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YOUNG FACE OF USF FOOTBALL TOWERS OVER TAMPA BAY

The laughter on the bus taking USF's football players to Raymond James Stadium on Tuesday afternoon was loud enough to wake receiver Amarri Jackson, who promptly joined his teammates in teasing Matt Grothe.

It wasn't the 6-foot Grothe the Bulls were laughing about so much as the significantly larger quarterback towering over Fowler Avenue from a new billboard, visible to the west from I-275. Now more than ever, last season's Big East rookie of the year is being marketed as the face of Bulls football, even if he's only a sophomore.

Tuesday "was the first day I saw it. It's cool, but it's kind of weird seeing myself on a billboard," Grothe said at the team's preseason media day. "It's a little big.

"As long as I'm playing my game and we're playing our game the way we know how, we'll be fine."

Grothe was one of several players featured in newspaper ads last season, but the billboards - there's another on southbound I-275 at the Westshore exit - are another level of exposure, and pressure as well.

"I would say so," said Grothe, who turns 21 next month, on the day he leads USF on the road against Auburn. "Definitely a little bit."

Grothe's not the only one slightly uncomfortable with the publicity. Coach Jim Leavitt has been careful to shield his young quarterback from the spotlight, specifically guarded in his praise, hoping to keep him humble as long as possible.

"You're not going to hide it if the guy's a pretty good quarterback," Leavitt conceded. "He's going to have to get used to these things. Am I a little bit awkward with that kind of stuff? Yes, still am.

"The people in marketing had talked to me about it. I was reluctant. I do realize if our offense and team become more successful, there will be more of that. If not, the billboards will be down."

The billboards have been up since last week, but Grothe didn't even stray a mile from campus to see himself until Tuesday's bus ride. A steady stream of friends has reminded him about his new level of celebrity.

"I got a whole bunch of calls: 'Why am I seeing your face when I'm not even trying to see your face?' " Grothe said.

Such is the life of a starting quarterback for a team being picked by many national publications as a "sleeper," close to its first-ever national ranking since moving to Division I-A just six years ago.

"It's part of the deal," said Leavitt, whose team has sold its most season tickets since its inaugural year in 1997. "We all hope we get a quarterback like that, don't we? I don't know if he deserves all of it yet. It's a test over time. He's going to have to work for all of it."

Grothe passed for 2,576 yards and 15 touchdowns as a freshman, scrambling enough to lead the team in rushing with 622 yards and nine scores. The Bulls hope an influx of talented running backs will take pressure off him this season, but opposing defenses will still be focused on containing his playmaking ability.

Jackson, returning as one of Grothe's top receivers, said he couldn't imagine a teammate on a billboard when he came to USF three years ago. He said Grothe's low-key nature - his ability to literally laugh at himself - should allow him to have a huge likeness on the roadside without letting his ego swell up to match it.

"I've got to get me a picture of it. That goes down in history, my teammate on a billboard," Jackson said. "It's very nice, but he's a very humble player, and he doesn't let things go to his head. Hopefully, we can push hard and get more guys up on billboards right beside him."

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