In 2009, Bayshore High School alumnus Fabian Washington said Manatee County had a new name: Cornerback County.
At the time, there were three cornerbacks from the county playing in the NFL: Washington, Lakewood Ranch High alumnus Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Southeast High alumnus Mike Jenkins.
Seven years later, more are getting their crack at an NFL dream.
At the high school level in Manatee County, a new group of defensive backs are taking up the mantle that was set by the forefathers of the position.
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Players such as Braden River’s Demetrius Lawson and Tyrone Collins, Manatee’s Sir Williams and Palmetto’s Derrick Bradley.
All four play on the same 7-on-7 team in the area called Team Elite.
And it’s a fitting name, because the quartet, in addition to Ohio State-bound Isaiah Pryor at IMG Academy, are just that: elite defensive backs.
“Everybody wants to play offense nowadays,” Lawson said. “And you’re only going to find a few DBs that stick to their positions and keep playing it.”
There are several good secondaries in the area. Braden River’s ball-hawking group recorded 28 interceptions in 2015. Manatee’s run-stoppers and Palmetto’s group, which includes Desmine Ross who had two picks in the spring game, are right there with the Pirates.
Southeast has Lee Martin and Quay Harvey leading a group that is ready to leave their mark this fall as is the group at Lakewood Ranch, Saint Stephen’s, Bradenton Christian, Out-of-Door Academy and Cardinal Mooney.
So how has Manatee County become such a proving ground for defensive backs to flourish?
There are multiple reasons: coaching, size of players, a legacy and coaching philosophy.
“The tradition is only going to continue,” Palmetto head coach Dave Marino said.
Developing an elite player, no matter the position, needs solid coaching. Many of the coaches in the area are former players who are giving back. Palmetto’s defensive backs coach this year is former Bayshore head coach Elijah Freeman, who was mentored by past Manatee High great Tracy Sanders.
Sanders played quarterback for the Hurricanes, but also defensive back.
“The 50-year-old guys trained the 40-year-old guys, the 40-year-old guys trained the 30-year-old guys ... it’s just a cycle,” said Marino, who was an assistant for Southeast’s back-to-back state title teams in the 1990s and was an assistant at Lakewood Ranch and elsewhere in the area before becoming Palmetto’s head coach.
There isn’t a surplus of 6-foot-3 or taller players roaming the gridiron on Friday nights in the fall around Manatee County.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t talented skill guys on the offensive side, but the chances of getting to the next level is tied to a player’s height. In Manatee County, that often can mean a defensive back since the area is known for producing elite players from time-to-time.
“Our tallest receiver is 6-foot-3, 160 pounds ... and (Kelvin) McKnight two years ago was 5-9 and (Kavious) Price was 5-6,” Manatee head coach John Booth said. “We just haven’t been very big (there).”
The current crop of defensive backs don’t have to look back very far to see the talent pipeline’s creation.
Predecessors include Manatee High alumni Alvoid Mays and Tyrone Williams. Both played in the NFL. Williams won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers in 1996.
There was a break with defensive backs making it to the NFL from the area as wide receivers, such as former Southeast and Florida State star Peter Warrick, briefly took center stage.
Then Fabian Washington, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Mike Jenkins, Palmetto’s Mistral Raymond and Chris Smith reached the NFL. Jenkins and Rodgers-Cromartie are still playing. Southeast’s Jonathan Dowling and Brian Poole have followed in recent years.
“When I was in Little League, I used to watch (Poole) play,” Derrick Bradley said.
Poole finished his Florida Gators career last season and is with the Atlanta Falcons this year.
“I just kept looking up for it with my cousin Brian Poole and now he plays for the Atlanta Falcons so it makes me work even harder,” Collins said.
In the college ranks, especially at powerhouse programs such as Alabama, the prevailing thought is to put the best athletes on defense.
In Manatee County high school football, Palmetto High School uses the same philosophy.
“A lot of coaches do that, because the philosophy is if they can’t score, they can’t win,” Marino said. “Defensively, you can get a pick-six.”
Braden River’s Curt Bradley said the defensive systems of playing man or zone coverage aren’t too complicated.
“Athletes like that can just go make plays,” he said.
The competition is fierce across Manatee County for the top secondary title. And often, social media becomes the trash talking forum used to express how proud each one is. The University of Florida referred to its secondary with Poole and Vernon Hargreaves last year as Defensive Back University or DBU for short.
Braden River, Palmetto, Southeast and the rest have adopted the moniker with hashtags, such as the no fly zone, to symbolize their strength.
But getting to that point meant starting elsewhere: All four elite defensive backs from the public schools in Manatee County started at a different position.
Lawson and Collins were wide receivers before head coach Curt Bradley moved them to the secondary a short time into their high school careers.
“I just liked to hit. I always was a receiver and if you come at me, I’m going to crack back at you,” Lawson said. “... After that, my coach saw I could play DB and moved me to DB. And then when I came here, I had never really played safety. I always played corner, we had needed a safety at the time.”
Like Lawson and Collins, Palmetto’s Derrick Bradley was a wide receiver at Southeast before becoming a standout defensive back and transferring to the Tigers.
Manatee’s Sir Williams battled A.J. Colagiovanni for the starting quarterback job at first, but is now a shutdown defensive back.
“I was like, ‘I think I can do it, let’s give it a shot,’” Williams said.
And then at IMG Academy, the gold mine of Division I talent is led by Pryor and Marcus Williamson, who is heading to Ohio State next year, and safety Grant Delpit (LSU) and Houston Griffith (ranked fifth among cornerbacks in the nation) roaming the secondary for the Ascenders.
But no matter where you look, Manatee County is the land of the defensive back.
Like Washington said seven years ago, it truly is Cornerback County.