Despite having far fewer schools and student athletes, Lake and Sumter counties needn’t take a back seat to any other location in the state when it comes to producing football talent.
Not Orange and Seminole counties or other high-population areas like Tampa-St. Petersburg, Miami and even Jacksonville.
For example, two former student athletes from area schools — Leesburg’s Danny Trevathan and South Sumter’s Keanu Neal — are earning paychecks in the National Football League. Trevathan, currently a linebacker the Chicago Bears, played in two Super Bowls with Denver and Neal is a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive back with the Atlanta Falcons and a veteran of Super Bowl LI.
There are also countless area graduates playing for a variety of colleges and universities around the country, hoping one day to join Trevathan and Neal in the NFL.
And there are plenty of others still in local schools, working on their game for a chance to play at the next level.
Here is a look at six area standouts with the potential to be game changers for their teams this season:
Jesiah Pierre, Mount Dora Christian Academy
The Daily Commercial’s All-Area Defensive Player of the Year in 2017, Jesiah Pierre has been coveted by college coaches since his freshman year. The University of Miami made an official offer after his freshman season at MDCA and Pierre verbally committed to the Hurricanes.
Recently, however, he came off the committed and reopened the recruiting process. Over the summer, Pierre announced that he would attend the University of Florida.
At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Pierre is a combination of speed and power that makes opposing offensive coordinates lose sleep. Opponents in the Sunshine State Athletic Conference constantly search for ways to neutralize Pierre and often game-plan to avoid him.
Occasionally — usually in short-yardage or goal-line situations, Pierre will line up in the Bulldogs’ offensive backfield and is a virtually unstoppable battering ram blocker or running back.
And, if opposing coaches didn’t have enough worries, Pierre can often be found in the weight room, adding extra muscle, or out on the practice field with his teammates, working to make the Bulldogs better.
Kanyon Walker, Wildwood
A transfer from the First Academy of Leesburg, Kanyon Walker has quietly become one of the area’s most heavily recruited football players.
Walker has more than 12 offers from colleges around the country, including the Army, Navy and Air Force. He also has offers from Colgate, Dartmouth, Furman, Tulane and Tennessee Tech, among others.
In addition to his prowess on the gridiron, Walker is a star in the classroom with a 3.65 grade point average and a SAT score north of 1,100.
A defensive back who stands 6-feet tall and weighs 185 pounds, Walker delivers a blow with the force of a linebacker and is expected to add a level of physicality to a secondary that was already teeming with athleticism. However, he has enough speed and in-game moxie to run stride-for-stride with the fleetest of receivers.
The son of a coach — former First Academy head coach Sheldon Walker — he’s a leader on the field and on the sidelines.
Mac Harris, The Villages
After missing the first half of last season with a knee injury, Mac Harris spent the second half of the season rounding into form.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder played a variety of positions for the Buffalo after he returned and was a big part in the team’s success over the second half of the season.
Against Wildwood, for example, he played quarterback and completed 7 of 12 passes for 156 yards with a touchdown. Harris also caught a 48-yard scoring pass.
Now fully recovered, Harris is expected to be a critical piece in the Buffalo’s offense at quarterback. He has an accurate arm, capable of throwing with touch or delivering the long ball, and is a threat to run at any time.
And he doesn’t run solely as a last resort. When Harris tucks the ball away, he doesn’t look for a place to go down ... he’s looking for room to run and isn’t afraid of contact.
A.J. Graham, Leesburg
A.J. Graham will never be mistaken for former Leesburg quarterback Wyatt Rector.
For starters, Graham is much smaller — 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds — than Rector, who stood 6-foot-4 and weighed about 230 pounds. Plus, Graham is a southpaw and Rector, who is a freshman at Western Michigan University, is a right-hander.
But Leesburg head coach Mark Oates doesn’t expect the Yellow Jackets to suffer.
Instead, he believes Graham will give Leesburg’s offense a new dimension. Oates said Graham, who started much of the 2016 season after Rector suffered a season-ending knee injury, throws the mid-level pass with more accuracy than Rector and is a shiftier runner than his predecessor.
Also, because Graham was a wide receiver last year and caught 43 passes, he knows how a receiver thinks and what he sees while running a pattern. Oates believes that will help Graham with his progressions, as well as helping him find receivers when forced out of the pocket.
It’s not likely Graham will make Yellow Jackets fans forget Rector, but he could establish his own spot in Leesburg lore.
Kenan Johnson, Lake Minneola
Kenan Johnson isn’t likely to sneak up on anyone on a football field.
A 6-foot-1, 175-pound defensive back, Johnson not only looks the part, but plays the role better than most.
In fact, Johnson is so adept in Lake Minneola’s secondary that he has received at least 15 offers from colleges around the country and committed in June to attend the University of North Carolina. Other schools interested in him included Kentucky and UCF, where his brother, Kenyon, is a wide receiver.
The playground gridiron battles between the Johnson brothers likely played a role in helping Johnson grow his game. Primarily a cornerback, Johnson is a lockdown defender who can also get to the quarterback from the edge. His height makes it difficult for quarterbacks to try and throw over him and his football IQ helps him quickly read and pick up on the intentions of opposing offenses.
Kelley Joiner, South Lake
Kelley Joiner is high school football’s version of the Energizer bunny.
He just runs ... and runs ... and runs.
Joiner led the state last year in rushing with 2,241 yards and 25 touchdowns. He ran for 402 yards and five touchdowns — one of the top single-game performances in Lake County history — against Leesburg.
And Joiner is looking to prove last year wasn’t a fluke.
Already committed to the University of South Florida, Joiner might find the going tougher this season. Teams almost certainly will game-plan specifically to stop him and quarterback Baylee Heuser will have to be effective throwing the ball to keep defenses from zeroing in on Joiner.
At 5-foot-10, 185-pounds, Joiner is a workhorse who doesn’t seem to wear down over the course of a game or season. He gained at least 101 yards in every game last season and carried the ball no less than 15 times in a game, with a high of 34 carries against Ocala Forest.
Joiner surpassed 200 yards in a game on five occasions as a junior, including going over 300 yards twice. In addition to the Leesburg game, he had 302 yards and six touchdowns against Eustis.