Sorrells recently said that he will not be playing at Largo this season, but declined to say if he was moving out of the area or what school he would be attending. Since the countdown had already started, we did not remove him.
The four-star prospect participated in Nike’s The Opening this summer and will play in the Under Armour all-star game in January. He is listed as the eighth-best defensive tackle in the 2019 class by 247Sports. Here are three things to know about Sorrells.
Defensive prodigy: Sorrells was pegged for stardom before he entered high school. In eighth grade, Sorrells already was a standout at football camps in his age group. Largo coaches were giddy at the thought of gaining such a prized potential prospect. Sorrells delivered, wreaking havoc up front despite being consistently double-teamed.
Big time bowler: An avid bowler, Sorrells goes to alleys as much as possible and usually bowls around 150. He plans to get a custom-made bowling ball of the school he decides on for college.
Meaningful commitment: Sorrells, who has offers from 22 Division I-A programs according to 247Sports, will announce his college decision on Aug. 27. He picked that date because it is the birthday of his uncle, Marvin, who died three years ago.
3. Lawrance Toafili, Pinellas Park
Position: Running back
Height/Weight: 6-0, 190
Known as “L.T.,’’ he has been instant offense since he first stepped on campus. He tore up junior varsity opponents the first half of his freshman year and gained 1,691 yards as a sophomore, tops in Tampa Bay. Here are five things to know about Toafili:
Big time recruit: Considered a four-star recruit, he already has 17 offers. Pinellas Park coach Kenny Crawford believes it could go past 30. Florida, Florida State, Miami, USF, UCF, Ohio State, Auburn and Notre Dame are among the schools who have offered. “It’s been a good experience so far,” Toafili said. “The big schools, like UF, FSU, Ohio State, that’s really exciting.”
Well-rounded: Crawford believes he has an above-average quarterback in junior Brandon Coppola. That could mean more passes, which could mean even more touches for Toafili, who caught only seven passes last season. “I’d say I’m a power back but I’ve got some speed too. So I’m a little bit of both.”
Big jump: Here’s how much Toafili burst onto the scene last season. He was ranked 84th in our top 100 rankings in 2017, which is pretty good considering he had 29 carries for 221 yards in five varsity games as a freshman. He is now the school’s single-season rushing record holder, and if things go as planned, he’ll be the school’s all-time rushing leader. “I need to get better. I’ve got to get stronger so that I can break more tackles. And I’ve been trying to work on my speed.”
Superstitious: Like most athletes, Toafili has his superstitions. Before every game since he was a freshman, he likes to stop by nearby Seminole Subs and get chicken tenders and fries. “Then I’ll come back to school and put my headphones on. I might watch some football highlights to get ready. I’ve always done that.”
High hopes: When Toafili started last season, the hope was to gain 1,000 yards. He did much better than that. Now the goal is to break 2,000 yards. “I want to do better in all categories,” he said. “I want to get more yards and more touchdowns (21).” That’s not out of the question. “I definitely think he can be a 2,000-yard back,” Crawford said.
4. Treshaun Ward, Tampa Bay Tech
Position: Running back
Height/Weight: 5-9, 172
The Plant City transfer provided an immediate boost to the Titans’ ground game last season, rushing for 1,272 yards and 15 touchdowns. The three-star recruit could be counted on even more this season as Tampa Bay Tech breaks in a new starting quarterback. Here are five things to know about Ward:
Home sweet home: Last season, Ward knew he was leaving Plant City. He initially wanted to go to Armwood before eventually attending Tampa Bay Tech. “I’m glad I’m at TBT. There’s just a brotherhood here. They all made me feel comfortable.”
A helping hand: Ward tries to volunteer as much time as possible with Big Brothers Big Sisters, the organization where his aunt, Deanna, works. “Every time I get a chance I’ll work about eight hours when I’m there.”
Rip fest: Ward was a wrestler until his sophomore season at Plant City. He said there are a lot of wrestling techniques he can use in football. He is particularly fond of a rip move that he puts on defenders to break out of would-be tackles.
U-19 star: This summer, Ward was selected to play for the U.S. national team in the IFAF U-19 World Championships. Ward ran for two touchdowns in the bronze-medal game, helping the U.S. team beat Sweden 61-9.
Commitment coming: Ward trimmed his list of college offers to a short list of Louisville, Maryland, Nebraska, North Carolina and Oregon. He would like to make his decision before the regular season starts.
5. Larry Hodges, Jesuit
Position: Tight end
Height/Weight: 6-2, 234
The four-star prospect is listed by ESPN as the nation’s No. 2 tight end. Last season, Hodges ran for 399 yards and seven touchdowns and caught 26 passes for 249 yards and another score. Here are four things to know about Hodges:
Baseball background: Hodges got an early start in baseball. His mother, Denise, had him playing when he was 4. Hodges has some impressive bloodlines in the sport. His cousin is former major-leaguer Derek Bell, a standout at Belmont Heights Little League and King. Hodges stopped playing baseball when he was a freshman at Jesuit.
Ping-pong prowess: In the past year, Hodges has become a school star at ping-pong, routinely beating classmates. “I’m a great player.”
Giving back: Hodges has volunteered with Metropolitan Ministries, though he has less time to do that this year. He also helps out at youth football camps whenever possible.
Made for Miami: In January, Hodges committed to the Hurricanes, a school known for producing tight ends that go on to the NFL such as Jimmy Graham, Greg Olsen, Jeremy Shockey and Kellen Winslow II.
6. Jaylen Harrell, Berkeley Prep
Height/Weight: 6-4, 235
This spring was an impressive one for Harrell, who is now ranked by 247Sports as the seventh-best outside linebacker in the nation for the 2020 class. His list of 17 offers includes Alabama, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia and Ohio State. Last season, Harrell had 72 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions. Here are four things to know about Harrell:
Creating his own path: Football has been a part of Harrell’s life for as long as he can remember. His father, James Harrell, played at Chamberlain and Florida before embarking on a nine-year professional career that included a stint with the Tampa Bay Bandits. After James Harrell’s playing days were over, he started coaching. Most of his time on the sidelines has been with Jesuit and Plant. So it seemed only natural the son would go to one of those schools. Instead, he enrolled at Berkeley Prep as a freshman, More importantly, he has never left. “I had thought about being with my dad but not necessarily transferring to Plant.”
Strumming along: Harrell learned to play the guitar through a class at school. He plays with teammates whenever possible. His favorite song is Amazing Grace.
Four-eyed phenom: Two years ago, Harrell started wearing glasses. He sports them in classes, but during practices and games he wears contacts.
Hand-me-down number: The reason Harrell wears No. 32 is because it was worn by Buccaneer linebacker Schyler Miles, now at Kansas. “Coach (Dominic) Ciao gave it to Schyler, a great linebacker and then passed (the number) down to me.”
7. Tyler Riddell, Chamberlain
Height/Weight: 6-0, 170
After years of obscurity, Riddell grabbed the spotlight last season, throwing for 2,464 yards and 30 touchdowns while leading the Chiefs to the playoffs. He recently committed to Akron. Here are five things to know about Riddell:
Hairy situation: Riddell has a mop of red-orange curly hair. He has let it grow out since halfway through his sophomore year, though he does trim it occasionally. To keep the curls in perfect form, Riddell uses Garnier Fructis conditioner. “Girls love the curls.” On game nights, Riddell wears a headband to keep his hair from falling in his eyes.
Petrified of pecks: If there is one thing Riddell is scared of, it’s chickens. “Their legs are scary. So are their beaks.” Riddell’s family owned eight chickens. One of them pecked Riddell when he was young. “I haven’t liked them ever since.”
Fan of flapjacks: Riddell’s favorite food is pancakes, especially chocolate chip. “I just have a thing for pancakes. They’re so yummy.” The most pancakes he’s ever eaten: six. “That’s of the big ones.” Pancakes are part of Riddell’s weekly meal plan. He said he eats them at least four days a week.
Chamberlain connection: Riddell’s father, Ike, graduated from Chamberlain (class of 1996) and was a linebacker for legendary coach Billy Turner.
Akron bound: Riddell committed to the Zips after a visit. “Akron felt like home. I got there and I was comfortable. Me and the coach both feel as if I could succeed in the offense. I also liked Akron because they were big on life after football.”
8. Ricardo Watson, Armwood
Height/Weight: 5-10, 243
The three-star recruit has offers from Florida Atlantic, Oregon, Southern Miss and USF. Last season, Watson had 79 tackles, nine sacks and two fumble recoveries last season. He takes over as a leader this year for the Hawks’ vaunted defense. Here are four things to know about Watson:
Jokester: Watson says he is a comedian. “I tell a lot of jokes. It’s all stuff that’s pretty much in the moment.” Recently, Watson said he made a funny rap about one of his friends.
Tattoo tales: The ink on Watson’s arm has meaning. He has three tattoos. One is his mom’s name, Tonja. Another is a staircase to heaven, representing lost loved ones and where Watson eventually wants to be. And the last is “humble beast” written out.
Family feud: Watson’s father, also named Ricardo, was a three-year starter at quarterback for Armwood in the early 1990s. “We’re very competitive. My dad thinks in his day he was better than me.” The competitiveness really comes out on the basketball court. “I beat him one-on-one,” Watson said of his dad.
Finding the right home: Watson said he is in no rush to make a college commitment. “Whenever I feel like I’m at home with a good opportunity of playing, that’s when I’ll make my decision.”
9. John Dixon, Chamberlain
Position: Defensive back
Height/Weight: 6-0, 170
The three-star recruit has offers from big-time schools such as Alabama, Penn State and Ohio State. He is coming back from an injury and is expected to play all over the field for the Chiefs. Here are five things to know about Dixon:
Ready to go: After missing nearly 10 months because of a knee injury, Dixon was cleared by doctors recently to resume playing. Last year, the Wharton transfer played in just four games because of tendinitis in his patella. Dixon finished with seven tackles and an interception for the Wildcats. The swelling and pain in the knee subsided, so Dixon decided to play basketball this offseason. He ended up tearing the patella, which required surgery. “It was tough to be on the sidelines, but I still was there to help out my teammates.”
Chief priority: Dixon said the biggest reason he transferred to Chamberlain was because his family wanted him to have a better fit on the field. “My parents were just trying to find a better place for me.”
Juggling act: As a freshman at Wharton, Dixon decided to juggle a few pencils out of boredom. He discovered he was good at it, so he graduated to tennis balls. Now, Dixon is trying to juggle footballs. “That one is pretty hard.”
Ironman football: Now that Dixon is cleared, he likely will never leave the field. Chamberlain is using him in a variety of ways, from receiver to running back to defensive back. Dixon will even play some quarterback in wildcat packages. He also will return kicks.
Final four: Dixon’s top college choices are Florida, Miami, Penn State and South Carolina. He said he will most likely make his decision after taking his final visit, which should take place around the fourth or fifth week of the season.
10. Jerzhan Newton, Clearwater Central Catholic
Position: Running back, linebacker
Height/Weight: 6-3, 225
The 2017 Tampa Bay Times’ Pinellas County offensive player of the year is more of a college prospect as a defensive tackle. Last season, he ran for 1,229 yards and 13 touchdowns. On defense, he had 34 tackles. Here are four things to know about Newton:
What a rush: Last season, CCC was looking for someone to replace Jervon Newton, the workhorse running back from 2016. So the Marauders turned to younger brother Jerzhan, who had never played the position. Jerzahn became a quick study, using his size to bludgeon defenders on each carry. Better still, his best games came against quality competition. Against Rockledge, a Class 5A region semifinalist, Jerzhan rushed for 201 yards and two touchdowns in a 21-13 win. Against Calvary Christian in the region final, Jerzhan had 205 yards and scored twice in a 37-10 victory that put CCC in the state semifinals for the fourth time in five seasons.
Youngster: Jerzahn will turn 16 this month. When people find out his age, they often do a double take. After all, it is unusual to find someone that young with a body that big.
Position change: Jerzahn always wanted to be a linebacker. He will get his wish. To prepare for such a heavy workload, Jerzahn did a lot of cardio training in the offseason.
Taking his time: Newton has offers from eight schools, including Florida, Indiana, North Carolina and USF. Because he is a junior, there is no rush to make a decision.
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