TAMPA — He has not spoken publicly in more than a year, and he hasn't played a down of college football since sacking FSU's EJ Manuel in the 2011 Orange Bowl as a freshman at Notre Dame.
But as USF looks with optimism to improvement in 2013, defensive end Aaron Lynch has as much upside as any Bull. A buzz surrounds the potential NFL first-round draft pick that USF hasn't heard since the days of defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul in 2009.
"Aaron's just like our football team. He's got to do something," said coach Willie Taggart, careful to keep the redshirt sophomore motivated and feeling like he has something to prove. "You can tell he's a kid who's hungry. He hasn't played ball in a long time, and it's right around the corner for him now."
Lynch was a hugely coveted recruit coming out of Cape Coral's Island Coast High in 2011, rated as high as the No. 6 overall prospect in the nation. He committed to Florida State but wound up at Notre Dame, where he led the team in sacks and made the freshmen All-America team. After the season he transferred to USF and quietly sat out a year.
The challenge for USF's coaches is keeping Lynch focused, making his 6-foot-6, 260-pound frame even stronger and reminding him he has something to prove by setting high expectations.
"It's like I tell Aaron: 'You haven't done anything in a USF uniform. You haven't played in a year and a half. This is all hype right now. You've got to go on the field and prove it,' " said Eric Mathies, USF's defensive line coach. "I see it in how he practices. I see it in how he worked in the offseason. He's come back stronger, come back more explosive, come back really focused. He's bought into the fact that he hasn't done anything."
Taggart has been most pleased by how Lynch has become a good teammate, embracing his fellow defensive linemen at arguably the Bulls' strongest and deepest position. He walked away from a team that played for a national championship to be at USF, but he is approaching this season with the same high goals.
"What makes people think we can't win a NATTY (national title)," he wrote this week on Twitter. "Notre Dame got the opportunity. … (Now) it's time for USF to be heard throughout the world #real."
Comparisons between Lynch and Pierre-Paul are easy to make. They have the same long arms and athleticism, and just as Pierre-Paul was taken in the NFL draft's first round after one season at USF, Lynch could position himself to accomplish the same. His coaches acknowledge his promise but are also consistent in pointing out flaws in his game.
"Aaron Lynch has to learn how to play the run as well as he rushes the passer if he wants to be that guy that everybody's looking at at the end of this year for the next level," defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan said this summer.
Mathies has seen Lynch's name on national award watch lists as an elite pass-rusher, and it is a daily battle to counter that praise with the motivation Lynch needs.
"He hears it; he reads it. Everybody's patting him on the back for who he is," Mathies said. "He ain't made one play as a USF Bull. First and foremost, he has to live up to my expectations, then his expectations, and then he can go on and live up to everyone else's expectations.
"He's money. Kid's awesome. He really is. And he's still a kid. When you break it all down, he's still a redshirt sophomore. He's still a pup in college football who's only played one year of college football, one year of true 100 percent structure. He's still growing from a maturity standpoint.
"Like any young kid, you have to keep on him, grind on him, do everything in your power to make sure he stays focused. He hasn't been a problem at all. He does what you ask him to do. He's been great."
One week from Saturday, when the Bulls open their season against McNeese State at Raymond James Stadium, Lynch will be back on a college football field again, and Bulls fans are eager to find out just how much he can help their program. His coaches are already pleased by what they've seen when nobody's watching, on practice fields, in meeting rooms and weight rooms,.
"I think he's done a great job. You appreciate what he's doing right now," Taggart said. "Nowadays, with social media, everyone's telling him how good he can be. I don't want to hear that. You've got to go out and do something, too. I'm making him realize that, and I think he realizes that, too. All that other talk doesn't matter until you go out and take care of it on the field."