The fact that walk-on kicker Eric Schwartz went 3-for-3 on field goals — including a 44-yarder in the fourth quarter — in Friday's 30-19 win against then-No. 20 West Virginia is one of the Bulls' best stories this year. It's even better when you think about where he was the last time the Mountaineers came to Tampa — cheering in the stands when the Bulls won in 2007.
"It's a little bit different experience," said Schwartz, who has shored up a problematic area for the Bulls, connecting on his past four field-goal attempts. "The more opportunities I get, the more confident I get, the better I feel out there. Now it feels pretty much like how I felt in high school. Just go out there and do what I do."
Schwartz has gone 6-for-9 on field-goal attempts this season, all the more impressive when you remember that the last time he kicked in a game was 2005, his senior year at Hudson High in western Pasco County.
"I never got looked at in high school at all," Schwartz said. "I had no one look at me, no recruiting at all."
Schwartz enrolled at USF, never giving up his dream of playing college football. One year, he simply missed the walk-on tryout; another, he didn't have enough credit hours to be eligible. He kept in shape by going home to Hudson a few times a week, kicking at the local rec center. In February, he took part in an open tryout and made the team's spring roster.
"I have guys try out in spring, and I put them through the wringer," coach Jim Leavitt said. "I want to find the guys who are going to mess up. I make them come out day after day after day. I'm looking for them to mess up, and all you have to do is mess up and I say, 'See you.' He never messed up. He kept hitting the kicks. … Finally, I figured, well, I guess I have to give him a uniform."
Injuries to starter Maikon Bonani and backup Delbert Alvarado gave Schwartz a chance to kick in the spring game, but he missed his only attempt, from 34 yards. He was taken off the roster after spring, as Leavitt saw two established kickers and didn't foresee the need for another.
"I said, 'Next fall, there's no way I'm going to put him in a game,' " Leavitt said. "Why would I ever do something like that, and put our whole team and game on the line for some guy who has never been in that situation? He said 'Will you let me on in the fall?' and I said 'I don't know. I don't see why because I've got two other kickers.' "
It was in July, when Bonani fractured a vertebra in a 35-foot fall while working at Busch Gardens that Schwartz had an opening to get on the fall roster. Leavitt auditioned several kickers, but Schwartz looked to be the best walk-on option. USF opened the season with Alvarado handling all kicking duties, but Schwartz eventually took over kickoffs, and after Alvarado hit only one of his first five field-goal attempts, Schwartz got a chance there as well.
"I kept waiting for my opportunity, and it came," said the 22-year-old, who is majoring in secondary education. "I thought it was all worth it when I made it to the spring (game)."
Schwartz wasn't perfect early — he missed two 37-yard attempts at Florida State before making a 27-yarder in the 17-7 win, but Leavitt stuck with him.
"I liked his demeanor," Leavitt said. "That's really important to me. He didn't seem to get too rattled. He seemed to deal with my personality, which isn't easy. I really appreciated that.
"I really wanted to find out what kind of substance he had, more than the kicking, what he had with the game on the line."
Schwartz has already showed off his leg, hitting a 50-yard field goal in USF's loss to Cincinnati, and he claims to have connected from as far as 65 yards in practice. For now, he's thrilled to be USF's primary kicker — he had two touchbacks on kickoffs against West Virginia, giving him three this season.
His story isn't finished, but it's already memorable for Bulls fans.
"I told him (in the summer), you might be like those NFL stories where guys are working at a gas station and all the sudden, he's kicking three days later," Leavitt said. "I said 'That might be your story.' … Now how will he do next week? I don't know, but right now, he's the guy."