TAMPA — Mike Pierre didn't play a down of high school football, didn't know so much as the right way to carry the ball, and yet there he was, some 2,500 miles from home, showing up unannounced at his brother Ronald's junior college. "Just one day, new kid popped up on campus, hanging out with Ronald. He looked the part, so you said, 'Ronald, who's this?' 'That's my brother. He's here to play,' " said Nick Mitchell, coach at Golden West College in California. "He was just really raw when we got him. … It was all so new to him."
Mike Pierre had always been an athlete, but he never had the grades to play football at Agape Christian Academy in Orlando, suiting up for one spring game in his four years there. Mitchell initially thought he was a cornerback, and Pierre first made a name for himself on kick coverage — "the kid was full throttle the whole time he was out there," his junior college coach recalled.
When Golden West lost a running back early in his freshman year, Pierre got a shot. The first time he worked at running back, Pierre held the ball point facing up, lengthwise like a loaf of bread. His speed didn't need any coaching, however, and he broke loose for a 60-yard touchdown in practice that day. In time, his technique began to catch up with his talent. He rushed for 730 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore, and he signed in 2011 with USF, choosing the Bulls over East Carolina.
After a redshirt year and a coaching change, Pierre is now USF's No. 2 running back, with seven carries for 21 yards in his first two games. He could take on a larger role as the Bulls work to establish a power running game Saturday at home against Florida Atlantic, but Pierre concedes he remains a work in progress.
"I'm still learning," the 5-foot-10, 202-pound junior from Winter Garden said. "The coaches are still gaining trust in me. I've never played this big (a level) of football before."
Pierre has put himself ahead of other players with more overall football experience, and coach Willie Taggart said it's because the running back's effort and energy don't change from one day's practice to the next.
"Mike's Mr. Consistent. He really takes pride in his position," Taggart said. "Every time you see Mike, he has a football. I don't care what: You go to the gas station and he's getting gas, he has the football with him. It's important to him. He's a physical kid, really good pass blocker for us, good runner and a guy we can count on. He's going to continue to help us as the season goes on."
Pierre comes from a football family — his brother Ronald, a linebacker, had once planned on joining Mike as a walk-on at USF, but he took a scholarship to Division II Missouri Southern. Pierre's also a first cousin of former Gators standout and new Bucs player Jeff Demps, though he admits he doesn't quite have his cousin's track-star speed.
Playing FAU has special meaning to Pierre, whose brother Charles is the Owls' No. 2 all-time leading rusher, having gained 3,069 yards and 23 touchdowns from 2005 to 2008. Charles, now a probation officer in Orlando, had 57 yards for FAU against USF in 2007, and he will be in attendance Saturday to see his brother line up against his old school.
Pierre has a colorful personality — at Golden West, his affectionate nickname among teammates was "The Platypus," not so much because he defied normal classification but as his coach explains, he runs so well, "but he just walks like a duck."
"I walk with my feet out like this," Pierre explains, his toes wider than his heels. "I don't know why, but I always do. I tried to keep that a secret here."
At Golden West, his coaches are keeping an eye out for Pierre, knowing they had a rare chance to witness a college football player learning the nuances of the sport. His upside, as a result, is something they're excited about.
"There was a definite learning curve, but he showed steady progress," Mitchell said. "We all always said his best football is ahead of him. The kid is still at the very early stages of the learning curve."
Pierre said he now appreciates his redshirt year last season, even with so many years away from football, because it gave him a chance to adjust to college and continue to learn his position.
"I'm glad I sat out. My first year, I was on a boogie board," he explained. "Right now, I'm finally getting on my surfboard. I'm fixing to ride that wave in a little bit. I'm just waiting for my time."