Orange Bowl

For South Florida stars, the Orange Bowl is not just a playoff game. It’s about pride

Oklahoma wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown strolled into Hard Rock Stadium on Thursday with a sense of euphoria.

His smile coupled with the bright necklace reading “HOLLY5WOOD” said it all.

He’s home.

“I love where I’m from,” Brown, a Chaminade-Madonna alumnus, said. “I love where I come from for the people, and I just love supporting them.”

It’s a sentiment felt on both teams.

For nine Alabama and Oklahoma players, Saturday’s Orange Bowl game is more than just a College Football Playoff semifinal.

It’s also a homecoming.

Their football careers started here. They won high school championships here.

And now, their last hurdle to reach the national championship game will take place here.

‘Different breed’

The sheer amount of football talent coming out of South Florida is hard to deny.

And it remains present among top college football programs.

There are 107 players whose prep careers started in either Miami-Dade or Broward counties currently on top-25 teams, based on the final College Football Playoff rankings. Eight of those teams have at least five players from the area and 13 have at least one area player who has started at least half of its games this season.

“There’s great high school football here,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who has five area players on his roster this season.

Twelve are still in the running for a national title and at least 10 South Florida players have been involved in the College Football Playoff since it started in 2014.

“Down here, we compete hard,” said Alabama wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, a Deerfield Beach alumnus. “There’s a lot of great football players, so when you have a lot of great football players who compete hard, that just turns you into a different breed.”

Jerry Jeudy, the Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver, speaks to the press during 2018 Orange Bowl media availability at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. The Alabama Crimson Tide will be facing-off against the Oklahoma Sooners this Saturday during the 2018 Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium. MATIAS J. OCNER

Jeudy is not the first South Florida wide receiver to make his name with the Alabama Crimson Tide.

He certainly won’t be the last if Saban has anything to do with it.

It started with Amari Cooper, out of Miami Northwestern, from 2012-2014 before becoming a first-round pick by the Oakland Raiders. Calvin Ridley followed from 2015-2017 and became a first-round pick by the Atlanta Falcons.

“I thought I could do the same,” Jeudy said.

He’s on the right path.

Jeudy, a sophomore, led Alabama with 1,103 yards and 12 touchdowns on 59 catches this year en route to winning the Biletnikoff Award given annually to the country’s best wide receiver. His 18.69 yards per catch ranked second nationally among players with at least 50 catches.

And he did this on a team that has five players with at least 500 receiving yards and five touchdowns this season.

“He’s such a talented receiver,” Alabama co-offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said. “He’s got elite body control. He has the ability to stop his body on a dime. ... He understands what he needs to do.”

Scratching surface

Patrick Surtain II first felt the nerves against Texas A&M.

The former Plantation American Heritage standout already had three games under his belt at Alabama, but that game against the Aggies this year marked his first career start.

“I had a lot of jitters going in,” Surtain said, “but throughout the season, I gained more and more confidence.”

The rest of the year turned out pretty well for him. Surtain has started the last 10 games at cornerback. He recorded his first collegiate interception in that Texas A&M game. His six pass breakups are tied for fifth among SEC freshmen.

“He’s got a maturity about him that’s beyond his years, and he’s been a really, really consistent player,” Saban said. “He’s bright, he’s smart, he’s got very good football intuition. He understands what you’re trying to get done and what you’re trying to do and goes out there and executes it fairly well, especially for his experience and his age.”

Surtain also has another factor that is in line with the Crimson Tide: He’s a winner.

His last loss came in the 2015 Class 5A state title game. That’s 43 consecutive wins and counting.

“We want to keep it that way, too,” Alabama defensive backs coach Karl Scott said.

More importantly, Scott wants to see Surtain continue to develop as a true lockdown corner.

“He’s going to be one of the good ones,” Scott said. “The good thing about him is he hasn’t even scratched his potential yet. He has a long way to go, but I’m excited about him.”

Wait for it

But for every player like Surtain who comes into a top program and makes an immediate impact, there are players like Nik Bonitto who have to wait their turn to get on the field.

Bonitto, a former four-star prospect out of St. Thomas Aquinas, has played in just three games during his first season at Oklahoma while being relegated mostly to scout team duties.

“It was really humbling,” Bonitto said. “It made me realize there’s things I do still need to work on whereas in high school I may have been at the top and had some things I didn’t really notice I had to work on.”

And then there are the players like Brown, whose success stories had to go through speed bumps in order to happen.

After his high school career ended, Brown played a season at College of the Canyons, a junior college in California, before being seen as a potential playmaker at a major college football program.

It was off to Oklahoma after that, where Brown has caught 132 passes for 2,413 yards and 17 touchdowns over the past two years.

“I never really had that in my mind that I’m not going to make it,” Brown said. “I always knew that someway, somehow I was going to make it happen.”

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley added: “Keep in mind, last year even about halfway throughout the season, he was a reserve for us. He was a two. [He] really took off the second half of last year, has gained confidence. ... He’s been one of the more explosive players in the country now for about a year and a half, and it’s been a huge part of our offense.”

Don’t expect the trend to end anytime soon.

”We’re going to continue to try to get some more good players from here,” Saban said, “because we’ve had success in the past.”

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Jordan McPherson covers the Miami Marlins and high school sports for the Miami Herald. He attended the University of Florida and covered the Gators athletic program for five years before joining the Herald staff in December 2017.