In the world of college football recruiting, it’s no hidden secret that the state of Florida may produce more D1 talent that any other in the nation. FootballStudyHall.com calls Florida, California and Texas ‘The Big Three’ because they produce the most FBS recruits per state on a yearly basis. Recruiters from football programs on every level converge onto the Sunshine State looking to land top-level talent. It’s a yearlong melee that doesn’t end until the ink is dry on the players’ national letter of intent.
To take the argument a step further, Florida produces the highest amount of NFL talent and South Florida is an absolute recruiting goldmine. When the NFL released a list of hometowns that produced the most active NFL players heading into the 2015 season, Miami and Ft. Lauderdale topped the list at No. 1 and No. 2 respectively. Antonio Brown, Amari Cooper, Kelvin Benjamin, Frank Core, T.Y. Hilton, Santana Moss, Jonathan Vilma, Elvis Dumervil and Teddy Bridgewater are just a few names on the lengthy list.
Pitt head football coach Pat Narduzzi has placed a heavy emphasis on recruiting Florida. The ball started to roll a year ago when Lakeland (FL) Lake Gibson defensive tackle Keyshon Camp, Cooper City (FL) defensive end Rashad Weaver and Kissimmee (FL) Gateway cornerback Henry Miller were added to the Panthers’ 2016 recruiting class. Citra (FL) North Marion offensive lineman Zack Williams never made it to Pitt.
A year later and Narduzzi has seen a windfall. Seven players from the Sunshine State have verbally committed to Pitt. Vero Beach (FL) wide receiver Michael Smith (6-foot-2 inches, 205 pounds), Lakeland (FL) cornerback Damarri Mathis (5-foot-11 inches, 180 pounds), Deerfield Beach (FL) defensive end Deslin Alexandre (6-foot-4 inches, 235 pounds), Palm Beach Gardens (FL) offensive lineman Jerry Drake Jr. (6-foot-7 inches, 310 pounds), Plantation (FL) American Heritage wide receiver Dontavius Butler (6-foot-2 inches, 197 pounds) and Ft. Lauderdale (FL) St. Thomas Aquinas linebacker Albert Tucker (6-foot-3 inches, 210 pounds). The Panthers remain strongly in the mix for Miami (FL) Coral Gables linebacker/defensive end Robert McWilliams (6-foot-4 inches, 210 pounds) and Ft. Lauderdale (FL) St. Thomas Aquinas running back Kyshaun Bryan (5-foot-10 inches, 190 pounds). [Ed. Note: Kyshaun Bryan has since committed to Iowa. Robert McWilliams is committed to FIU.]
To gain better perspective on Pitt’s Floridians, I contacted the most definitive voice in Florida high school football recruiting: Larry Blustein. He has nearly 50 years of experience in the south Florida sports media including the role of sports columnist for the Miami Herald on south Florida school sports and recruiting. Larry is the senior writer for SFHSSports.com (@SFHSSports) and he has encyclopedic knowledge of almost every prospect in Florida.
“This is my forty-seventh year believe it or not,” stated Blustein. “I actually was fourteen years old when I started. I did it in high school just to help friends out. All of a sudden the local paper saw me doing all of this stuff and they asked me to start writing about recruiting.”
“I work with the Miami Dolphins as well. It’s like a Pitt stronghold down here. (Former Pitt fullback) Lousaka Polite is a guy we deal with every week. John Congemi and his daughter work both work there and (former Pitt cornerback) Lafayette Pitts has emerged as a player. I see former Panther Torrie Cox all the time. I think he may be named defensive coordinator for McArthur High School (Hollywood, FL). He attended Miami Northwestern High School.”
Blustein has observed the future Panthers at 7-on-7 camps, high school practices and all-star games. He’s a fixture on the sideline of games throughout the season. He was asked to comment on each player.
Vero Beach (FL) wide receiver Michael Smith
“I’ve seen him in a couple of camps over the years. His head coach, Lenny Jankowski and I go back a long way. He sold me on this kid last year. I watched him. This is a big time kid. This is one of those kids that kind of flew under the radar. You know a lot of people weren’t pecking at him in South Florida because … I mean you can get lost in the shuffle so many times in the South Florida area, you got a lot of kids who are big time kids … some really good, talented kids … and they can get lost due to the vast amounts of talent down here. If you don’t emerge early, you can get a bit lost.”
“Yeah, he’s a guy that comes in (to Pitt) and gets a little bit stronger, he’s a quick learner, and certainly a guy that can get into the mix probably in a year or two. He just has to get a little bit stronger. Maybe if they find a need for him in the first year because he does so much. I think in a year or two is when he’ll be more physically ready to take the rigors of the ACC conference.”
“Michael turned a lot of things that are nothing into something. Like he’ll do a little hitch or he’ll do a little out, and then all of a sudden he’ll juke a kid and go 80 yards. He extends the play with his speed. I mean his quarterback was nice, but at the same time, you know as well as I do, receivers a lot of times make the plays and not just the long ball. I’m sure when they play lesser opponents, he’ll go up against them and try to out and ups real quick and then that’s 7 points easy. I’ve seen him go against pretty good kids and he more than holds his own.”
Lakeland (FL) cornerback Damarri Mathis (5-foot-11 inches, 180 pounds)
“Big time kid. He was a guy that everybody started looking at as a sophomore. I get those alerts from the coaches to tell me “Hey, I got a good senior, but I got a good kid that’s in the class of 2017 too.” And he’s one of those. This is a kid, a physical guy. He’s an athletic guy. He’s learned so much. This is one of these kids that has learned so much from coaching. I saw him early on, he was raw. I observed him during the summers. He goes to events, you know like all the camps and the combines. You can see the increased maturity year by year.”
“Damarri is a physical kid. If they need him next year, that’s going to keep him in the mix early (at Pitt). If you’re a fast wide receiver you may not know how to run routes, but you know how to get open. Somebody like Damarri is still working on his cover skills but he does know how to be physical. That’s the thing that’s going to open the doors. Sure there’s going to be receivers that may take him to school, but that’s got to happen. It’s going to happen because of the fact that he’s an 18 year old kid and he’s going against 22 year old guys. Guys with those four years of experience, that’s a whole big deal. I definitely think Damarri can add depth into that rotation or even compete for a starting spot. That’s if Pitt needs him to play early. If Coach Narduzzi has corners coming back with experience, I assume he would go that direction and try to bring Damarri along a bit more slowly. He’s going to be a standout for Pitt in the future.”
Deerfield Beach (FL) defensive end Deslin Alexandre
“Deslin is a big time kid. A pure football player. He reminds me of former Panther Claude Harriot out of Glade Central High School. That physical type of kid that really covers a lot of space. A physical player. He plays with a chip on his shoulder. He’s a guy that was in a growing football program. They were, I believe, his freshman and sophomore year, undefeated and then they went in the tank. He helped lift them out of their slump his senior year. He powered them through to wins. I like him a lot. He’s a football player. He’s not one of those guys that goes “Oh, we got a basketball kid is coming here” or “We got a guy lifts weights or wrestles.” This kid played football from the beginning.
Palm Beach Gardens (FL) offensive lineman Jerry Drake Jr
“He’s a big and talented kid. And I tell you what if he’s in there right now, by the time May rolls around, he’s going to be something really special. Getting to (Pitt) early gets him ahead of everybody else. You know that’s important. This kid’s a player. Everybody looked at him early on. There was a lot of speculation of what he could do at the next level. I’m telling you if he puts it all together and makes this experience at Pittsburgh a priority, he’s got something big coming there. He’s a massive young man, a man-child.”
“I remember shaking his hand at the first time. I think I saw him at the University of Miami camp and I’ll tell you this, I tell you no lie, when he shook my hand, he engulfed the whole hand.”
“He projects as a tackle. I think it will be great. He’s got that size. He’s got some good agility. He’s got great hips and his feet are very solid. Yeah, he’s going to be a good tackle. Pitt got a good one there.”
Plantation (FL) American Heritage wide receiver Dontavius Butler
“Oh yeah. I covered his Dad. His Dad went to Allendale High School, which is where they lived for a lot of years and was a really decent football player. Dontavius is the total package. He’s a big, strong receiver. He will work harder than anybody you got. He’s just that type of kid. He sees what it is to not have. He’s been in that situation and then he grew up having to fight for everything. He grew up in a community where there was a lot of talent, then he went to American Heritage, which is a private school. His whole status of living changed when he transferred there. He’s the type of kid because he’s got a big time body that would actually see some type of playing time somewhere. He’s a special kid. He’s a good kid that has goals for himself. He’s very articulate and smart.”
Ft. Lauderdale (FL) St. Thomas Aquinas linebacker Albert Tucker
“Albert is a very quiet kid. He’s a real physical specimen. He’s big, put together and has speed. He wasn’t a main cog early on for them. A couple of injuries opened a way for him. You’ve got to know St. Thomas, they’ve got freshmen that haven’t even played yet that are getting offers. So, that’s the way they roll at that school, which is crazy. There’s that much talent throughout the team.”
“Albert could really, really blow up in a major way in that defensive scheme. I’m telling you this kid is a worker, because he had to challenge a kid that was going to Notre Dame for playing time and it was only when that kid got hurt, that he got in there. Albert, like Dontavius Butler, is a kid that’s going to work really hard for the Panther program. A lot of those kids that (Pitt) has added are not the type of kids that’ll walk on campus and expect things. They’ll work hard to get them.”
“Albert would have been starting for every other high school in the nation but he was going up against Drew White. White’s brother Sean is a quarterback at Auburn. Drew’s going to Notre Dame and he’s a machine. He was averaging some crazy numbers like twenty tackles a game. As the season went on, Albert made a name for himself. He’s an impressive football player.”
Pitt remains heavily in the mix for two additional Floridians, Miami (FL) Coral Gables linebacker/defensive end Robert McWilliams (6-foot-4 inches, 210 pounds) and Ft. Lauderdale (FL) St. Thomas Aquinas running back Kyshaun Bryan (5-foot-10 inches, 190 pounds). I asked Larry to comment on both players. [Ed. Note: Kyshaun Bryan has since committed to Iowa. Robert McWilliams is committed to FIU.]
“McWilliams would be the steal of the recruiting season. He would be the steal because right now, I’m telling you, that kid is going to find out one day what it’s like to eat a lot of food and get a lot of supplements and he’s going to be 250 pounds and no one’s going to stop him. No one’s going to stop him. I watched him for four straight games and he dominated high level competition. He like more of a Defensive end with them, but he dropped into coverage as well. His arms are really long. I think he can stretch across the hallway! I’m telling you that kid looks like a basketball kid, but your coaches, when they looked at him, I’m sure they said, “You know what, 40 pounds and that kid is at a different level.” And that’s true.”
“Right now, people are going to look at him and go “Oh man is he a guard on your basketball team?”, because he’s tall and thin. He’s definitely got room to grow. His shoulders are wide, his feet are big and his calves are nice size. He could put on 40 pounds and I’ll tell you what, become a different man.”
“Kyshaun Bryan, coming into the year, was another American Heritage product. That’s where he was for the first three years, then he transferred over to St. Thomas Aquinas for his final year.”
“His sophomore year was awesome and then he got hurt in the off season. I can’t remember the specifics of the injury but he was out almost all of his junior year. He played sparingly. This is why I’m hesitant to blow him up because as a sophomore he was dynamic. In fact when he was a junior, I had him ranked the second best overall junior in his class. But because he didn’t play a lot of the junior season, he never got into the flow of things because of his injury. I saw him play in one or two games and he looked good. This year, he really wasn’t the starting running back.”
“I can tell you when healthy, and this is the honest truth, he’s a beast. He’s just, maybe he needed. If he does commit, I think that he’s got the potential to be unbelievable, but we really haven’t honestly seen him as a full time back in two years. That’s the honest truth that anybody can tell you. He split time last year and the year before he was hurt most of the year.”
“If you want to see his full potential, go back and watch film on Kyshaun’s sophomore season. He was healthy at that time and like I said, a beast. I just hope that the kid I saw as a sophomore reappears. I think that will happen. He got hurt and (Illinois running back commit) Mike Epstein emerged. Epstein played in the first game against Booker T. Washington High school and ran for 170 yards. St. Thomas Aquinas is like that There’s so much talent on the team.”
National Letter of Intent day is Wednesday, February 1st when the majority of the aforementioned players will officially join the University of Pittsburgh football program.