TAMPA — In Skip Holtz's first game as USF coach two years ago, Marcus Shaw was a freshman getting mop-up duty in a romp over Stony Brook when he piled up 99 yards of offense in the fourth quarter, including a 63-yard touchdown run.
In two seasons since, the running back from Arcadia hasn't built on that promising debut, totaling 97 yards of offense. He played well on special teams last year, with 11 tackles and a 79-yard kickoff return against Connecticut, but his potential for big plays on offense had largely been on the shelf.
"He has great talent," Holtz said Tuesday, preparing for Saturday's opener against Chattanooga. "He has speed, he has athleticism, he's shifty, he can make you miss in the open field. He's physical, he's tough. He has all the attributes you want. But if you can't trust him to go the right way or block the right guy when he doesn't have the ball, then you can't play him. That's where I think he's matured and developed."
In the past month, Shaw has had the consistency and maturity coaches had hoped to see in his first two seasons. He has pushed to No. 2 on the depth chart behind senior Demetris Murray, and as the Bulls open the season hoping for a major turnaround, Shaw has as much buzz around him as any player in camp.
"I've matured, a lot, very much," said Shaw, who was suspended from two games late last season. "I understand what I'm here for now."
Two weeks ago, when Shaw first saw his name listed as a co-starter with Murray, he immediately called his mother in Arcadia.
"That's the first person I called," he said. "She told me to pray, and keep God first."
The past two years have taught Shaw humility as he went from one of the state's leading rushers as a junior and senior to relative obscurity on a college roster loaded with high school stars. The Stony Brook game wasn't the first time Shaw dominated lesser competition. While at DeSoto County High, he once piled up 344 yards on eight carries against Estero, with five touchdowns of 40 yards or longer.
Now, he's back in position to shine, and with Murray and No. 3 running back Lindsey Lamar being seniors, he could have an even larger role in 2013. Knowing the hard work it has taken to get to this position, he says he's not going to let it get away from him.
"It taught me that everything is not given to you," said the 5-foot-9, 189-pound back. "You have to earn it. Even if I do get (the No. 2 job), I'm not going to get complacent. I'm still going to work. I realize how much it means to me."
Shaw's maturation has come as Holtz shifted tight ends coach Larry Scott, an offensive lineman on USF's first team in 1997, over to coach running backs. Shaw said he has identified with Scott on a personal level, and that the running backs are "brothers," brought closer by competition among them.
"(Scott) is teaching me more about life, about being a better person," Shaw said. "I've been trying my hardest, putting God first. Hopefully he'll be with me. I pray all the time. I don't just pray to ask for stuff. I pray to thank him for stuff, too. Without him, I wouldn't be here."
Greg Auman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3346. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf. Follow him on Twitter at @GregAuman.