TAMPA — Andreas Shields had the first three catches of his USF career two weeks ago in the Bulls' loss at Florida, and the more you rewind the sophomore tight end's path to those 21 modest yards, the more impressive the catches seem.
Go back five months, and you see Shields watching USF's spring football game from a wheelchair, having had surgery on both ankles, with metal wiring placed around his ligaments to alleviate lingering injuries that limited him last season.
Go back two years and 40 pounds, and you see a rail-thin 6-foot-6, 205-pound freshman whose first football scholarship offer came from the hometown Bulls, surprising even the high school football and basketball coaches who knew him best on Wharton's campus.
But we'll start a full five years ago, when Shields moved to Tampa from Hawaii, where his father had been stationed in the U.S. Army, and he was a sophomore trying to make a name for himself on the junior varsity.
"He was like the young colt trying to find his legs and his balance," said Tommy Tonelli, the former USF guard and basketball assistant who coached Shields as part of a 29-2 Wharton team in 2007. "He was always more a Clydesdale than a thoroughbred, but he really stuck with it. Nothing came easy for him, but he was always a guy who wanted to get better. Always a grinder."
Shields made the varsity football team as a junior, only to lose the entire season to a dislocated kneecap sustained moments before the first game. He and a teammate leaped in the air to high-five each other, only to have Shields come down wrong. Wharton coach David Mitchell laughs when he explains "the Shields rule," which remains in effect today: His players can celebrate, but they don't jump when doing so.
Shields hadn't played a full varsity season yet when USF coaches, recruiting other Wharton players, saw him in spring 2007 and offered him a scholarship. "Are you kidding me? Really?" Tonelli remembers thinking when he first heard the news. "They saw tremendous potential in him."
"Everyone else thought I was too small," Shields, 20, says of his recruiting. "(Former coach Jim) Leavitt came out, and I still have respect for him. He saw something in me."
His priority upon arriving at USF was gaining weight — "a lot of peanut butter and jelly," he says — and a lot of time in strength coach Ronnie McKeefery's weight room. Shields added 25 pounds his first year on campus, then another 15 his second year. He turned heads last fall, working with the first-team offense in preseason, but lingering ankle injuries kept him from getting on the field much, and he got only limited playing time in seven games with no catches.
When the injuries wouldn't go away, USF recommended surgery on both ankles, and while coaches were optimistic, Shields had his doubts.
"I didn't think I was going to make it back this year," he said.
He missed the first week of training camp but, pushed by trainers, rehabbed his way back to suit up for the opener. He thought he had his first catch against Stony Brook, but he bobbled the ball as he tapped his toes on the sideline and was ruled out of bounds, then didn't get another ball his way.
In Gainesville, with top receiver Dontavia Bogan limited by an ankle injury, Shields grabbed a 12-yard reception from B.J. Daniels and finished the day as the Bulls' leading receiver with three catches.
In coach Skip Holtz's offense, Shields isn't a standard tight end but rather an "A," or hybrid tight end/receiver, able to line up in the slot and create mismatches; he was tackled on his first catch by Florida safety Ahmad Black, who is 5 feet 9. He's a big target for Daniels and one Bulls fans can expect to see more of as the team deals with injury problems at receiver.
"We're going to have to utilize him a little bit more than we have," said Holtz, who likes the enthusiasm he has seen from his young, less-experienced receivers with starters Bogan (ankle), Sterling Griffin (ankle) and A.J. Love (knee) currently sidelined.
In two years since he arrived on campus, Shields is a different player, physically and mentally, and it's turning into production on the field.
"He's come along really well, really matured," tight ends coach Larry Scott said after practice Wednesday as the team prepares to face Western Kentucky. "We talked to him when he first got here, really told him the things he needed to do in order to put himself in position to help us someday. The athletic ability was always there, and the one thing he had that most guys don't is determination. He's very determined to be good. He's one of the guys still out here catching balls. That's just his makeup. You tell him the things he needs to do, and he'll work at them until he gets it done."