Juwan Dowels vividly remembers his first winter on the Syracuse University campus. Like the other 11 South Floridians on the Orange football team, Dowels figured the weather would take some getting used to; but he had no idea just how cold it would get and how ill-suited his wardrobe was.
“It was kind of fun at first because I had never seen snow falling, and it looked cool piled on the ground, but after three or four weeks, I was like, `Where’s the sun?’’’ said Dowels, a junior cornerback and American Heritage High alum who can’t wait to get home to play against eighth-ranked University of Miami at Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday.
“I had to completely change up my wardrobe,” he said by phone on Tuesday. “Can’t wear gym shorts and tank tops anymore. I remember I went out to class, had my gloves and big jacket on, but I was wearing tennis shoes because I didn’t have boots at the time. I had a couple slips and falls on the ice, so that was definitely a learning experience.”
Senior wide receiver Steve Ishmael of North Miami Beach High, a Guyanese-Nigerian-American who leads the nation with 62 catches and ranks third with 802 yards, now knows how to dress for winter. “I’m fully acclimated, got some cool trench coats and gloves,” he said. “But it will be nice to be back in Miami with the sun and the palm trees, playing in front of my family and friends in a stadium I passed by almost every day of my life.”
Syracuse is coming off a stunning 27-24 upset of No. 2 Clemson, and looking to knock off another Top 10 team. Coach Dino Babers has become an internet sensation as his animated post-game locker room speech went viral.
The game against the undefeated Hurricanes (5-0, 3-0 ACC) will be extra-special for the dozen players from South Florida. They are among 19 Floridians on the team, nearly one quarter of the roster, which is no coincidence. Scott Shafer, the ex-Syracuse head coach, and George McDonald, the former offensive coordinator, made it a point to canvas Florida for recruits with speed and athleticism.
McDonald, now the wide receivers coach at North Carolina State, coached receivers at UM in 2011-12, under Al Golden. During those two years, he strengthened ties he had made with South Florida high school coaches during stints as an assistant at Stanford, Western Michigan, Minnesota and Arkansas. McDonald had recruited Florida for many years, so local coaches and players trust him.
When McDonald assured Ishmael and Dowels they’d be best off heading north to Syracuse and turning down offers closer to home, they listened. Tight end Ravian Pierce of Plantation, and Ft. Lauderdale Dillard defensive linemen McKinley Williams and Kenneth Ruff are among the other key players coming home this weekend.
Babers and secondary coach Nick Monroe continue to reload the Florida pipeline. The Orange incoming Class of 2017 included 11 Floridians, and dozens of offers have gone out to uncommitted Class of 2018 players from the Sunshine State.
“There definitely is a bond among all of us from South Florida,” Ishmael said. “We all relate to each other, some of us played against each other, we have mutual friends. The high school players from Florida, they see we went to Syracuse and were successful, and it will motivate them to come, too.”
Jeff Bertani, the football coach at North Miami Beach High, said Syracuse has been “the perfect fit” for Ishmael, and suspects more locals will follow. In fact, Syracuse is recruiting NMB offensive lineman Kahric Belle (6-6, 290 lbs), and Orange coaches will likely go watch him play Friday night.
“The kids down here see guys like Steve having success, plus you get an opportunity to play Miami, FSU, in the ACC, it’s a natural,” Bertani said of the South Florida-Syracuse connection. “They may not at this time be able to get the UM or FSU kid, but they can compete and get that kid that was snubbed by the Florida schools and has a little chip on his shoulder.”
Dowels was one of those kids. He grew up a diehard Canes fan, but didn’t get an offer from UM. He can’t wait to play in front of his hometown fans and face the Hurricanes, whose coaching staff includes his high school coach, Mike Rumph.
“It’s going to be so familiar, like being away from your Mom’s house and going back and you know where the forks and plates are, you know where she keeps the candy. It’s that comfortable feeling,” Dowel said. “It will feel like a home game.”
He also is itching for home-cooked food. “My mom promised me mac and cheese, smothered pork chops, collard greens, and cornbread. Can’t wait to get down there and get some home cooking and some sunshine.”
South Florida Connections
Ravian Pierce, TE, Jr., Plantation
Antwan Cordy, DB, R-Jr., Homestead
Steve Ishmael, WR, Sr., North Miami Beach
Juwan Dowels, CB, R-Jr., American Heritage
Nadarius Fagan, LB, Fr., Southridge
Kenneth Ruff, DL, Soph., Dillard
Colin Byrne, OL, R-Soph., St. Thomas Aquinas
Samuel Clausman, OL, R-Soph., St. Thomas Aquinas
Sean Avant, WR, R-Sr., Miramar
Adly Enoicy, WR, R-Jr, Atlantic-Delray Beach
Sharod Johnson, WR, Fr., Booker T Washington
McKinley Williams, DL, Soph., Dillard.