Lakeland, for the most part, has always been Florida Gators country.
Florida has been able to rely on the town about two hours to its south to find a gem every recruiting cycle or two. The Miami Hurricanes have had some success in Polk County in the past — most notably with Ray Lewis — but they’re typically starting from a disadvantage because of the Gators’ tradition there.
Miami hopes it can change things this weekend when two of Polk’s top four prospects in the Class of 2019 head down to Coral Gables for their official visits.
The Hurricanes get the final chance to state their case to four-star tight end Keon Zipperer and four-star defensive end Lloyd Summerall before they make their final college choice Dec. 19 when the early signing period opens.
“I’m just trying to get down there and enjoy with my family,” Summerall said after helping Lakeland win the Class 7A championship Friday.
While both Zipperer and Summerall say other schools are in the hunt beyond Miami and Florida, their recruitment will, in all likelihood, come down to the two in-state programs. With only about a week until they make their decisions public, it’s still hard to get a read on either.
The Gators are the 247Sports.com Crystal Ball favorites for both, holding at least 88 percent of the predictions for each senior end, but the Hurricanes have made a compelling case for both.
In Zipperer’s case, it’s easy to see why Miami is so appealing. Just about every time the 6-foot-2, 240-pound receiver tweets about the Hurricanes, he accompanies his post with the hashtag, “#TEU.” Miami has five tight ends active in the NFL and Brevin Jordan seems well on his way to being the next after a tremendous freshman season for the tight end.
In the Class of 2018, the Hurricanes landed their top two tight end targets. In a still-small sample size, Todd Hartley has proven he gets the players he wants and the tight ends coach really wants the No. 4 tight end in the 247Sports composite rankings.
“They produce tight ends that get into the league,” Zipperer said after the Dreadnaughts’ 33-20 win against St. Thomas Aquinas on Friday. “I just want to go to school and go to the next level because I know I’m going to ball.”
With Summerall, there’s an even more explicit difference in the on-field pitches from the two teams. Florida, which runs a 3-4 defense, would shift Summerall to outside linebacker and let him rush the passer from a stand-up position.
Miami, on the other hand, finished the regular season No. 2 in total defense with a dominant 4-3 alignment. The Hurricanes have explicitly compared Summerall to some of the defensive linemen currently on the roster, including Gregory Rousseau and Joe Jackson.
Like Rousseau, Summerall will arrive at college in need of adding some serious muscle, but Rousseau was on track to contribute as a freshman before a preseason ankle injury ended his season before it began. As for the Jackson comparison, the junior could be a second-day pick in the 2019 NFL Draft and Miami envisions similar upside for the 6-5, 220-pound defensive lineman, who checks in as the nation’s No. 15 weakside defensive end.
“I just like their defense. Their defense is great,” Summerall said. “They definitely want me as a hand-in-the-dirt end, kind of like Joe Jackson.”
Coach Mark Richt is a major reason Summerall is high on the Hurricanes, too.
“Coach Richt is a good man. He’s a good Christian,” Summerall said. “I need that in my life, going through a lot of trials and tribulations.”
Summerall said he plans to put out a top three sometime this week, with either the Florida State Seminoles or Nebraska Cornhuskers occupying the final spot. Zipperer also has the Alabama Crimson Tide and LSU Tigers in his top four, and he did officially visit Alabama last month.
They’ll jointly announce their college choices at their high school on the first day of the early signing period and they’ll likely be accompanied by a Chucky doll when they do so. The “Child’s Play” prop has a panic-inducing history for recruiting enthusiasts in Florida thanks to a tradition started by Gators defensive lineman Dominique Easley in 2013. Easley carried the doll around with him as a gag and fellow defensive lineman Dante Fowler kept the tradition going after Easley graduated.
In February, Plantation American Heritage defensive linemen Nesta Jade Silvera and Andrew Chatfield both brought Chucky dolls on stage with them when they made their college choices. Chatfield signed with Florida, but Silvera stuck by his pledge to Miami.
Zipperer and Summerall have both carried around their own Chucky from time to time this year, although they’re downplaying any significance.
“I mean, the Chucky doll to me is just good luck,” Zipperer said. “It’s my good luck charm.”