Tampa's Pupello finds niche as USF tight end

TAMPA — Trent Pupello has come home.

Even after the Jefferson High graduate had transferred in January from Florida to hometown USF, the 6-foot-2, 276-pound sophomore wasn't sure where he fit in with the Bulls, bouncing around at several positions during spring.

Was he a defensive end? Defensive tackle? Center, perhaps? He settled in at tight end, his position in two seasons of limited playing time with the Gators. Fifth on the USF depth chart in spring, he has quickly worked his way to second behind senior Cedric Hill. Now, he's not going anywhere.

"I'm definitely a tight end now," said Pupello, 20, easily recognizable by his long brown hair and beard. "I'm done with moving around. It feels good to stay in one spot and contribute to the team."

Four games into his Bulls career, he has earned a start, overcome an ankle injury and reeled in his first career catch, a 14-yarder from the 1-yard line to start a 99-yard touchdown drive early in last week's win at Florida International.

"I haven't done that in a long time," said Pupello, recalling his last catch, in the second round of the state playoffs in 2005 at Jefferson. "I wasn't nervous, and I'm usually nervous, but I just went out and did it."

Pupello was ranked by Rivals.com as the nation's No. 17 tight end when he signed with Florida, where his father, Joe, had played offensive line (1974-76). Pupello redshirted during the Gators' national championship season, but made it onto the field only a handful of plays last season and decided to transfer in November; an NCAA hardship waiver allowed him to play this season without sitting out a year.

"That whole process, coming here, it's been a long, long road. I'm happy I'm here. I made a good decision," he said. "I don't want to take away from Florida. It was a good experience. I went to the national championship, learned a lot of college football and played with a bunch of awesome athletes I'm still friends with up there."

Of all USF's tight ends, Pupello is most like an extension of the offensive line, and offensive line coach Mike Simmonds, who coached Pupello at Jefferson, said he has helped with pass protection and the running game.

"The biggest thing with Trent is he loves to block," Simmonds said. "He's always been an offensive player. He adds a different dimension to our offense, a pretty physical presence at tight end. It's like having another guard out there."

Because of the hardship waiver, Pupello still has two years after this season, so his promising progress is just a start, especially with a starting position wide open for next season.

"I think he's got a lot of talent. He's just trying to figure it all out," coach Jim Leavitt said.

The Bulls are glad to have a key blocker for their running game as conference play opens next week at home against Pittsburgh.

"He's given us a bigger, physical body at that position," offensive coordinator Greg Gregory said. "He's still learning a lot about the offense, still making some mistakes, but overall, he's been a welcome addition at the tight end position."

Pupello has a fresh start back in Tampa, and now that he's earning consistent playing time at the college level, his focus moves to making plays and showing coaches he deserves to play more often in two- and three-tight-end offensive sets.

"I want to get back to my fundamentals, my footwork, gaining confidence," he said. "It's been a long time since I played in games, so I need real confidence, from playing in games and believing in myself."

Tampa's Pupello finds niche as USF tight end 09/25/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 25, 2008 10:38pm]

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