Palm Beach County football has produced stars like Lamar Jackson, but where has that talent gone?
Fewer county high schoolers are signing with Power 5 conference schools.
Palm Beach County for decades produced a goldmine of talented high school football players who landed on teams in the top echelon of college football. But the county’s pipeline to big-league stardom has dwindled over the last five years.
The number of signees bound for Power 5 conference teams from county high schools dove from 17 in the 2016-17 school year to one this school year. The decline in the interim was largely steady: 10 players signed in 2018, five signed the next year, then seven.
Less than a decade ago, Boynton Beach’s Lamar Jackson, the 2019 NFL MVP, was signing with Louisville of the Atlantic Coast Conference. He followed in the footsteps of players such as Pro Football Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson, who starred for the Pahokee Blue Devils in the 70s before going on to stardom at the University of Pittsburgh and the NFL.
What happened? While the county once provided a consistent stream of talent to schools in the ACC, Southeastern Conference, Big Ten, Big-12 and Pac-12, that output has slowed to a trickle.
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Asked about this trend, local coaches cite the cyclical nature of talent, the college transfer portal, top-tier players leaving the county to attend high school elsewhere and athletes’ eagerness to get on the field right away, no matter the caliber of competition.
Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: Palm Beach County has fallen behind other large metropolitan areas in the state when it comes to Power 5 signees.
Eight more Duval players signed with Power 5 programs over the last five years than in Palm Beach, although from the 2016-17 academic year to last school year, Palm Beach's high school student population exceeded Duval's by more than 20,000, according to a USA Today Florida Network review of Florida Department of Education reports.
While Palm Beach and Hillsborough have had roughly the same number of high schoolers, Hillsborough averaged 15.2 Power 5 signees over the last five years. Palm Beach's average was eight.
"I think Dade County is top of the food chain in the state obviously, and Broward is not very far behind, and I think Palm Beach got in the tail end of some of that," said Jupiter coach Tim Tharp, who coached Palm Beach Gardens from 1998-2005. "I think there's a lot of talent over the years that has come out of Palm Beach County. Can you put your finger on one thing?
"Probably not. When the talent is as plentiful as it is in Miami, you probably aren't going to see much of a drop-off."
Miami-Dade has had 112 Power 5 signees since 2017, and neighboring Broward has had 164. Palm Beach ranks closer to Pinellas, where 35 students have signed with Power 5 teams.
For Tharp and others, it all starts with the transfer portal.
Proven college talent vs. a project
Tharp and longtime county coach Jack Daniels, who won two state championships at Dwyer and left retirement this offseason to coach for Cardinal Newman, both cite college transfers as a factor in Palm Beach’s lower Power 5 numbers.
"I do think the transfer portal has put a dent in high school kids," Tharp said. "The slam-dunk kids are going to be fine. But I think if a kid is kind of a tweener kid, and there's a kid in the portal who is a given, I think colleges are recruiting the kid in the portal, and that hurts high school kids."
Daniels agreed, citing the readiness of a college player, compared to a high schooler.
"So many kids are going into the portal who have established themselves as Power 5 or D1 guys," Daniels said. "College guys are looking to win right away, so why would they pluck a kid out of high school?"
Palm Beach County's talent pipeline
Tharp, the former Gardens coach, spent a decade as an athletic director at two Martin County high schools before returning to Palm Beach County in late 2016.
Since then, he’s been told by colleagues that Palm Beach County is producing fewer standout players.
"I have heard from other coaches that they feel the talent in Palm Beach County has dropped off some," Tharp said. "All I can judge is what I can see in the last four years since I've been back and what it was in the early 2000s."
While Tharp has heard about the drop-off, he can’t say whether it is a long-term trend or a blip.
"I just think talent runs in cycles, and '17 might have been just a really, really good year," he said.
Opposite on the spectrum is Palm Beach Lakes coach Al Shipman, a former University of Miami player.
"I don't think the talent level has dropped," Shipman said, adding he thinks it's harder for Palm Beach County athletes to get the same recognition as other South Florida players.
Teams in Broward and Miami-Dade consistently receive national recognition, from St. Thomas Aquinas to Miami Central. In 2019, seven of the eight state champions came from those two counties. None came from Palm Beach.
"It's not like the talent isn't here," Shipman said. "The talent is definitely here. But just to be honest with you, on a year-to-year basis, I feel like there's just a better group of talent on teams in Miami. Not that they're individually better than Palm Beach County athletes."
Shipman said until Palm Beach County teams start beating Dade and Broward powerhouses again, the perception that its teams are third-best in South Florida will hurt players.
But if Shipman is right, and Palm Beach County is producing talent, where is it going?
Athletes transferring to Broward County, and elsewhere
Tharp, Daniels and Shipman say that talented players are leaving the county to play elsewhere, often at Broward County private schools.
"Palm Beach County doesn't really get the recognition I feel we deserve," Shipman said. "I've seen some of our top players leave the area, they were already getting recruited by Power 5 teams, but they would leave the area to go down to Broward County, specifically, to get what they feel like is more recognition."
Following the 2019 season, Cardinal Newman linebacker Jaydon Hood and American Heritage-Delray offensive lineman Gunnar Hansen transferred to Fort Lauderdale-St. Thomas Aquinas. Both signed this year with Power 5 programs: Hood with Michigan, Hansen with Vanderbilt.
Pahokee native Markevious Brown, who played with Bradenton-IMG Academy, returned to his hometown this past winter to sign with Ole Miss.
After starring for The Benjamin School as a sophomore and junior, quarterback Santino Marucci committed to Wake Forest last January. A month later, his family moved to St. Johns County, where he played for Bartram Trail and later signed for the Demon Deacons.
Still, not all the talented players have transferred out of county. Are the players that are staying simply choosing to go a different route than a Power 5 program?
High schoolers want to play right away
No, Shipman says when asked, he doesn't think players are more likely to eschew Power 5 offers to attend less-heralded programs. But he did note that “everyone is looking for an opportunity to play as early as humanly possible."
He gave the example of his alma mater, Miami. “It was kind of an unwritten rule: You were going to come there as a freshman, you were going to redshirt."
Shipman said he does see a difference in today's generation compared to the Hurricanes of the 80s and 90s.
He should know if players no longer cherish Power 5 scholarship offers.
Each of the last two seasons, he's had a 3-star recruit, linebacker Vincent Starling in 2019 and running back Antonio Outler in 2020, sign to play for South Dakota, a Football Championship Subdivision (formerly the I-AA) program. Another 3-star recruit, American Heritage defensive lineman Earl Miller Jr., also chose South Dakota in this past signing class.
All three were offered by Power 5 programs.
Another player with Power 5 offers, Suncoast star William Wells, signed with UCF in December despite being labeled "a Power 5 kid" by Daniels.
Wells was one of two UCF signees from Palm Beach County over the last two years, along with Atlantic's Zyin Thomas.
Small numbers add up. If a few highly-recruited players decided to attend schools in the Power 5 conferences or did not transfer out of county, suddenly the flow of talent to those schools is less of a trickle and more of a babbling brook.
Hope for Palm Beach County's future
Despite fewer county players bound for Power 5 programs, Tharp, Daniels and Shipman say they are not worried.
For Tharp, it's reassuring that Florida’s three Power 5 programs are still recruiting in the area.
"I hope Palm Beach gets back up there where it should, because it makes us all better," Tharp said.
Shipman said talent, including “some guys deserving of Power 5 recognition,” is still in the county. "But ours kind of come in waves, the way I feel like any given year, Dade and Broward will have an abundance of those guys."
And for Daniels, who recently left retirement to coach, there is hope for the future.
"You are going to see the talent start developing better here in Palm Beach County," he said. "I think the county has some really good young players."