Saturday, May 26, 2018
Colleges

USF Bulls receiver Derrick "Flea" Hopkins finds his hands

TAMPA — Derrick Hopkins knew he had to work on his hands.

USF's junior receiver always brought track star speed to the football field. But for his first three seasons, his struggles to catch passes kept him on the sideline.

So after every practice, he stayed late with any quarterback who would throw to him. He asked friends and roommates to go outside and throw to him.

"Catching, every day," Hopkins said. "Catching, catching, catching, catching, catching."

When that wasn't enough …

"I throw to myself, watching TV," he said. "The commercials come on, I lay on my back and throw balls in the air and catch them."

Crazy as it seems, Hopkins is now catching passes not during commercials but on key plays in key games. At 5 feet 5, 160 pounds, the guy known as "Flea" is USF's shortest player and almost always the smallest man on the field.

It hasn't stopped him from earning his first start, catching his first touchdown and becoming a reliable part of the offense.

"He always practiced hard, ran great routes, obviously has tremendous speed," offensive coordinator Todd Fitch said. "But he was probably a 70 percent catch guy in practice.

"He had a nice spring, came back this summer and was one of our highest catch-rate guys in camp. Every day, you'd come back from two-a-days in Vero, you were like, 'Hopkins is really catching the ball well.' He's done a job that … caught me off guard. Probably the most happy for a guy on this team? It'd be Derrick. I'm happy as heck for him because he works so hard."

Before this season, Hopkins' offensive contributions in three years amounted to a single drive: catches on four consecutive plays late in a 70-17 win against I-AA Florida A&M last season. He's now third on the team with 10 catches (for 164 yards and a touchdown). And he has become a staple of the third-and-long package, when coaches need reliable hands to move the chains.

"The best feeling about all this is being able to help the team, finally getting a chance to contribute to the team," Hopkins said. "That's what's most rewarding."

Hopkins' best scholarship offers coming out of Miami Monsignor Pace High were in track. National powers such as LSU, Auburn and Texas A&M were after him, but his heart was in football. When USF offered, he committed. And that pledge helped the Bulls sign two Pace teammates, receiver Sterling Griffin and cornerback Kayvon Webster, who joined Hopkins on a state-record 400-meter relay.

At USF, his first impact was in track. In the spring of 2011, he was named outstanding male performer at the Big East indoor championships after winning the 60- and 200-meter titles. He then won the outdoor 100 title in 10.44 seconds. He was slowed by a hamstring injury this spring, which allowed him to focus more on football.

Third down has been an area where USF's offense has strived to improve, and Hopkins has been a focal point. In the opener, he caught a 19-yard touchdown on third and 12. Against Ball State, he caught an 18-yard pass on third and 10 to set up a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Against Florida State on Saturday, he converted on a third and 9, then caught a 10-yard pass on third and 11 to set up a short fourth-down conversion.

"You can overcome a lot of shortcomings — no pun intended — with your work ethic," first-year receivers coach Jerome Pathon said. "That's one thing that's really stood out about Derrick Hopkins. It's not just every other day with him. It's every day with him. It shows. He picked it up, started to gain a little confidence. Once you have confidence and understand techniques, you can really take off."

In USF's loss to Rutgers, the tying touchdown in the fourth quarter came after a 32-yard third-down pass that went off the fingertips of a 6-foot-2 cornerback into the hands of Hopkins at the 1. He said he hears plenty of talk at the line of scrimmage from taller defensive backs but rarely says anything back.

"All the time. 'Get your weight up, little man.' 'Hey, little guy.' Everything," he said. "Just keep your mouth closed and keep playing. That's the best comeback."

USF's coaches like the inspirational value of Hopkins' success — if the 5-5 kid can go across the middle on third down, that toughness can spill over to bigger teammates. Phil McGeoghan, who coached Hopkins for his first three seasons and is now an assistant with the NFL's Dolphins, said it's gratifying to see Hopkins' hard work pay off.

"Not everybody's blessed with 10.2 speed, but everybody can work very hard at improving their hands," McGeoghan said. "He's got quiet confidence. He's not scared of anybody. He'll fight and scratch and claw for every inch. He is not soft. There's nothing small about the way he comes to work every day. He's mentally tough, and that's what you need to be in this game to have success."

Comments
FSU football fans: How do you remember Jimbo Fisher?

FSU football fans: How do you remember Jimbo Fisher?

Former Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher should be back in the state next week for the SEC's spring meetings in Destin. It is, to my knowledge, his first big trip back to Florida since leaving for Texas A&M in December.With that in mind, my questi...
Published: 05/25/18
FSU starter Josh Ball faces Title IX suspension over dating violence accusation

FSU starter Josh Ball faces Title IX suspension over dating violence accusation

Florida State starting offensive tackle Josh Ball faces a university suspension after a Title IX investigation found him responsible for dating violence.The suspension came to light in a Facebook post Monday afternoon by Sandra Sellers, an FSU studen...
Published: 05/22/18
Willie Taggart will take more fourth-down chances than Jimbo Fisher. But how many more?

Willie Taggart will take more fourth-down chances than Jimbo Fisher. But how many more?

TAMPA — Florida State coach Willie Taggart fielded an interesting question near the end of his Q&A with fans during Sunday's booster stop at Armature Works.Are the Seminoles going to be going for it more on fourth down?"We will be goin...
Published: 05/21/18
Athlon: Florida Gators, FSU and Miami will all finish in top 20

Athlon: Florida Gators, FSU and Miami will all finish in top 20

One of the first big nuggets from preseason college football magazines is out: Athlon's top 25.The site considers its rankings a prediction of where teams will be at the end of the year, not the beginning.Alabama and Clemson are 1-2 (no shock). Miami...
Published: 05/21/18
Taggart delivers a bolt to area

Taggart delivers a bolt to area

TAMPA — After spending four years as USF’s football coach, Willie Taggart knows what to expect this time of year in the area, so it’s no surprise how he began a chat with reporters Sunday before a booster stop at Armature Works."Go Lightning," he sai...
Published: 05/20/18
Willie Taggart: ‘Pretty cool’ to be back in Tampa as FSU coach

Willie Taggart: ‘Pretty cool’ to be back in Tampa as FSU coach

TAMPA – After spending four years as USF's football coach, Willie Taggart knows what to expect this time of year in the area, so it's no surprise how he began a chat with reporters Sunday before a booster stop at Armature Works."Go Lightning," ...
Published: 05/20/18
ACC football announces early kickoff times, TV info for FSU, Miami games

ACC football announces early kickoff times, TV info for FSU, Miami games

The ACC has released some kickoff and TV information for the first three weeks of the season:Week 1 (previously announced)Miami vs. LSU (in Arlington, Texas): Sunday, Sept. 2, 7:30 p.m., ABCVirginia Tech at Florida State: Monday, Sept. 3, 8 p.m., ESP...
Published: 05/18/18
Why FSU playing Boise State in Jacksonville is a smart risk

Why FSU playing Boise State in Jacksonville is a smart risk

Old, unofficial news is expected to become old, official news today with a formal announcement that Florida State and Boise State are kicking off the 2019 season in Jacksonville.  A lot has changed since the schools announced the series (FSU pla...
Published: 05/16/18
FSU-Boise State to open 2019 season in Jacksonville

FSU-Boise State to open 2019 season in Jacksonville

What had been an open secret for months is now open and shut: Group of Five power Boise State will face FSU at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville in the teams' 2019 opener.A formal announcement is expected Wednesday, but the '19 schedule on Boise's offi...
Published: 05/15/18
RHP Mark Moclair’s versatility proves valuable to University of Tampa

RHP Mark Moclair’s versatility proves valuable to University of Tampa

TAMPA — He’s the accidental pitcher who can’t be pigeonholed into a defined role. He’s a well-spoken economics major who morphs into fire-breathing intensity on the mound. And he’s one of the biggest reasons why the University of Tampa Spartans are p...
Published: 05/15/18