Before becoming college football standouts seen regularly on national television and in massive stadiums across the country, area athletes distinguished themselves on the gridiron locally, in Hillsborough and Pasco counties.
Big-time college football is now underway this fall — and, with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations, a sense of normalcy has returned with fuller schedules and attendance capacity to accommodate thousands of fans compared to 2020.
Dozens of athletes with ties to The Laker/Lutz News coverage area are a part of programs at the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and Football Championship Series (FCS) levels, as well as Division II, Division III, National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and junior college ranks.
Here’s a closer look at some notable hometown players to watch throughout the 2021 college football season:
Michael Penix Jr.
College: Indiana University, redshirt junior quarterback
Local tie: Dade City native/Pasco High School
Michael Penix Jr., is generating quite the buzz among national college football pundits leading into the 2021 campaign for the Indiana University Hoosiers.
The 6-foot-3, 218-pound lefty slinger is ranked No. 45 in ESPN’s Top 100 College Football Players listing. Moreover, Penix is on the Manning Award Watch List, which recognizes 32 of the NCAA’s top quarterbacks in different conferences.
The preseason accolades coming his way are well-deserved.
Penix helped steered the Hoosiers in 2020 to the team’s best season in over 50 years. That included a 5-1 start and No. 12 national ranking before he experienced a season-ending injury.
He completed 56.4% of his throws for 1,647 passing yards, 14 touchdowns and four picks across six games, but suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in November 2020.
The ability to stay healthy will be key going forward, as injuries have cut short all three of Penix’s seasons at Indiana.
Along with the 2020 injury, Penix suffered a clavicle injury in November 2019 that required surgery. He also previously tore his ACL in his right knee in 2018.
Closer to home, Penix played his freshman and sophomore prep seasons at Pasco High in 2014 and 2015, then transferred to Tampa Bay Technical High School for his junior and senior years.
His father, Mike Sr., was an All-State tailback/defensive back at Pasco High in the early ’90s.
College: Iowa State University, freshman tailback
Local tie: Steinbrenner High School
A record-setting running back at Steinbrenner High School, Deon Silas is poised to build off that production for the Iowa State University Cyclones.
Silas was an early-enrollee into the Cyclones program in January, getting a head start on the playbook and habits required of a successful college athlete.
The 5-foot-8, 185-pound skill player generated buzz in spring practices thanks to his speed and shiftiness.
He has built on that momentum with fall camp, with his name on initial depth chart projections — likely the team’s third-string tailback and possible kick return option on special teams.
Not too shabby for a true freshman joining a program that last year turned heads in by finishing 9-3 (including 8-1 in the Big 12 Conference).
Out of Steinbrenner, Silas was the No. 93-ranked player in the state of Florida and No. 11-ranked all-purpose back in the class of 2021, per 247Sports.com.
He tallied a combined 5,570 all-purpose yards (2,734 rushing yards, 1,428 receiving yards, 1,408 return yards) and 55 touchdowns across an illustrious four-year varsity career.
Silas isn’t the only familiar face on the Iowa State roster. Former Steinbrenner wideout Aidan Bitter is on the squad, entering his sophomore campaign.
College: Florida A&M University, senior punter
Local tie: Wiregrass Ranch High School
Chris Faddoul is one of many FCS players longing for the gridiron, after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out many programs’ chances for a 2020 season, including the Florida A&M University Rattlers in Tallahassee.
Expectations are specifically high for the strong-legged 6-foot-1 special teamer.
He is one of 20 candidates named to the 2021 FCS Punter of the Year Award preseason watch list as announced by The Augusta Sports Council.
There also have been reports of NFL scouts visiting FAMU practices to watch Faddoul, among other players.
It’s no wonder why — considering Faddoul is a two-time All-American and once led the nation in punting.
In 2018, he led the FCS with an average of 46.8 yards per punt. He followed that up with an average of 46 yards per punt in 2019, second in the FCS ranks.
At Wiregrass Ranch, Faddoul was a multi-sport standout, playing football, soccer, tennis, and also competing in track & field. Faddoul guided the Bulls to a state football playoff appearance as a senior, serving as the team’s starting quarterback, kicker and punter.
College: University of South Florida, senior offensive lineman
Local tie: Gaither High School
Donovan Jennings returns for his fourth year in the University of South Florida Bulls program, where he’s played 29 games (19 starts) over the last three years — and now anchors an offensive line that returns all five starters from last season.
The 6-foot-5, 337-pound senior guard is garnering some big preseason recognition to match his size, too.
Jennings has been named to Athlon Sports preseason 2021 American Athletic Conference (AAC) all-conference second team offense.
He’s also been identified as one of 500 college football players to watch by the NFLPA (National Football Players Association) Collegiate Bowl’s “Big Board,” which identifies 500 draft-eligible senior collegiate football players to watch for the upcoming season.
Jennings generally has been lauded by current and former coaches for his pass protection skills and effectiveness in the run game.
Thanks to a rare combination of quick feet, balance and strength, Jennings often is tasked with blocking opponent’s top pass-rushers in one-on-one situations.
One of the lineman’s brightest spots last season came in the Bulls’ season finale against rival University of Central Florida. He helped pave the way for his team’s offense to post 646 yards of total offense, including 242 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
Jennings, surprisingly, didn’t begin playing football until his freshman year of high school, as size limitations in youth leagues prevented him from playing the sport.
But, he blossomed into an All-State player in four short years at Gaither, graduating in 2018.
College: Ohio State University, graduate student kicker
Local tie: Steinbrenner High School
Noah Ruggles joins blue-chip Ohio State University, where he’ll have two years of eligibility remaining following his June transfer from the University of North Carolina.
Throughout fall camp, Ruggles has been entrenched in a well-publicized field goal kicker battle with redshirt freshman Jake Siebert.
The 6-foot-2 Ruggles has experience on his side for a Buckeyes squad seeking more accuracy over long-range distance and that’s coming off a national championship bid that fell just short in 2020.
Ruggles lost his starting job at North Carolina last season, where he was limited to just one appearance, a made extra-point versus Western Carolina University.
However, Ruggles has demonstrated accuracy in close range before, such as in 2019, where he made all nine of his attempts within 30 yards.
Altogether in that career season, Ruggles appeared in 13 games and was fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) in scoring with 102 points. He did that by making 19 of 27 field goals and connecting on all 45 touchdown points-after. (Both marks were the fifth-most in North Carolina’s single-season program history.)
Ruggles also has proven battle-tested in tight situations.
Case in point was notching a game-winning 40-yard field goal with seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter in 20-17 victory over crosstown rival Duke University in late October 2019.
While at Steinbrenner, Ruggles was a first-team Class 8A All-State selection and earned offensive MVP honors of the Hillsborough All-Star Game. He also was a member of the school’s soccer team.
College: Colorado State University, graduate student defensive line
Local tie: Freedom High School/IMG
Scott Patchan has been around the game awhile — as he’s set to begin his sixth college football season (entering his second year with Colorado State University after four years at the University of Miami).
The 6-foot-6, 275-pound defensive lineman hopes to build off a strong 2020 campaign tapered due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In just four contests last season, Patchan tallied 5.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss overall, adding 22 total tackles and three quarterback hurries — earning first-team All-Mountain West Conference honors in the process.
Also, Patchan won on 24% of his pass rushes, securing a pressure on 19% – both figures leading Mountain West players by 3.5 percentage points, according to metrics from the scouting website Pro Football Focus.
Those wondering why Patchan remains in college for six-plus years — the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to all 2020 fall sport athletes.
Locally, Patchan played his first three years of prep ball at Freedom High before transferring to Bradenton’s IMG Academy for his senior season.
His final run at Freedom in 2013 proved most productive, as he totaled 8.5 sacks, 56 tackles and 24 tackles for loss.
Patchan’s father, Matt III, won national titles with University of Miami in 1983 and in 1987. Also, Patchan’s older brother, Matt IV, was an offensive lineman at the University of Florida and Boston College.
Others to watch:
- Florida Atlantic University redshirt junior Chaz Neal (Wesley Chapel High School)
- Florida A&M University redshirt senior linebacker Ellrie Allen (Wesley Chapel High School)
- Florida International University freshman quarterback Haden Carlson (Steinbrenner High School)
- Florida State University redshirt junior linebacker DeCalon Brooks (Gaither High School)
- Jackson State University junior defensive back Isaiah Bolden (Wesley Chapel High School)
- Old Dominion University junior defensive end Estefano Feliciano Jr. (Gaither High School)
- University of California-Berkeley safety Raymond Woodie III (Carrollwood Day School/Wiregrass Ranch High School)
- University of Central Florida redshirt senior wide receiver Nate Craig-Myers (Pasco High School/Tampa Catholic High School)
- University of Cincinnati junior safety Jaquan Sheppard (Zephyrhills High School)
Published September 08, 2021
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