TAMPA — None of the clothes Quinterrius Eatmon brought to college in the fall fit him anymore. The last time he went home to Alabama, his grandmother didn't recognize him.
You've heard of the "Freshman 15" that everyone seems to gain their first year on campus? How about the Freshman minus 65? The biggest story of USF spring football isn't nearly as big as he was nine months ago. After coming to campus at 362 pounds in July, the 6-foot-6 freshman has surprised his coaches and teammates, dropping all the way to 297 pounds at his last weigh-in. He enters today's spring game at Raymond James Stadium as the Bulls' starting right tackle, and that job is one thing he doesn't intend to lose.
"It was a lot of hard work, a lot of people behind me constantly motivating me," Eatmon, 19, said of his transformation. "I always felt like I had a pretty good work ethic. I feel like these coaches are here to help me, and I'm sure they know more than I do, so why not listen to them? I was told to eat better, work out harder, and I put in a lot of extra work."
USF liked what it saw of Eatmon on tape from his senior year at Vigor High in Mobile, but it had concerns in January 2010 when he showed up for an official campus visit about 30 pounds heavier than the weight he played at the previous fall.
"He was athletic, but he comes on his visit and he's 350-some pounds," offensive coordinator Todd Fitch said. "That was a question: Would he have the work ethic to take that weight off? Above and beyond anything we would have imagined, he did a great job with it. It shocked us all."
Eatmon said there was no magic diet, simply portion control and extra exercise, like hours on stationary bikes and elliptical riders. His waistline used to be more than 50 inches, but he now wears size-44 pants. Offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler said his general inclination is to sign a smaller lineman and simply add muscle, rather than trying to slim down a player who comes in weighing more. But USF's coaches decided Eatmon was worth making an exception.
"You'd rather recruit a kid and build him up," Shankweiler said. "By the time you strip a kid down, it's a year. Now you have to build them up. But we challenged him, and golly Pete, he took it serious."
While the weight loss showed Eatmon's dedication and work ethic, what put him in position to be a starter as a redshirt freshman is his mental capacity to learn as much as possible about his position.
"He's a sponge. He absorbs everything, one of those kids you'd like to have a room full of," Shankweiler said. "Inquisitive, asks questions, is always critiquing himself, looking at film of himself. His learning curve has gone much faster because he has an active interest in getting better. Most freshmen have an active interest in surviving."
Surviving is something Eatmon also knows about.
He had a serious health scare during his senior season at Vigor (rhymes with "tiger") — he passed out at school on the morning of a football game, and subsequent tests showed a heart problem that doctors repaired with a catheter. Three weeks later, he was back playing football, and the scare actually might have helped USF land Eatmon. He had hoped to attend Auburn, having visited the campus several times, but the Tigers backed off after his heart problems. USF didn't, and he rewarded that loyalty.
Vigor coach Kerry Stevenson's lasting memory of Eatmon is him standing in the locker room during his junior year, his team trailing rival Spanish Fort 15-0 at halftime, having been outgained 239-34. Eatmon spoke of his desire to finish the season undefeated and celebrating at Birmingham's Legion Field, site of the state championship. For that to happen, he told his teammates, they had to step up now.
"I was telling them, 'Don't you all want to be there?' " Eatmon recalled. "That's a memory that can never be erased."
Sure enough, Vigor dominated in the second half, scoring three touchdowns in a span of 19 seconds on the way to a 35-22 win, part of a 2008 state championship, Vigor's first in 20 years.
USF hasn't had a true four-year starter on the offensive line since guard Chris Carothers from 2002-05. Eatmon has a chance to do that, though he isn't looking past his next practice.
He doesn't think of himself as losing 65 pounds so much as losing one pound 65 times, a tiny step repeated, a little easier each time, to achieve a larger goal.
"As it started coming off, I started believing I could do it," said Eatmon, who would like to add muscle to reach a playing weight of about 310 pounds. "My knees feel a lot better. My back doesn't hurt as much as it used to. I don't ever want to get that big again. I feel too good right now."
Eatmon has made a strong impression on his coaches, both for what he has lost in the last year but also for all that he has gained.
"Truly a committed young man. You don't lose that much weight without it," coach Skip Holtz said. "It's not just what he's doing physically. It's where he is mentally that's the story. There aren't many offensive linemen that are able to step in and play as a freshman, to pick up everything. He's got great football knowledge. He has a chance to be a real special player."