TAMPA — Two years ago, a USF redshirt sophomore tight end from Tarpon Springs named Mitchell Wilcox lay on the field with his face and tears buried in the grass. He had just been stripped of the ball after a catch, and UCF was about to hold on to beat USF 49-42, a remarkable game.
I was standing on the sideline about 20 yards from Wilcox, who was motionless as UCF celebrated.
C’mon, get up, kid. Get up.
The kid got up.
Even after he was assailed on social media, as he still is today, the kid got up.
Wilcox, 22, begins his senior season Friday when USF hosts Wisconsin. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Wilcox is one of the Bulls’ top receiving targets in new offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell’s attack.
“Without giving stuff away, there are going to more opportunities for me to catch the ball and run with it after,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox toyed with the idea of entering the NFL draft after catching 43 balls a junior. He maybe could have gone second day. He could go higher next time around. That’s not on his mind. This is:
“My love for this university,” Wilcox said.
He is a Bull, through and through, since committing early to former USF coach Willie Taggart in 2015. USF has gone 28-10 while Wilcox has been on the active roster. He has seen it all. He has lived highs, like those 11 wins in 2016 and 10 under Charlie Strong in 2017, He has lived lows, like that night at UCF, like the death drop of six losses to end last season.
“You have to learn from adversity.”
He came into the world in 1996, about 10 months before USF played it first game, which was attended by his parents, Carole and Chuck, both of who had attended USF at one point in the education, though Carole finished her degree at FSU and Chuck went to Ohio State undergrad.
“I was a little bit brainwashed into being a Buckeyes fan because my entire family was from Ohio,” Wilcox said. “But I remember coming to many, many USF games. There’s actually a picture of me jumping in the pool when I was a kid with the little Bulls horn helmet on.”
USF it would be.
Tight end it would be.
“I think Illinois wanted me as a defensive end,” Wilcox said. “Their recruiter told me that. I told them my dream was to play tight end. He turned and walked away. He didn’t say one word. I knew that I wanted to be a tight end, a playmaker, to have the ball in my hands.”
He wanted it in his hands even after that fumble. Wilcox had a season-high 51 yards and a 21-yard TD against UCF that November night in 2017.
“It was definitely a gut check as a man, for sure,” Wilcox said. “I pour my heart and sweat and tears into this game. It’s one play. But it’s going to make me, has made me, a better player.
“If you’re luck to play football long enough, things will go wrong. I’m lucky. I’m a better player because of it. There were lot of nasty comments, but I have a great support system. I was very grateful for people who were in my corner.”
He is a Bull. And now he is part of revamped leadership, the kind USF didn’t have last season when its 7-0 start went over the cliff.
“There was a lot of adversity and there were a lot inter-unit, inter-squad disgruntlement,” Wilcox said. “I think leadership is in a much better place this year, it’s more in the culture. I think we’re in a much better place as a senior class and we’re in an offense that’s almost like driving a new car.”
How far will that take USF? We’ll begin to find out Friday night. Wilcox plans to be part of it while pursuing a degree in marketing with an emphasis on sports sales and entertainment. The next NFL draft can wait, wherever that is.
“It’s in Vegas,” Wilcox said. “Vegas 2020. There is a lot of ball to play left. A lot of things can happen. But I have a lot of people in my corner to keep me grounded. But I have big aspirations for myself.”
Once upon a time, his face planted in the grass and the tears came.
“I have enough belief and confidence in myself to overcome that,” Wilcox said. “I saw the opportunity to come here and play big-time football and I think I’m trying to see that through.
“It’s what I signed up for, the highs and the lows. I definitely saw the lows. But it’s about seeing it through.”
But the kid got up.
Oh, did he get up.
Contact Martin Fennelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly