TAMPA — As much time as college football programs can spend scouring the state for unclaimed talents, sometimes the smartest thing to do is just answer the phone when it rings.
That's essentially how USF assistant Vernon Hargreaves got in touch with freshman walk-on receiver Stephen Bravo-Brown, who continued an improbable rise with four catches for 48 yards Saturday in his first college game.
"I just kept calling," said Bravo-Brown, a 5-foot-10, 175-pounder who was overlooked by most colleges despite playing for state powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale as part of a corps that sent receivers to BCS programs Ohio State, Connecticut and Purdue.
Bravo-Brown wanted to go to Lafayette, a I-AA program in Pennsylvania, but had to spend last fall at nearby Wyoming Seminary College Prep.
When things didn't work out with Lafayette, he turned his focus to walking on at USF, looking up the Bulls online and calling one assistant coach after another until Hargreaves, who coaches defensive ends and special teams, picked up his phone.
"Growing up, I always liked them," Bravo-Brown said of USF. "This is just where God put me. I didn't stress about it. I just prayed about it a lot. I knew this was where I was meant to be once he answered the phone."
Check out Bravo-Brown's highlight tape from Wyoming Seminary on YouTube, and you can understand why the Bulls offered to bring him in as a preferred walk-on, which meant he was assured a roster spot if he could get into school. In just a few minutes, you see an 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown then nine scoring receptions, showing off his hands and route-running.
"He has the tools to be a Division (I-A) receiver," his prep school coach, Terry Karg, said last month. "He was a big-play receiver for us; quite dynamic and a legit 4.4 guy with good ball skills."
Bravo-Brown had no idea USF would lose one starting receiver to the draft and two to offseason injuries that would sideline them for at least the first month of the season. Others didn't get into school or graduated early, opening a window for Bravo-Brown to play right away.
Literally — he took the field on USF's fourth offensive play, ahead of seven healthy receivers who are on scholarship.
USF led just 24-14 with a minute left in the half, facing third and 7 at its 42 when B.J. Daniels found Bravo-Brown on the sideline for a toe-tap 14-yard catch. The two hooked up for 9 yards on the next play, and USF went on to score a touchdown.
Bravo-Brown barely knows the spotlight but is quick to deflect praise. "The quarterbacks threw perfect balls. The line blocked perfectly. So they really contributed to helping me," he said.
Daniels saw Bravo-Brown as a player who showed up for every summer voluntary workout, putting in the extra time before camp even started. So he has a comfort level with him beyond the four weeks of formal practice they've shared.
"Bravo's real good; quick, fast, explosive, has good hands. He can definitely help this team," Daniels said.
Bravo-Brown had luck back at Aquinas, where his position coach was former Pro Bowl receiver Cris Carter, whose son, Duron, played receiver with him. Bravo-Brown wears No. 80 as a nod to Jerry Rice but credits Carter for teaching him the fundamentals of the position with USF receivers coach Phil McGeoghan working extensively with him during the past month.
USF coach Skip Holtz has shown a quick trust in Bravo-Brown, and McGeoghan already doesn't think of him as a freshman or walk-on but as someone who can make plays.
"I can't say enough good things about Bravo-Brown," he said. "I think he's coming along and developing. He's a guy I've grown to trust in the last three weeks. He has an infectious personality, a great smile, and he wants to be good. I'm excited about him."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com.