TAMPA — The first bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate in USF history is the football equivalent of Ben Carson: soft-spoken, self-made, over-achieving and a long shot at best.
Bulls senior quarterback Quinton Flowers doesn't have a support system (i.e. athletic department) that prints money, so Times Square billboards are out. He could use a catchy nickname like Bo or RGIII or Johnny Football, but it's probably too late for that.
Flamboyance? Flowers eats pineapple slices before games and ultimately wants to be a firefighter. And while his gripping backstory (hardscrabble inner-city roots, death of both parents) certainly could win over voters, his team's schedule won't.
"I think he would need probably a perfect season, like literally a perfect season," Associated Press national college football writer Ralph Russo said. "He doesn't have the marquee non-conference games, so that's gonna be tricky."
More like daunting.
No player from a non-Power Five program has won the Heisman since BYU's Ty Detmer in 1990. And Detmer had the benefit of beating top-ranked Miami (and throwing for 406 yards) on national TV in the second game of the season.
Charlie Kaijo | Times
"I think (a player from a non-power conference) can (win the Heisman), if along the way they play a good opponent and the person does really well in it," said former BYU sports-information director Val Hale, who handed out 10,000 ties ("The Official Heisman Ty") before the Miami game in Provo.
"I really doubt that a non-Power Five (player) can do it without the win against — and an impressive performance against — a great team."
So how does one lobby for Flowers in the face of such tremendous odds? How much expense should USF incur for a campaign that could flame out with one bad game?
Bulls administrators may have found the answer, almost brilliant in its simplicity. Instead of swag and gizmos and shameless branding, they're going to put the ball in Flowers' hands — at least initially — and let him go about doing what he has done perhaps more effectively than any other candidate out there.
Defy the odds.
"Here's what I believe: You've got to let it happen," Bulls first-year coach Charlie Strong said.
"Because the more you try to push and the more you try to promote, then you're putting pressure on the player. The numbers are gonna speak for themselves at the end of the year. You don't have to start a campaign."
In high school, he'd play anywhere
The most compelling pieces of Flowers' past — shooting deaths of his dad and an older half-brother, loss of his mom to cancer — have been chronicled extensively.
Here's a more obscure detail: He wore two numbers — 9 and 18 — his freshman year at Miami's Jackson High, where he began as a 155-pound safety.
"At the time, we didn't have a lot of uniforms," said Flowers, now 22 and father of a 10-month-old girl. "One color we had (No.) 9 and the other color we didn't have 9. So my freshman year I wore two numbers. Those were the two numbers nobody wanted."
Apropos, considering he was the quarterback nobody wanted, at least initially. Though a QB in Liberty City's youth leagues, Flowers said he couldn't convince then-Jackson coach Nigel Dunn to give him a look behind center, so he told assistants he'd play anywhere just to get on the field.
"I played a little bit of receiver, that's why I was getting recruited as a receiver," Flowers said. "I was getting recruited as a safety, because I played safety. But we started going downhill and I just told the coach to put me at quarterback, and it all went from there."
Charlie Kaijo | Times
More than 8,000 total yards and three team MVP awards later, Flowers still found himself struggling to convince coaches — college ones, this time — he could play quarterback. Former Bulls coach Willie Taggart wasn't among them and, well, you know the rest.
Flowers might stand 6 feet in cleats, on concrete; and he has one-hopped his share of short throws. But his shiftiness, speed and improvisational flair might be unmatched at the collegiate level. And man, can he drop back and hit receivers in stride.
Flowers enters this season with 7,813 total career yards, 3,062 shy of the school record held by Matt Grothe. With 1,016 yards on the ground in 2017 (he had 1,530 last year), he'll exit as USF's all-time leading rusher.
"We've had guys in this league kind of be in that (Heisman) mentioned area," Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery said. "(USF) has got a quarterback over there who could be in that race."
For that to happen, the Bulls' quintessential dual threat faces dual prerequisites.
Proficiency and perfection.
Wanted: A Heisman moment
Much is made of the Heisman "moments" that propel candidates to immortality.
Steve Spurrier had the game-winning, straight-ahead field goal against Auburn in 1966. Doug Flutie had the Hail Mary against Miami in '84. Desmond Howard had the 93-yard punt return — and end-zone Heisman pose — against Ohio State in '91.
Others launch into serious candidacy with memorable efforts against marquee foes, such as Detmer against Miami, Johnny Manziel against Alabama (2012) and Lamar Jackson against FSU ('16).
USF, by contrast, has one Power Five opponent on its 2017 schedule: Illinois. And the Illini are coming off a 3-9 season.
"Without Florida State on the schedule this year, that's gonna hurt Flowers," Russo said.
Which means Flowers must find another route to New York City's Downtown Athletic Club: an unblemished season.
"If they run the table — which is very possible — and he runs for 1,500 yards, maybe, but I still don't know," Sports Illustrated's Bruce Feldman said.
"I just don't know that he's going to have the visibility in that conference. I think he has an awesome personal story, but the better hope is, can he get to New York (as a finalist)? I just think (FSU's) Derwin James has a better chance even though he's a career defensive player, because he has Alabama in Week 1.
"Whereas, what's USF's marquee opponent?"
Which isn't to suggest Flowers is destined for that pantheon of small-school and mid-major dynamos (i.e. Portland State's Neil Lomax, Navy's Keenan Reynolds) who never really had a Heisman shot. Remember when they said freshmen would never win the thing?
This is 2017. Flowers' personal story will captivate, and his highlight clips will fill cyberspace. Moreover, since 1982 a player from a non-power school has been named a Heisman finalist 17 times. Remember the words of Michael Corleone's henchman in The Godfather, Part II when asked about the feasibility of offing Hyman Roth.
Difficult, not impossible.
Since 1982, a player from a non-power conference has been named a Heisman Trophy finalist 17 times. Of that group, BYU's Ty Detmer (1990) is the only winner.
1983: QB Steve Young, BYU
1984: QB Robbie Bosco, BYU
1985: QB Robbie Bosco, BYU
1986: RB Paul Palmer, Temple
1987: ATH Gordie Lockbaum, Holy Cross
1989: QB Dee Dowis, Air Force
1990: QB Ty Detmer, BYU
1991: QB Ty Detmer, BYU
1992: RB Marshall Faulk, San Diego State
1994: QB Steve McNair, Alcorn State
1997: WR Randy Moss, Marshall
1999: QB Chad Pennington, Marshall
2000: RB LaDainian Tomlinson, TCU^
2004: QB Alex Smith, Utah^
2007: QB Colt Brennan, Hawaii
2010: QB Kellen Moore, Boise State
2013: QB Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois
^-TCU and Utah were members of the WAC and Mountain West Conference, respectively, when Tomlinson and Smith were named Heisman finalists
Note: SMU's Eric Dickerson (1982) and Houston's Andre Ware ('89) and David Klingler ('90) also have been named Heisman finalists, but those two schools belonged to the Southwest Conference until 1996. If it remained intact today, the Southwest (which included Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor and Arkansas) undoubtedly would be deemed a power conference. Doug Flutie ('84) and Tim Brown ('87) played for independent programs when they won the Heisman.
For now, USF is launching no formal Heisman campaign, and that's fine with Flowers. He's not even on the cover of USF's 2017 media guide, though his image does appear on some season-ticket ads that list him as a "2017 Heisman Trophy Candidate."
"We don't want to put the cart in front of the horse," said Brian Siegrist, USF's associate athletic director for communications. "You don't want to put too much pressure on Quinton coming into the season."
The plan is for Flowers and the Bulls to get some games — and perhaps gaudy numbers — under their collective belt, then make a push.
Siegrist has a media tracking system that allows him to keep tabs on everyone talking about Flowers and the Heisman, and to gather their contact information. The school also has consulted a couple of different companies familiar with such campaigns.
"Us being a top-25 team will help immensely," Siegrist added. "(ESPN's) College GameDay talks about every top-25 team every Saturday, and as long as we're in there, we will be one of the Group of Five teams they'll talk about on Saturdays, which means they'll talk about Quinton Flowers."
Octavio Jones | Times
Flowers' support system also will hit up those whom Siegrist calls the "influencers," the ones whose voices resonate farthest across the college landscape. Strong knows a ton of those folks. So does Siegrist, who worked at Penn State before coming to USF.
"And that's really who you need to drive it," he said.
Again, it's all probably a long shot. Too many planets might have to align, too many other candidates might have to stumble. Odds must be surmounted.
Which brings us back to arguably the greatest odds-buster in USF lore.
"If I win, I win," Flowers said. "If I don't … it's an honor to be a Heisman candidate. But I just don't get caught up in that hype."
Times sports columnist Tom Jones contributed to this report. Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.