TAMPA — In many ways, you do not know who Brandon Salinas is.
He is a senior who, after a year away from football, made his first start at cornerback for USF in Saturday's season-opening loss to McNeese State. He is a former walk-on who has earned a scholarship, drawing comparisons to former Bulls standout Mistral Raymond, now in the NFL. And he is as interesting off the field, with experience in student ministries and impressive work as a gospel rapper.
"Used to be a paper-chaser, like a sprinter/Thought I was saved, really living like a sinner/Copied what I saw, thought I was a printer/My heart so cold you woulda thought it was winter." — Used to be
Salinas came to USF in the fall of 2009 from Orlando Oak Ridge High, where he shined in football and track. His academics were so solid that Northwestern and Ivy League schools recruited him, but he wanted to stay close to home and fell in love with USF's defense during the Bulls' rise to No. 2 in the polls in 2007.
Choosing USF was a leap of faith — he hadn't talked to a single coach when he enrolled, and he made the team in spring 2010 from an open tryout. He played two games as a freshman in 2010 and five in 2011, with two tackles and a pass breakup.
But before spring football in 2012, his mother lost her job and he left football to try to help.
With his mother back working, he tried out for the team again this spring, and it reminded Salinas of his beginning — new coach, open walk-on tryouts, and Salinas made the cut for conditioning workouts before spring drills. Out of shape by his own admission, he worked in the weight room, made the spring roster and went into summer as a projected starter. He held off challengers in August, and as the team closed preseason camp, coach Willie Taggart rewarded him with a scholarship.
"He just competed, every day," Taggart said. "We came in this spring and talked about allowing everybody an opportunity to compete, and he didn't bow down to anyone. He was consistent with it. Every day, he was showing up, making some kind of play. 'Who is this kid?' Day after day, he's making plays, and eventually he was up with the (No.) 1s. You talk about earning a scholarship. He truly earned it."
Salinas started Saturday, getting the tackle on USF's third play, and his four solo tackles were the most of any Bulls defensive back.
"It's a breath of fresh air. There's no old Brandon," the 22-year-old said of returning to football and committing himself to his faith about 21/2 years ago. "That's how I look at it — I wasn't a good person, I wasn't a good football player. I wasn't there for people. I didn't truly care for all my teammates how I do now. I was a whole different person. Now it's completely different."
Salinas wasn't a bad person by most standards — he says he was "kind of walking with God but wasn't really as serious." He thinks of how he treated others and likes who he is now: "Everybody in that locker room, nobody can say I don't care for them. Football is just a bonus."
Salinas, who will graduate in the fall with a degree in communications and is finishing a minor in leadership, has traveled to area churches with his gospel work, volunteering as a minister through music and words. He goes by the name B-Fye ("fye," like fire) — and has his own website, bfye4christ.com, where you can hear tracks from four CDs he has made.
"As long as people are open to listening, I've never heard anything bad," he said of his music. "It challenges people. I say real things, but I don't say it like I'm bashing people. I understand why you don't want to go to church because you feel like those people are going to judge you. I speak from that perspective."
As an undersized walk-on defensive back with dreadlocks, Salinas joined the team drawing immediate comparisons to Raymond, who went from walk-on to starter to captain to NFL draft pick. Teammates called him "Lil' Skinny," playing off Raymond's nickname and their similar body types.
"We never really spoke much, but every time I watch him, it makes me want to go out and play just like him," said Salinas, whose brother Chris is a receiver at Waldorf College, an NAIA school in Iowa. "Every time I watch his USF highlight tape, I almost see me out there doing the same thing."
Salinas credits his improvement this year to USF defensive backs coach Ron Cooper, who was in the same role for the Bucs last year, and before that at LSU, working with players such as Patrick Peterson, Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu.
"He knows what he's talking about, and he's a true technician," Salinas said. "If you do the technique he shows you to do, it will put you in a perfect position every play, then it's just up to you to make a play. That's partly the reason I'm in this position, learning his technique. I feel like a true cornerback. I understand the game now."
Cooper likes what he has seen in Salinas and the example he sets for young players at his position.
"What a great person, great young man," Cooper said. "High value, works hard, paid his way, was here all summer on his own. He's committed to the program, and Coach Taggart did what he said, that if you do something, they'll get on scholarship."