TAMPA — Upon taking the USF football job in December, Charlie Strong already had briefed himself on most of the talent bequeathed to him. Quinton Flowers, D'Ernest Johnson, Auggie Sanchez — all registered with the coach.
Veteran cornerback Mazzi Wilkins? Barely a blip.
"He wasn't even on the radar," Strong said.
It only got worse. Wilkins' first chance to make an impression fizzled when he hurt his hamstring during spring camp. The injured pride that followed was even more excruciating.
"That was probably one of the darkest moments of my life," recalled Wilkins, once a three-star recruit from Plant High. "I sat down with (secondary) Coach (Blue) Adams, and he was like, 'You're mentally weak. You probably would never play for me. You're not flexible enough.' "
Wilkins went back home and wrote each of Adams' scathing critiques on his personal whiteboard. The next morning, he rolled out of bed and began a ritual of trying to touch his toes several times a day. His career at a crossroads, Wilkins literally willed himself to bend, and not break.
The fourth-year junior never pondered a transfer. Instead, he hit the weights harder than ever, and he made weekly trips back to Plant to train with Panthers coaches.
"I'm from Tampa, I love it," Wilkins said. "I felt like I'm too strong of a person to have somebody or some situation run me out from my own hometown. I felt like it was just all on me, what I have to do to get better."
Today, Wilkins is as flexible — and formidable — as any cornerback in the American Athletic Conference.
"You can see the fruits of his labor out on the field right now," defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary said.
Arguably the most impressive defensive player in the preseason, Wilkins (whose first name rhymes with "Jazzy") earned a starting job in August camp and has sizzled ever since. He is tied with cornerback Devin Abraham for the team lead in interceptions (three) and is tied for second nationally in pass breakups (2.0 per game)
On Saturday at East Carolina, he had a pick (in his own end zone) and broke up four passes.
"Right now, he's playing with a lot of confidence," Strong said.
"When you get a defensive back that plays with confidence, then they don't feel like anybody's gonna catch any balls on 'em. They're gonna be knocking it down, they're gonna be intercepting it. But it's just been fun to watch how he has developed and how well he's coming on."
One of the lankier cornerbacks on the roster at 6 feet, 176 pounds, Wilkins credits that arduous summer with improving his hip swivel and chutzpah. After adding roughly 6 pounds to his frame and applying some of the workout philosophies of Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders, he was ready to take on the world.
Instead, he took on 6-5 senior wideout Marquez Valdes-Scantling darn near every day in the preseason.
"I give that kid credit," Jean-Mary said. "He said, 'I'm going to prove to you that I'm one of your best players on defense and one of the best cornerbacks.' All he did was come out here, work and took the challenge of going against our very talented wide receivers, and he fought every day."
Wilkins had an interception in each of his first two career starts, at San Jose State and home against Stony Brook, and remains adamant he can achieve his goal of averaging a pick a game (his current average is 0.6).
While that goal seems ambitious, the school's single-season record of seven (shared by J.R. Reed and Trae Williams) doesn't. Problem is, quarterbacks are starting to avoid him.
Opponents currently have a 3.9 passer rating when targeting him, per profootballfocus.com. The same website indicates that in nine throws to Wilkins' coverage area Saturday, he gave up only two completions (for 15 yards).
That means only 20 percent of East Carolina quarterback Thomas Sirk's 43 passes went near Wilkins.
For a change, people are trying to keep him off their radar.
"He's continuing to do the little things right," said Adams, whose vagabond NFL career included two seasons (2005-06) in Tampa Bay. "I think he's on the right track. He still has a little growing to do, though, but I'm pleased with where he's at."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.