Tackling the topics: Area football players talk top teams, players, issues

High school football players from left to right, Atlantic Coast WR Patrick Bryant II, Bolles QB Gunner Boree and Sandalwood LB Branden Jennings. (Photos by Justin Barney and Ralph D. Priddy) (News4Jax)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It’s a much different looking high school football season than normal, but that didn’t stop players from dishing responses on a number of topics before the season began.

News4Jax handed out surveys at Baker’s Sports high school football media day on Aug. 7 to poll them on numerous things. At that time, playing a season was very much still up in the air as the COVID-19 pandemic caused the postponement of practice and the regular season.

A total of 78 players completed surveys, a lower number than normal due to limits on how many athletes that schools could bring to media day.

We look at how those players responded:

Besides your own team, who has the best program in the area?

(13) Bolles. (9) Bartram Trail, Fleming Island, Trinity Christian. (7) Oakleaf.

Thoughts: Not much to argue with here. All of these teams have been ranked in our Super 10 from the outset and they garnered more than half of the vote from area players. Bolles, Bartram, Fleming and Trinity have one loss apiece. Oakleaf has two losses, but both have come to Georgia schools. Bolles played for the Class 4A state championship last season, so no surprise in seeing players tab the Bulldogs as the area’s best team. The players were on target in this category.

Who are the best players in the area?

Offense: (15) Patrick Bryant II, WR, Atlantic Coast. (6) Marcus Burke, WR, Trinity Christian; Treyaun Webb, RB, Trinity Christian. (5) Chaz Davis, West Nassau, RB; Walter Simmons III, QB, Oakleaf.

Defense: (14) Branden Jennings, LB, Sandalwood. (5) Corey Coley, DB, Trinity Christian; Caden Fordham, ATH, Bolles.

Thoughts: Players were asked to not vote for teammates in this section. Bryant and Jennings were no-doubt picks among area players as the best on those sides of the ball. Bryant has 16 catches for 335 yards and 3 TDs this year, not overwhelming numbers although he’s the constant focal point of opposing defenses and seldom given much room to breathe by the secondary. Burke, a Florida commit, has been injured all season. Webb, a Georgia commit, is on the rise after missing almost all of 2019 injured. Jennings, a recent Michigan commit, is a violent defender and he’s having an excellent season for a very good Sandalwood defense. His 43 tackles lead the Saints and he has 6 sacks. Against Raines in Week 6, Jennings had two safeties in the same game. I can’t think of a player recently to accomplish that. A total of 34 players received multiple votes.

Who is your favorite college football team?

(21) Florida. (9) Florida State. (6) Miami. (5) Alabama, Georgia.

Thoughts: State teams were, as expected, at the forefront here. No surprise to see the Gators lead the way here. The Seminoles had a solid showing among area players. A total of 24 colleges were named here. I did think it was interesting that UCF was not mentioned at all.

Who is your favorite NFL team?

(24) Jaguars. (9) Falcons. (6) Seahawks. (5) Steelers.

Thoughts: When the Jaguars cede this category, it’s going to be an issue. But this year, Jacksonville remains on top. Remember, this survey was taken prior to the season beginning, and the top two teams here weren’t sporting 1-5 records at that time. A total of 24 of the NFL’s 32 teams were mentioned. Surprisingly, the other state teams barely moved the needle with area players. The Dolphins had just one vote, and the Tom Brady-led Buccaneers weren’t mentioned.

COVID-19 concerns have made athletes in multiple sports opt out of playing this season. Do you think it’s safe to play football during this time?

(69) Yes. (3) No.

Thoughts: Not surprising at all. Players wanted to play, but some of the responses went beyond just a yes or a no. “I don’t think [it’s] 100% safe out, but kids are going to play regardless.”

Should college athletes be paid or is a scholarship enough?

(61) Yes. (10) No. (6) Name and likeness, no salary.

Thoughts: This is one of the questions I’ve asked for years and it’s interesting to see just how much this mindset has shifted in a relatively short window of time. As recently as 2018 when I tracked this at my previous job, players said, “no.” The gap had been both wide and small when I asked this in the past, but it was always a no. A scholarship was, for years, thought to be a sufficient tradeoff.

But players and their families have gotten wise to just how much money flows through the college football pipe and want a pinch of that. The pendulum has swung to the other side in a big way in just two years. With pending legislation coming being developed by an NCAA committee and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signing a law that will permit athletes to be compensated for their name and likeness, times are a changing. Players here added things such as payment should be based upon the level of football and increasing the current stipend that athletes receive.

What is the biggest issue facing high school athletes in 2020?

(31) COVID-19. (15) Not being able to play. (7) Getting exposure without coaches being able to see them. (5) Injuries. (3) Shortened season, social media and shootings at games.

Thoughts: The most wide-ranging answers among the survey came from this question with a total of 21 different responses. Those varied from academics to arrogance. COVID-19, of course, was the top answer and went hand-in-hand with No. 2 on this list of not being able to play.

We’ve seen a handful of COVID-19-related game cancellations or area teams having to reschedule due to an opponent backing out due to quarantine or COVID-19-related issues. I thought the most interesting answers were social media and shootings at games. Social media has been derided in the past in these surveys as the best and worst, with players noting how much pressure it can put on them.

There haven’t been any shootings at games this year, but the 2018 season opener between Lee and Raines did have a triple shooting after the game that left one person dead and led to earlier start times for games in Duval County. There was also a shooting in the parking lot during a 2019 spring game at Parker. While those issues haven’t been widespread and didn’t occur inside the stadiums, players who took this survey were likely freshmen and sophomores when those incidents occurred, and it left an impression.

One thing that was noticeable in its omission — the lack of anything related to racism or social justice causes. After a spring and summer filled with social and civil unrest and sweeping changes in motion across the country, not one survey listed those as an issue.

Did you consider not playing sports in 2020 due to the coronavirus?

(71) No. (5) Yes.

Thoughts: Overall, this wasn’t a surprise. Players want to play. I thought some of the explanations as to why were in-depth and insightful. Numerous players said that football was their path to college and ultimately being able to provide for their families. Not playing would deprive athletes of putting more highlights on film for schools to see. For those who say that it’s just a game, some of the responses here are enough to drive home just how important this game is to some.

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