May 09, 2012

It's getting to be an annual routine at Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas: contend for a state championship in the fall, watch former players get drafted in the spring. The growing fraternity of St. Thomas Aquinas alumni in the NFL added two more members in April, as safety Christian Thompson and offensive tackle Andrew Datko were drafted in the fourth and seventh rounds, respectively.

Over the past five years, St. Thomas Aquinas has now had eight players selected in the draft. That's the most of any high school in the country, with no other program producing more than five.

St. Thomas Aquinas has succeeded by following the program's motto: you go, we go. The idea is that if each player does his part, the entire team will operate efficiently. And it's hard to dispute the results. Thanks in part to NFL-bound prospects, the Raiders captured state titles in 1992, 1997, 1999, 2007, 2008 and 2010.

"I think some of those guys have carried on some of that stuff to college," said St. Thomas Aquinas AD George Smith, who ended his 34-year tenure as head coach last February. "I know some of these kids have turned out to be great leaders."

Although this was a down draft for Florida's traditional college powers, a look at the high school backgrounds of recent draftees reveals that the Sunshine State remains a hotbed for professional talent. This year marked the first time since 1980 that the Big Three -- Florida, Florida State and Miami -- failed to produce a first-round pick. But the top prep programs, particularly in the southern part of the state, remain as productive as ever.

To wit: Only nine high schools have had at least four former players drafted since 2008. Five of them come from the state of Florida (St. Thomas Aquinas, Miami Northwestern, Lakeland, Pahokee and Pompano Beach Ely).

The fact that St. Thomas Aquinas and Miami Northwestern top the list shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Aquinas captured the mythical national championship in 2008. Northwestern earned that same distinction in 2007.

"Those really were two teams with star-studded players that won national championships almost hands down," said Rivals national analyst Dallas Jackson. "Miami Northwestern [in 2007] was one of the better high school football teams I've seen in the last five or six years. They had talent galore."

Aquinas' success and NFL pedigree, in particular, have also surfaced on its personnel. Wide receiver Cris Carter was a one-time assistant and the current staff is equally stacked. It includes former Pro Bowl cornerback Al Harris, former Pro Bowl safety Darryl Williams and former Minnesota Vikings safety Darrell Fullington.

"The Al Harrises and those guys offer so much about what life is if you're trying to be successful," Smith said.

The success is also a result of consistency. Raiders' offensive line coach Jay Connolly has been a coach for more than 35 years, helping develop prospects like Datko, Marcus Gilbert and Sam Young. Defensive line coach Jim Gazzillo and special teams coach Dave Shepherd have been on staff for more than two decades, and many of the younger assistants are former Aquinas players.

"The coaches have stressed fundamentals and technique," said Rocco Casullo, Aquinas' head coach who replaced Smith last year. "We're really big on teaching at the younger level. Those kids [who were drafted] then obviously went to good schools, and those coaches have taught them well also."

It's a simple pipeline, and it's working seamlessly. Better yet: it doesn't show any signs of slowing down.

Aquinas graduates Giovani Bernard, a running back at North Carolina, and Lamarcus Joyner, a safety at Florida State, both earned all-ACC honors last season. Wisconsin running back James White was named the Big Ten freshman of the year in 2010, while Florida cornerback Marcus Roberson, Florida State wide receiver Rashad Greene and Florida State offensive tackle Bobby Hart all made major contributions as true freshman in 2011. Defensive end Jelani Hamilton (Miami), running back Dami Ayoola (Illinois) and defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. (Florida) all signed with BCS schools in 2012.

It's getting to be routine, but it never gets old. For schools like St. Thomas Aquinas, the draft is another testament to the program's success.

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