ST. PETERSBURG — The recruiting dance had been going on for a few months when Eric Patterson got a phone call from a USF assistant coach not long before signing day in 2011.
The coach told Patterson, then a defensive back for Plant High, he was too small. The Bulls were looking for bigger cornerbacks.
Patterson ultimately went off to Ball State with those words ringing in his ears. He remembered them — and the rejection from his hometown team— when the Mid-American Conference school hosted USF on Sept. 22.
On the final play of Ball State's 31-27 win, Patterson made the clinching interception — the first of his career and final word to the staff that doubted his ability to play big-time college football.
"Not to knock on their game," the 5-foot-10, 193-pound sophomore said, "but I feel like I'm better than all the corners that are there right now."
Patterson returns to the bay area Friday, when Ball State takes on Central Florida in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl at Tropicana Field.
Much has changed since Patterson left Tampa for Muncie, Ind., in the summer of 2011. He is bigger, wiser, stronger, faster and more responsible than the 18-year-old recruit who first bedeviled his coaches at Plant then the staff at Ball State.
Patterson started nine games for the Cardinals this fall, tallying 60 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble. It was good enough to earn third-team all-MAC honors.
Away from the game, his coaches — old and new — said his fledgling maturity has shown up in the classroom and other areas of his life.
"Coming in, it was kind of a shock for him," Ball State defensive backs coach (and former Florida safety) Daryl Dixon said. "But from Day 1 to now, I can say Eric has changed his life."
Even by his own account, Patterson has come a long way from the sometimes aimless teenager who struggled balancing schoolwork and football.
Things started to change soon after Patterson moved in with his grandmother before his junior year of high school, allowing him to transfer from Hillsborough to Plant.
"From the moment he got with us, he showed tremendous potential," Plant coach Robert Weiner said. "It was a matter of getting him honed in and focused on what he had to do. We saw enough flashes that when he grew up and matured, we knew that he was going to be a really good player."
That potential showed up in the spring of Patterson's junior year, when he went up against current USF receiver and former Jefferson star Andre Davis in a jamboree featuring more than 15 players boasting scholarship offers.
Patterson allowed only a 30-yard reception despite giving up 5 inches in height to a player dubbed "Freak Show." He broke up one fade pass in the end zone and knocked down two other passes intended for Davis.
"After the spring game, I really blew up," said Patterson, who had offers only from Buffalo and Youngstown State at that point. "A lot of coaches started contacting me. But I had bad grades, so they told me when I get my grades up to give them a call."
He followed up the breakout spring performance with a senior year that included 60 tackles, 22 pass breakups, an interception and two touchdowns, including an 87-yard kickoff return in the Class 5A semifinals.
Ball State coach Pete Lembo, who accepted the job in December 2010, offered Patterson a scholarship on the advice of Weiner, a friend who supplied him with a handful of recruits at his previous job, at Elon.
"We had a month to go out and recruit," Lembo said. "You want to know what you're getting, and so we went in and saw Bob (Weiner). Eric was still available. We got him up to Ball State, and he really liked it."
The adjustment was initially difficult for Patterson, who wasn't prepared for the slower pace of Muncie — "where I'm from, you don't see cows out in the front yard," he said — or the grind of being a college athlete.
He played in seven games as a freshman, but few believed he was fully capitalizing on his opportunities.
"When I came in as a freshman, I thought everything was a (joke)," Patterson said. "Here, you have to bring your A game every day."
Said Lembo: "He wasn't quite as consistent as you'd hope for."
Last winter, Patterson finally resolved to become a student in the classroom and on the field. Then he came up with three goals: start, make an All-MAC team and get to the NFL.
"Right now, I've got two of them," he said.
His coaches point to the interception against USF as the turning point of his career.
"That was a huge play for him," Dixon said.
"Everything came full circle for him right there," Lembo said.
Patterson, of course, hopes to come up with a few more game-turning plays Friday. And maybe once again remind the school across the bay of what it missed out on.
"I'm too small," he said, mocking the previous USF coaching staff's assessment of him. "Seeing their cornerbacks this year, I just laugh about it."
Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @jdhometeam.