- July 27, 2022
If you're anything like me, the day you've been waiting approximately nine months to arrive is finally here.
College football is back.
I love the NFL, and it is undeniably better football — how could it not be when it keeps the best college football players and cuts the chaff — but there is a certain artificialness to the game that keeps it from being my favorite sport.
If each NFL game is an entertaining battle between talented athletes, each college football game is a battle to determine the lightness or heaviness of each fan's soul. The rivalries are real. You root for a school because you went there, or your kids (or parents) went there, or you know people on the team from watching them dominate the high school gridiron on Friday nights. You root for a school because it is intrinsically a part of you. You're not rooting for a uniform like you are in the NFL. You're rooting for a place, for memories, for traditions.
The Sarasota area always has participants in these games. How could it not with all the talent here? 2022 is no different. As the college football season kicks off with its Week 0 games — no, I don't know why it's called that either — I wanted to give my annual rundown of a handful of area alumni you can watch play college football this season. Even more than in years' past, the 2022 crop could turn out to be a special one, with multiple players already entrenched in their teams' starting lineups and more that could earn that right as the season progresses. It's more than I can fit in one column. Just know that if someone's name isn't on here, I'm likely still keeping track of their progress in the hopes that they'll land on this list next year.
It would be wrong to start anywhere other than with Brian Battie, the former Sarasota High stud running back entering his junior season at South Florida as quite literally the best kick returner in the country. Battie was named a consensus All-American in 2021 after, among other things, returning three kicks for touchdowns, which led the nation. Battie was also named to the 2022 Paul Hornung Award watch list. That award goes to the more versatile player in the nation; In addition to his return stats, Battie ran for 324 yds and a touchdown and caught seven passes for 67 yards in 2021. He'll have to put up bigger offensive numbers than that to win the Hornung, and in my opinion, it would be a good idea of USF to let him try. No one on the Bulls — or on most teams — is better in the open field than Battie.
Jacques Bristol is a Booker High grad who started all 13 games for Central Michigan at defensive tackle a season ago. Bristol, a junior, is a great disruptor and has become a stalwart for the Chippewas as the program gets turned around by former Florida coach Jim McElwain. Bristol had 36 tackles in 2021 (5.5 tackles for loss) to go with three sacks and three pass break-ups. I don't see a reason, barring injury, why those number could not increase in 2022.
Former Riverview High defensive back Zahodri Jackson spent five seasons at Utah State (one being a redshirt season), but decided this offseason to use his "COVID-19 do-over " season of eligibility and transfer to North Texas for a fresh start. Jackson played in 35 games at Utah State, making 10 starts. He racked up 56 tackles and six pass break-ups. Until North Texas takes the field and we get a look at their defensive back rotations, it's tough to say how much playing time Jackson will get, but for his sake I hope it is quite a bit.
Speaking of guys I hope find better luck in 2022, Booker alum Talik Keaton missed all of his 2021 season at Marshall because of a broken hand — it's tough to catch passes as a wide receiver without two good ones. Keaton had a promising sophomore season in 2020, making six starts and catching catching 17 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown, plus getting named to the All-Conference USA First Team as a punt returner. He appears to be back healthy for the start of this season, a positive for both him and his team. He's a real threat when he gets the ball in his hands.
We also have a high-profile newbie: Riverview grad Jaron Glover is a freshman wideout at Michigan State. Who knows how much time he'll see on the field this year, but he's certainly talented enough to make noise early in his career.
Then we have two guys who are from Sarasota, but didn't graduate from a city high school. I could them anyway, since both started their playing careers at Riverview High — and because they're quite fun to watch. My column, my rules, after all.
Charles Brantley spent two seasons with the Rams before transferring to Venice High. He's now a sophomore teammate of Glover's at Michigan State and Brantley, a defensive back, has already become a big part of the Spartans' plans. He played in eight games as a freshman, earning a start against Purdue, before a shoulder injury ended his season. Before then, Brantley made arguably the team's biggest play of the year, snagging a one-handed interception with less than a minute remaining to seal a win against rival Michigan. Assuming Brantley is back to full health, he has the potential to be one of the top young cornerbacks in the Big Ten Conference.
Then there is Malachi Wideman, who played both football and basketball for the Rams for three years before heading to Venice for his senior season. Wideman initially enrolled at Tennessee and spent one season with the Vols before transferring to play for Deion Sanders at Jackson State, a historically Black university that plays in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Wideman was a large part of Jackson State's turnaround in 2021. He caught 34 passes for 540 yards and was tied for the SWAC lead with 12 touchdown catches.
Wideman is one of four Jackson State players to land on the 2022 Black College Football HOF Player of the Year watch list alongside quarterback Shedeur Sanders, kick returner Isaiah Bolden and cornerback Travis Hunter, the No. 1 overall player in the country in the Class of 2022. Deion Sanders is building something quite unique at Jackson State and if you get a chance to watch the Tigers — their Sept. 4 opening game against Florida A&M is on ESPN2 — I suggest you do so. They're fun as heck.