TAMPA -— Ask Matt Floyd's father about his favorite game in his son's career and he recalls 400 yards passing in his final game at Milton High in the Panhandle. Ask his mother, and she remembers the game where it all got started, as Floyd came off the bench as a sophomore and threw for three touchdowns in a 49-48 double-overtime win against rival Choctawhatchee.
"He's always been real poised as a kid, even playing pee-wee football for me growing up," said David Floyd, a Pensacola native who returned to the Panhandle from California after he retired from the Air Force when Matt was 2 and has lived there ever since. "He doesn't seem to get rattled at all."
Floyd has a chance for another auspicious beginning tonight. The redshirt freshman quarterback makes his first career start, leading USF at Cincinnati as the Bulls try to close a disappointing season with momentum to carry over to 2013. He is starting after injuries to senior B.J. Daniels and junior Bobby Eveld, giving him a chance to establish himself as the quarterback to beat next season.
"I like the headiness, the poise, the way he handled himself, especially starting with a little adversity," coach Skip Holtz said. "I think Matt is a gutsy performer."
Eveld started last week at Miami, suffering a separated shoulder in the opening quarter. Floyd, USF's last healthy quarterback, threw two early interceptions, but got settled and looked comfortable, throwing for 175 yards in a lopsided Hurricanes win.
Floyd's calm coming off the bench reminded USF coaches of a similar arrival in April 2011, what would have been the end of his senior year of high school had he not enrolled in college a semester early. On the opening play of the spring game at Raymond James Stadium, Eveld took a shot to the jaw and was done for the day, and Floyd showed poise, going 6-for-7 for 75 yards on that first drive. He threw for 233 yards, including a 70-yard touchdown, and that memory still sticks with his coaches.
"He gives you the impression that's he's unflappable," said assistant Peter Vaas, Floyd's first quarterbacks coach with the Bulls. "All hell is breaking loose around you, and he just sits there very calmly and goes about his job. Matt has always had the ability to play better, the higher the stakes. In scrimmages, he played better than a normal practice. Whether it's more focus, more intensity, whatever that reason is, it's something we've noticed."
USF has a history of freshmen taking over at quarterback due to injury and not giving up the reins until they're seniors. Daniels did that in 2009, just as Matt Grothe did in 2006 and Pat Julmiste in 2003. If Floyd is to have an extended run leading the Bulls, it will start tonight, guiding a young team that has struggled with close losses and will miss bowl play for the second year in a row.
Floyd is the second-oldest of four children, and his family won't be at tonight's game. They'll gather with friends and relatives at their house in Milton (pop. 8,984) to watch a hometown hero. His father, now the freshman football coach at Milton, said there's been a buzz around town this week. The Floyds lived in Niceville until Matt was in fifth grade, then moved to Milton, which he thinks of as home.
"Small, little town. Everybody knows everybody," he said. "It's a great little country Southern town. A faithful town."
Matt Floyd has shown only glimpses of his personality. He's a quiet, smart leader who takes pride in his faith. Win or lose, he will kneel in prayer at midfield tonight in a small circle of teammates and opponents. He's a political science major with a great interest in politics; linebacker Sam Barrington said he's a proud Republican.
Perhaps the best purpose for the end of this season is to generate optimism for next season, and Floyd is one of many young players stepping in for seniors as an early transition to the future.
"He's a pretty smart guy," offensive coordinator Todd Fitch said. "Makes quick decisions, is able to process information fast. … A quarterback has to make a decision probably on average about every two seconds. The guys that can process it and make a decision correctly, I don't care how big, tall, strong you are, those are the guys who are going to be pretty successful. I think he has that knack of doing that."