BRADENTON — The interest in Mike Blakely seemed to begin as soon as his name was penciled onto Manatee High’s varsity roster in 2007.
But something happened last season.
It began early, when the offers from Division I schools started pouring in from the likes of Clemson and USF. Blakely wagered he had about 18 before Manatee began its playoff run.
Then came Dec. 18 at Florida’s Citrus Bowl in Orlando, site of the Class 5A state championship game.
The Hurricanes fell short in their quest to win a state title, losing 21-14 to Tampa Plant. But Blakely delivered, totaling 69 yards rushing, 119 receiving and scoring a touchdown.
“After the championship game, I started getting offers left and right,” he said. “Every time I turned around, there was a new offer. ... Every time I came into the locker room, my locker would be stacked with mail. And probably every five things I opened, there was an offer.”
Blakely now has 37 offers to choose from — proof of what can happen to a player who has an outstanding junior season.
“It’s huge,” Palmetto coach Dave Marino said. Without a strong junior year, “you’re a year behind. Now, you’re going to have to play even that much better your senior year to jump off the camera and have them say, ‘Wow, who’s that kid?’”
They already know about Blakely — and other guys such as Manatee’s Quenton Bundrage and Quinton Pompey, and Southeast quarterback Dyron Speight — rising seniors who already have Division I offers, thanks to the way they played last season.
It was especially important in Bundrage’s case. After two years of mostly sitting on the sideline, Bundrage broke out last fall, finishing with 46 catches for 800 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Toledo, Marshall, Iowa State and Cincinnati have made Bundrage an offer. Louisville did, too, after its receivers coach Ron Dugans caught a rebroadcast of the Manatee-Plant game while vacationing in Florida.
“They called and said, ‘How tall is he again?’ ‘What does he run the 40(-yard dash) in?’” Manatee assistant Chris Conboy said. “And they said, ‘OK, we’re going to offer him.’”
Keep in mind this happened even though Bundrage grabbed just five catches as a sophomore, when he was stuck behind Division I talents such as Ace Sanders and Eric Williams.
Such is the strength of a strong junior season.
“They’re (recruiting) so early,” Conboy said. “For the guy who has to wait to play until his senior year, it’s tough. There is still going to be a place for him. ... But to get to one of those top BCS schools, you pretty much have to have (a good junior year).”
Jonathan Dowling is the latest, greatest example. A good player early in his career, Dowling set a program record at Southeast with 15 interceptions as a junior, helping the Seminoles reach a regional semifinal.
He committed to Florida that spring and was named the nation’s seventh-best preseason recruit by ESPNU months before taking a snap as a senior.
Another case may be brewing in Palmetto after rising junior Austin Gordon caught six passes for 176 yards and two scores during the Tigers’ spring game. Known more for his basketball prowess before that night, Gordon is getting some interest, Marino said. And though schools are wondering how he’ll play during the regular season, when Palmetto’s schedule stiffens and all the games count, Gordon has at least shown people he can play.
That’s the important part. Now comes the most important year.
“Austin did a good job in the spring game, putting himself out there,” Marino said. “We’re putting it out there, we’re sending (game film) to schools. ... He’s definitely going to move on to the radar.”