In hindsight, the quiet kid who selected his words carefully picked the perfect one on this November night. Seminole. It was Sarasota Booker's code name for a simple lead-run play. To that point, the Tornadoes were leading — but not clicking — in their playoff-elimination contest against Bradenton Southeast. With deliberations percolating on the sideline, Tornadoes senior tailback Marlon Mack turned to coach Johnnie Jones and uttered the S-word. That was all Jones needed to hear. "It popped for like, 60 yards," he recalled. Booker prevailed 24-0, clinching its first playoff berth in six years. Mack, who had committed to UCLA that day, finished with 188 rushing yards and three touchdowns. During the course of the game, he also had lined up out wide, deep in the secondary and at kick returner. "Anywhere we asked him to line up, he would line up," Jones said. "It was never, 'Nah, Coach, that's not me.' " Roughly three months later, Mack delivered another significant three-syllable audible: U-S-F. Courtships with the Bruins, Louisville and others had been trumped by the tenacity of the Bulls coaching staff, which coveted his strength, vision and downhill burst.
"As recruiters were coming in throughout my years there, they were like, 'We like him at defensive back,' " recalled Jones, a former USF safety.
"And me, all along I was like, 'Well, this young man is a tremendous running back.' If you watch the film from high school, he had multiple runs over 60-plus yards without anybody in the screen, or anybody next to him within 15 or 20 yards. I knew all along all it took was the opportunity."
Today, that opportunity is part of Bulls lore.
In the wake of arguably the most dazzling debut in USF football history (24 carries, 275 yards, four touchdowns), coach Jones' reserved three-way force of nature in Sarasota is now big Mack on campus in Tampa.
"What we saw Saturday night is what we saw on film when we recruited the kid," said Bulls coach Willie Taggart, who watched Mack dip, dart and dash to three TD runs of 56 yards or longer in USF's 36-31 win against Western Carolina. "He's a phenomenal athlete. He could've played safety and been an All-American safety."
Even as Mack-mania reaches a fever pitch, Taggart's the Tylenol of sorts. In accordance with his longstanding policy of shielding freshmen from the media, Mack remains off-limits. Even if he could talk, peers and coaches insist, the public likely would find him to be as naturally quiet as he is naturally gifted.
"In a sentence, if you ask him a question, he may give you a two-word answer," said linebackers coach Raymond Woodie, Mack's primary recruiter. "Not a braggart, just a calm, cool, collective guy."
Count quarterback Mike White among the few who have seen Mack's chatty side. The two roomed together briefly during preseason camp. White, eager for some shut-eye, couldn't turn off the light; Mack was too busy picking his brain.
"He'd turn the light on and be like, 'All right Mike, what do I have on this?' " White recalled. "We'd just keep going over and over it. He'd be like, 'Are we going to have this protection?' It was always in his mind, and it showed."
Similarly, Taggart, Woodie and Co. never let Mack (6 feet, 195 pounds) escape their collective consciousness. Even after Mack's non-binding verbal commitments to UCLA and Louisville, they kept courting him, always as a running back. No matter that Mack had been named the Sarasota Herald-Tribune's defensive player of the year (110 tackles, four interceptions) in 2013.
Taggart, who coached running backs Toby Gerhart (now a Jaguar) at Stanford and Bobby Rainey (now a Buc) at Western Kentucky, knew where Mack's future lay.
"A lot of people were looking at him on the defensive side of the ball," Woodie said, "but (Taggart) saw film on him and he said, 'This guy here's special.' So when he said that, we went and recruited him real hard."
Seven months later, USF marketing types are trying to promote their newest star by playing off his last name. Mack Truck. Mack Daddy. Big Mack.
The possibilities — like Mack's potential — seem endless.
"On one play he made like, two or three dips just to get a linebacker over so the lineman could block him and then … he took off," Taggart said. "You're like, 'That's pretty impressive.' … He has great vision, great feet and great balance, and I think we saw all of that on Saturday."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.