TAMPA — Luke Sager had already committed to play at USF, and it was a simple drill at SuperBull, the Bulls' annual summer recruiting event at Raymond James Stadium. Four tackling dummies are lined up in a row, and the defensive linemen must weave through them, attacking each before powering through to a quarterback dummy staggered behind them.
But Sager struggled with the drill, and Kevin Patrick, his future position coach, gave him a look that hinted, "Are we sure we want this kid?" and sent him home to Niceville, motivated to show USF it hadn't made a mistake.
"I was pretty embarrassed about the way I went out and performed, and KP told me I wasn't that great," Sager said.
In the ensuing months, Sager made that drill his mission, lining up the dummies after practice and running through them, left-right-left-right, until he had the proper technique, the combination of quick feet and hips needed to get past opposing linemen at the college level.
"That's my signature moment when I think about Luke," said Patrick, who now has a starting defensive tackle in Sager, who has transformed himself in many ways since he arrived on campus as a 235-pound high school defensive end.
Sager's high school coach thought he had the hands to be a tight end in college — he wore No. 81 at Niceville — but Patrick and USF's coaches saw enough power to handle a much bigger frame. Entering his fourth year with the Bulls, Sager is a 6-foot-3, 300-pound nose tackle, carrying confidence with that extra 65 pounds.
"It's a lot easier to play the position. I'm comfortable and confident in myself," said Sager, who had one tackle in 2010, then 10 last season, playing behind starters Cory "Pork Chop" Grissom and Keith McCaskill.
Sager stopped by the football fields at Niceville this spring, and coach John Hicks saw a transformed player physically, with the same intangibles that made him a productive outside pass-rusher, with 17 sacks in his last two high school seasons.
"He's highly motivated. He wants to do extremely well at whatever he does, and he's willing to pay a price to achieve that," Hicks said. "That's the way he was here, and it appears that's the way he is at South Florida. A lot of big guys don't really have a motor like that, but he did. He played at a very high level all the time. He was going, he was relentless, and I think that stood out for him."
When Grissom was lost to a broken ankle at the end of spring, Sager became the position's leader in summer workouts, leading young players through workouts and setting the tone for the season ahead. Grissom is working his way back to full strength, but the interim has taught USF's coaches a lot about their other starter.
"With all the ups and downs and ins and outs we've had at that position, he has been one of the staples that has been there every day," coach Skip Holtz said. "I think he's gotten much better as a football player. … I've been pleased with his progress, with his commitment. He's playing smart, he's playing disciplined. He's one of the juniors that's made that step and has been helping us lead this football team."
Sager said his leadership has been cobbled together from all the players to line up with him at USF over his first three years. The rest of the defensive tackles behind Sager and Grissom have combined for one season of college football experience.
"I've been around some great leaders — Terrell McClain, Keith, Pork Chop. I've learned a lot from them," Sager said. "I want to show the coaches I'm a starter. I can fill the role. I can help the team and help us win."