Senior quarterback Jake Rizzo bided his time as a backup last year after Wade Freebeck transferred in and took what could have been his job. Now, Rizzo is thriving for St. Thomas Aquinas.
Aquinas, home to 125 football recruits who have signed with Football Bowl Subdivision programs since 2000, is expected to have its most productive year yet, sending players to the highest levels of college football.
Nine seniors are already committed to FBS programs and at least another five have multiple offers from FBS programs. The most the Raiders have sent in one year to FBS programs is 10 (2010, 2006, 2004).
“This is probably the most loaded team we’ve had here,” said Aquinas quarterbacks coach Chris Cormier, who quarterbacked the Raiders to the school’s third of seven state titles in 1999. “We had a lot of good players, [sent nine to FBS programs in 2000] back when I played. But it’s tough to compare this team this year to any previous team here as far as athletes go. Because nobody is playing both sides of the ball. That’s depth.”
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Cormier’s pupil, Rizzo, isn’t among the stars with a college offer yet. But coach Rocco Casullo expects that to change before National Signing Day in February.
Rizzo (6-1, 175) has put together a stellar highlight tape in his first season as a starter this fall. As the trigger man for an offense averaging 44.8 points per game, Rizzo is completing 64.9 percent of his passes for 1,719 yards and has thrown 24 touchdowns and only two interceptions. Not bad for a player who missed two games with a concussion and has been on the bench with the rest of Aquinas’ starting offense by the third quarter in all but one of his 11 starts this season.
Friday, though, Rizzo and the top-ranked Raiders (12-1) are expecting a rare four-quarter fight in the Class 7A state semifinals when unbeaten and No. 2-ranked Tarpon Springs East Lake (13-0) visits Brian Piccolo Stadium.
Last year, the Eagles lost to eventual state champion Palm Beach Dwyer 31-24 in overtime in the state semifinals – the same Dwyer that eliminated Aquinas 35-28 a week earlier.
“They’re very athletic both defensively and offensively,” Casullo said. “They’ll be our toughest test since [our only loss at Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey back on Sept. 13].”
The Eagles feature four FBS senior recruits: 6-3, 183-pound star receiver Georgia Campbell (Florida State commitment), linebacker Carson Lydon (Virginia Tech), defensive back Justin Strnad (Wake Forest) and kicker Daniel LaCamera (Texas A&M). East Lake also features one of the nation’s top junior offensive linemen in 6-4, 285-pound Julian Santos.
Campbell leads the team in receiving (52 catches, 770 yards, 11 TDs), has four sacks and has three punt returns for scores and two kick returns for scores. The Eagles are averaging 33.3 points per game on offense and allowing 10.6 per game. Defensively, they’ve produced 43 sacks, 17 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries.
“They have good linebackers, good athletes all-around,” Rizzo said. “We’ll have to play our A game.”
Rizzo vaguely remembers the one time the Raiders didn’t. Against Bosco, he was knocked out of the game in the fourth quarter with a concussion and missed the next two games.
“Jake has great ability, has the strongest arm I’ve seen in a long time at the high school level,” said Cormier, who has coached Rizzo since he was 12. “He’s just now getting experience, just now playing the game. It’s the same thing as me. I didn’t start until my senior year. Once you start getting the reps in the games, start reading the defenses, going through read progressions, see line coming off the ball, you start growing. He’s coming along real nice, not making many mistakes, doing what we’re asking him to do, taking what the defense gives him and not trying to do too much. On this type of team that’s what we need him to do, not try to do anything crazy.”
Rizzo started for the Raiders’ freshman team and went 8-0 as a starter on the junior varsity team as a sophomore. But his junior year, Freebeck (now at Vanderbilt) transferred to Aquinas from Western and beat out Rizzo for the starting job on varsity.
“I didn’t take it bad because I knew this year was going to be my year,” Rizzo said. “I learned a lot from Wade and John [O’Korn] [now at Houston] when he was the guy my sophomore year. They still text me all the time, see how things are going.”
With a 3.3 GPA and 1420 SAT score it’s only a matter of time before a college program scoops up Rizzo next. He said UCF, Purdue, FIU, FAU, Illinois State, East Carolina and Appalachian State have all spoken with him. For now, though, he’s more concerned with winning a ring like his older brother Joey, a former running back who won a state title and national title as a senior during the 2010 season.
“My brother does tease me every once and a while,” Rizzo said. “I know if I win the state championship this year at least one ring will be better having none.”