Before becoming college football standouts regularly seen on national television and in massive stadiums across the country, these athletes distinguished themselves on the gridiron locally, in Hillsborough and Pasco counties.
Big-time college football has returned this fall — later than usual and with a pared-down schedule amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
But that won’t stop several locals with ties to The Laker/Lutz News coverage area from enjoying the big stage and making plays on Saturdays in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Southeastern Conference (SEC) and American Athletic Conference (AAC), among others.
Here’s a closer look at a handful of hometown players to keep an eye on throughout the 2020 college football season:
Isaiah Bolden, receiver
College: Florida State University, redshirt sophomore
Local tie: Wesley Chapel High School
After spending his first two years working as a defensive back at FSU, the 6-foot-2, 196-pound Wesley Chapel High product has shifted to the offensive side of the ball — to wide receiver. Throughout preseason, FSU coaches have raved about Bolden’s size, athleticism, big play ability and passion for the game.
But, just how much playing time the redshirt sophomore garners at the position remains up in the air, as he tries cracking a deep, experienced position grouping.
At the very least, expect to see plenty of Bolden as a co-starter on kick return duties. Playing in all 13 games last season, he returned six kickoffs for 156 yards, including a career-long of 41 yards, and one punt return for seven yards.
Bolden was a three-sport star at Wesley Chapel, shining in football, basketball, and track and field. In addition to his pigskin talents, Bolden was the varsity basketball team’s leading rebounder (8.5 rebounds per game in 2017-2018) and collected a bronze medal in the 100-meter dash at 2018 Class 3A state championships.
The former Wildcat was a consensus four-star recruit and courted by some two dozen Division I FBS college football programs, including several other blue bloods.
Donovan Jennings, left tackle
College: University of South Florida, junior
Local tie: Gaither High School
The massive 6-foot-5, 338-pound Gaither High alumnus is cemented as USF’s starting left tackle in a new up-tempo offense, and is looking to build off a strong 2019 showing where he saw action in 10 games and made eight starts.
In fact, Jennings last season was the team’s highest-graded offensive lineman by Pro Football Focus (66.9), a website that focuses on thorough analysis of the National Football League (NFL) and NCAA Division I football.
He’s been lauded by coaches for his pass protection skills and effectiveness in the run game, a combination of quick feet, balance and strength. He often was tasked with blocking opponent’s top pass-rushers in one-on-one situations last season.
Expectations remain high again in 2020. He’s been named to the Athlon Preseason All-Conference Fourth Team and Phil Steele Preseason All-Conference Fourth Team.
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. However, he blossomed in four short years at Gaither, earning All-State honors and scholarship offers from the University of Central Florida, and Virginia, Marshall, Old Dominion and Toledo universities, among others.
Devontay Love-Taylor, right tackle
College: Florida State University, redshirt senior
Local tie: Odessa native
The Odessa native is set to make an immediate impact for Florida State — penciled in as the team’s starting right tackle following his transfer from Florida International, where he made 16 starts in 32 career games and last season earned honorable mention All-Conference USA recognition.
The sturdy 6-foot-4, 315-pound lineman is being leaned on for his experience, work ethic and maturity. The website Pro Football Focus graded Love-Taylor an above-average rating (74.2) on 721 snaps last season in an FIU uniform.
Love-Taylor prepped at Mitchell High School, where he earned first-team All-Conference honors and pushed the program to the 6A state playoffs. He also played basketball.
Tre’ McKitty, tight end
College: University of Georgia, graduate student
Local tie: Wesley Chapel native
The Wesley Chapel native looks to be entrenched as the starting tight end on a Georgia team with legitimate aspirations of hoisting a national title and ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll.
The 6-foot-5, 245-pound McKitty transferred to Georgia from FSU in January following a coaching change. He played in 35 career games in three seasons at FSU, hauling in a combined 50 receptions for 520 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
In camp with his new squad, Georgia coaches raved about McKitty for bringing a gritty demeanor and showing aptitude in blocking, along with making catches.
Prognosticators are likewise bullish on McKitty’s final season, as he was named to a preseason watch list for the John Mackey Award, awarded to the nation’s top tight end.
McKitty grew up playing in the Land O’ Lakes-based South Pasco Predators youth football league. He played his freshman year at Wesley Chapel High then prepped at Bradenton’s IMG Academy, where he was a blue-chip recruit
Noah Ruggles, kicker
College: University of North Carolina, junior
Local tie: Steinbrenner High School
Ruggles emerged as North Carolina’s primary kicker as a sophomore last season, converting 19 of 27 field goal attempts — including a long of 49 yards — and perfect on all 45 of his extra-point attempts.
The former Steinbrenner High standout was nearly automatic for the Tar Heels on kicks inside 40 yards, but struggled on some longer kicks, including going 0-for-3 on attempts of more than 50 yards.
His defining moment in 2019 came when he kicked the game-winning field goal in a 20-17 home win against conference rival Duke in a late October contest. It was just a week removed from UNC head coach Mack Brown benching Ruggles, after he missed two overtime field goal attempts in a road loss to Virginia Tech.
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound kicker will need to prove himself once again. He’s listed second on the team’s depth chart behind All-American Furman transfer Grayson Atkins, but is still expected to earn ample opportunities.
Closer to home, Ruggles earned All-State honors at Steinbrenner and was named most valuable player of the East-West Hillsborough County Senior All-Star Game in 2016.
Ja’Quan Sheppard, safety
College: University of Cincinnati, sophomore
Local tie: Zephyrhills High School
The Zephyrhills High product is pressing for a larger role this season for a Cincinnati program favored to finish atop the American Athletic Conference (AAC).
As a true freshman in 2019 for the 11-3 Bearcats, the 6-foot-2, 197-pound safety played in nine games, mostly as a special teams ace, where he ranked among the team’s top special teams defenders with six stops on kickoff coverage. Sheppard collected two tackles in his Cincy debut at Marshall, and also tied that mark with two tackles at Houston.
In high school, Sheppard was mostly known for his skills as wide receiver at Zephyrhills, where he registered a combined 91 catches for 1,649 yards and 25 touchdowns across four varsity seasons. His impact helped guide the Bulldogs to arguably its best season in program history in 2018 — winning 11 straight games and reaching the Class 5A region semifinal. He was no stranger to accolades, earning All-State and All-Conference honors, and being invited to the Pasco County Senior All-Star Football Game. Sheppard was a consensus three-star recruit with more than 20 offers from Temple, Marshall and Kentucky, among others.
Published September 16, 2020