Manatee County high school football players begin a new chapter in college

The stinging defeat that cut a potential championship football season one game short of a history-making moment at Braden River High School wasn’t too old when the work continued toward the next chapter.

For quarterback Jacob Huesman, tight end Ryan Neuzil, offensive lineman Alex Salguero, defensive back/linebacker JoJo Louis and other seniors with the Pirates and other Manatee County high school programs, the end of the 2015 season just meant grinding toward a college football career.

“It was hard, but we were all were building on the next chapter of life,” said Neuzil, who capped his senior season reaching the Class 7A state semifinals. “We’re striving so we can make a name for ourselves in the next program.”

That next step is Division I college football for Neuzil and Huesman in Boone, N.C., with Appalachian State. Salguero (Marshall), Louis (Florida International), Palmetto’s David Belvin (Florida Atlantic) and Octavious James (Savannah State) and Manatee’s Kavious Price (Kent State) and Travon Rumph (Savannah State) to name a few.

Palmetto’s Jack Allison arrived at Miami early as the county’s lone Power Five Conference signing among public schools.

There’s plenty more high school stars taking their games to the Division II and D-III levels or the NAIA or JUCO route in the fall. To get there, they displayed considerable skill during a prep career, while hitting the gym hard to get bigger and stronger.

But various schools prepare their players differently, with different advice.

At Braden River, both head coach Curt Bradley and offensive coordinator Eric Sanders played college ball not too long ago at Northern Iowa. Sanders, who was a standout quarterback at UNI, developed a close bond with Huesman during the turnaround at the East Manatee program, which saw the Pirates go from county laughingstocks with one win in Huesman’s freshman season to state semifinalist with a second straight unbeaten regular season in his senior campaign.

“I told him it’s kind of similar coming in as a freshman in high school,” Sanders said. “You’re kind of at the bottom of the chain again, you’re not the man on campus and you’ve got to start at the bottom and earn your way to the top.”

For Huesman, that meant hitting the weights and throwing with Braden River’s younger receivers practically every day after school, so he’s equipped for college football’s rigors. Once summer hit, Huesman and the rest of the Pirates like kicker Kyle Thoma (Mount Union) and linebacker Chase Balliette (Augustana) were pumping iron regularly until departing for college. Huesman and Neuzil left in late June. Louis already made it to FIU, while Salguero wasted little time from graduation to heading to West Virginia to join the Thundering Herd.

“I knew for awhile that was what I was going to do, so I was ready for it,” Salguero said via phone. “It didn’t really bother me, too much. But I do miss everyone back down in Florida.”

Palmetto and Manatee might be football rivals, but Rumph and James are teammates at the next level.

“We’re going to be buddies up at Savannah State, because he’s from my hometown so why wouldn’t we be close,” Rumph said.

James said he needs to be in shape when arriving at Savannah State later this summer.

“One of the first tasks we have to complete is 56, 40-yard sprints in under six seconds each,” James said.

At Palmetto, last year’s seniors spend the summer mornings lifting weights along with the next wave of Tigers. They receive some top-notch advice from coaches that played collegiately like head coach Dave Marino (Rutgers) and assistant coach Craig Roundtree, who played at Florida Atlantic.

“Discipline, attention to detail, sense of urgency and accountability all the time,” Roundtree said. “I tell them, ‘When I meet you in the 10th grade, I’m preparing you for your sophomore year of college already. Because if you wait until your senior year, you’re going to be late.’ And I like to get my guys to where they’re ready to play when they come in.”

Roundtree played at Southeast High back in the late 1990s, predating the technology wave of Hudl, a website where players can market themselves to recruiters with their highlights. It’s a big difference today than it was in Roundtree’s day.

“If they can’t find you on Hudl, they’re like, ‘Coach, I was looking for you, I couldn’t find you,’” Roundtree said. “So I had to put up old DVDs.”

Nonetheless, players at Palmetto and elsewhere in the county take note of the past. At Manatee, that means a tradition-rich program that’s seen several players make it to Division I football. And for Rumph, that means learning from a guy he remembers being a force on Friday nights at Hawkins Stadium and earned a scholarship at Florida State: DaMarcus Christmas.

“He was a role model,” Rumph said. “... That’s one of the best parts about coming to Manatee, because you’ve got so many guys ahead of you that have already done what you’re trying to do. So you look up to them and just trust the process.”

Others like last fall’s Bradenton Herald defensive player of the year Chase Balliette looked to their family, in addition to their respective high school coaches, for guidance on prepping for the college. Balliette said his older brother Marcus helped with the recruiting process, working out and talking to coaches in the journey to the next level.

And once there, himself, the aforementioned players, Palmetto’s Azavion Smith (New Mexico Military), Manatee’s Lorenz Allen and Paul Mobley, who are both attending Nebraska-Kearney, and the rest of the area’s gridiron stars heading to the college game will face distractions galore between academics and a social life away from the field.

“There’s going to be times where your friends or buddies that aren’t on the football team or an athlete are going to just be chilling in the dorm room playing video games and you’re going to be like, ‘Man, I wish I could be doing that,’” Sanders said. “But that can’t happen as a student-athlete, the rigorous hours that you put in, it’s a dedication 12 months a year.”

But nothing prepares the players until they get to their different campuses and experience the new surroundings.

“Every high school athlete that’s going to college football and is thinking they’re in great shape and they are going to be in great shape when they start to go work out at the college level, they don’t know what’s coming,” Salguero said. “I didn’t know what was coming. It’s a (heck) of a lot harder at this level.”