Over one screwy weekend two autumns ago, Mike White earned a scholarship from USF only to presume he lost it. As the Skip Holtz coaching era segued from dusk to darkness, some Bulls assistants crossed the Courtney Campbell Causeway to observe White, a gangling Fort Lauderdale University senior quarterback, in a Class 3A playoff game at Clearwater Central Catholic. Before kickoff, they told White, in not so many words, a solid performance would warrant an offer. He didn't toss a first-half incompletion, finishing 26-for-30 for 324 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-0 win. "They told me at halftime, 'Listen, we just need Holtz to sign off on it and we're offering you,' " White recalled. Less than 48 hours later, Holtz was fired, and White believed the offer was toast. A week later at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, he led University to a state title, rallying it from 17 points down for a 24-17 win against Madison County. At roughly the same time, Willie Taggart was being introduced as Holtz's replacement. White barely had untied his cleats when Taggart called him with a message: You're still our guy. "I knew I wanted to be a Bull right then, so I said, 'Let me talk to my parents,' " White recalled. "I talked to my parents. Two minutes later, I called him back and committed."
Over the ensuing 20 months, USF's quarterback depth has experienced more personnel changes than the band Lynyrd Skynyrd. One-time starters Bobby Eveld and Matt Floyd moved on. Penn State transfer Steven Bench arrived. So, too, has nimble-footed freshman Quinton Flowers.
But on Sunday evening, Taggart turned to White and offered the same assurance he delivered in their first conversation.
You're still our guy.
"I'm up for the challenge," White said Monday.
"I think he'll be great," added Taggart, who oversaw a two-week derby before the announcement. "He's had experience. He knows what to expect now."
He also knows what fans are expecting — and now. The initial chapters of the White narrative possess their riveting moments but mostly are lean on suspense and satisfaction.
Stripped of his redshirt in late October last season, he mostly sparkled in his starting debut (311 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) in a Halloween night loss at Houston. But he tossed eight picks and one touchdown over four games the rest of the way. And while he nearly led the Bulls to one of the year's biggest upsets, at UCF in November, White's next win as USF's starter will be his first.
So what has changed? His frame, not to mention frame of mind. Months of immersion in Taggart's power-based west coast playbook hasn't hurt either. New quarterbacks coach David Reaves said White, a noted film-room junkie last year, still takes meticulous notes.
"I feel like I have the offense down pat," said White, who at 6 feet 4, 214 pounds added about 25 pounds over the offseason.
"I learned … every play isn't going to be a 70-yard touchdown. Sometimes, you're going to have to throw it away. Sometimes, you're just going to have to take what the defense gives you and live to see another down."
They were lessons initially imparted during the final stretch of a 2-10 season, when White — by all accounts one of the locker room's most-liked residents — wasn't sure how much on-field authority he could or should impart. At the time, he was 18 and had been a starter for all of one varsity season.
Even today, seven months shy of his 20th birthday, White remains the youngest of the Bulls' four quarterbacks.
"Being a freshman, I was … a little tentative (about) getting on people and trying to be a leader because I was just a freshman and you don't want to have players look at you like, 'Who are you? You're just a freshman,' " he said. "Which they didn't, which I thought they did a great job. They respected me, and I appreciate them for that."
A full offseason hasn't erased the cherubic face or soda pop smile. Which is to say White still looks like the team's youngest player. But his five collegiate starts are three more than the rest of the Bulls' quarterbacks combined. In a paradoxical way, 2013 was winless yet priceless.
It gave him reps, maybe a little resilience. It taught him that sometimes it's better to be discreet than daring. Mostly, it showed him what it takes to be the guy.
Today, he's still Taggart's guy.
"I had a year of experience," White said. "I know how it works. I kind of tested the ropes a little bit. Now I know what it takes, and we know what it takes as an offense."
Contract Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @ TBTimes_Bulls.