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."