At St. Thomas Aquinas, home to nine state football championships, two national titles and dozens of current and former NFL Players, talent is always in abundance.
And this year, it might be at an all-time high.
Ohio State, Florida, Mississippi State, West Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Michigan State, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Illinois, Vanderbilt, FAU and FIU had already secured commitments from 14 Raiders seniors before their preseason opener against Dillard, a game the nation’s preseason No. 1-ranked team won 51-0.
So how does coach Roger Harriott keep all the blue-chip talent happy when there’s only one football and not enough playing time for a loaded roster with more than 100 players?
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“We have something on the team we call ‘forces,’” said Harriott, who played for Hall of Fame coach and school athletic director George Smith in the early 1990s and led Aquinas to a state title his first season at the helm last December.
“We’re basically focused on good things happening for people who are devoted to the greater good.”
In other words, quarterback Jake Allen explained, selfishness is not tolerated. Nor is it something he says he sees very often from his teammates.
The Florida Gators commitment said whenever he steps into the huddle, it’s usually quiet and peaceful.
No one, he says, demands the ball. And that only makes what seems like an easy job even easier.
“The great thing about them is they’re all humble and they all want to eat,” Allen said of the five receivers and two running backs on the team committed to play for Football Bowl Subdivision programs next year in college.
“They all know one game [West Virginia commitment] Mike Harley could have two touchdowns and eight catches, and [Ohio State commitment Trevon Grimes] might have zero. The next game it could flip-flop.
“We also have a really, really special group of running backs. They know they’re going to eat sometimes and they know sometimes they won’t eat. [Illinois commitment] Mike Epstein and [South Carolina commitment] Kyshaun Bryan are awesome people. I know if any of them are going to be understanding of anything — it’s them.”
There’s only one other high school team in the country that has at least four receivers in the classes of 2017 and 2018 nationally ranked by 247Sports recruiting service — Bradenton’s IMG Academy. The Raiders have six when four-star junior Elijah Moore (5-11, 170) is included in the mix.
“He’s so shifty,” Allen said of Moore, a 5-11, 165-pound transfer from Western who has the University of Miami and West Virginia as the top schools vying for his commitment. “He can get around anyone. He’s so shifty. His hands are really nice.”
Grimes, a five-star recruit and the nation’s No. 1 receiver according to Rivals.com, is the top returning receiver. He caught 27 passes for 496 yards and seven touchdowns as a junior. At 6-3, 202 pounds and with 4.4 speed, Grimes is a big physical receiver who can go up and fights for balls and also blaze past defensive backs deep down field.
Harley, a 5-9, 155-pound speedster who had 11 catches for 121 yards and three scores last season, is probably the fastest receiver on the team.
“He’ll freaking run by anyone,” Allen said. “[Defensive backs] Al Blades, Asante Samuel, he doesn’t care who it is he’ll run by you.”
Jonathan Moore, a 5-7, 168-pound FIU commitment, is probably the smartest receiver on the team.
“Probably one of the smartest receivers I’ve played with,” Allen said. “He knows when to sit in zone coverage and when to take it across the field.”
Jordan Merrell, a 5-11, 178-pound transfer from Dillard where he caught 68 passes for over 700 yards last season, is an FAU commitment. Allen refers to him as “J-Dirt.”
“He just has this dog mentality,” Allen said. “He doesn’t care what team, who is guarding you, he will beat you.”
Josh Palmer, a 6-3, 190-pound Syracuse commitment, caught five passes for 30 yards and a touchdown last season at Aquinas.
“He’s a stud,” Allen said. “He kind of has the same traits as Trey. He’ll go up and get the ball, but he’s a big long, lengthy receiver. He’s 6-2, 6-3 and can go up and get the ball.”
As much top-end talent as the Raiders produce across the board, the receiver position is becoming the program’s specialty.
Three former Aquinas receivers — Leonard Hankerson (Bills), Phillip Dorsett (Colts) and Rashad Greene (Jaguars) — are currently in the NFL. Another six former Raiders receivers — Sam Bruce (Miami), Dominic Thieman (Illinois), Jawuan Harris (Rutgers), Devante Peete (Louisville), Corey Holmes (Notre Dame) and Chandler Dorrell (Vanderbilt) — are playing at major Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
The group at Aquinas now, though, is pretty special.
“We have a lot of fun together,” Grimes said. “Coming in, everybody thought we were going to argue and fight to see who is going to get the ball more and the most reps. But we all decided this is a team, and we want to win a third state championship in a row, something that will be the first in school history. I feel like we have phenomenal running backs, phenomenal linemen. But me, personally, I feel like the receiver group is the best in the country and needs to live up to that.”