TAMPA — The latest quarterback competition on USF’s campus didn’t arise organically.
The participants involved insist this is a derby of divine intervention, facilitated by some fervent prayers and featuring at least one celestial audible. Even a team chaplain lent a hand in bringing it all to fruition.
“For me, it was definitely something I was kind of jumping into blindly,” North Carolina transfer Cade Fortin said. “But I knew I’d be all right.”
Fortin and fellow transfer Noah Johnson (Alcorn State) are competing with incumbent Jordan McCloud in what — by many accounts — has remained an equitable competition, with snaps evenly distributed throughout the Bulls’ two-plus scrimmages.
“I didn’t want any handout or anything, I just wanted to make it fair,” said Johnson, who sports the team’s most profound beard. “And we’ve had a fair competition.”
McCloud, thrust into action out of necessity last September and played through wrist and shoulder ailments nearly the whole season, is healthy again and roughly 15 pounds heavier (6-foot, 196 pounds).
Fortin (6-3, 222), a pro-style slinger with arguably the liveliest arm of the group, played in four games for North Carolina in 2018, throwing for 276 yards in an overtime loss to N.C. State.
Johnson (6-0, 198), an Armwood High alumnus and prototypical dual threat, was the Southwestern Athletic Conference Player of the Year in 2018 (3,287 total yards, 26 touchdowns) before tearing his AC joint early the following year.
“The biggest comments that I gave those guys is, ‘Hey, we’re gonna have a great quarterback competition,‘” Coach Jeff Scott said as preseason camp dawned. “We’re not gonna have a quarterback controversy, we’re gonna have a quarterback competition.”
Yet only eight months ago, the idea of such a convergence barely had dawned.
Fortin was closing in on a new college home, having opted to transfer after new Tar Heels coach Mack Brown handed the 2019 offense to freshman Sam Howell. He had made official visits to Kansas, Syracuse and Vanderbilt, and was pondering those three last December when he received a morning phone call from Scott on Friday the 13th.
The start of the NCAA’s early signing period — when Fortin intended to sign with one of the three he had visited — was the following Wednesday.
“He’s good friends with the chaplain (Mitch Mason) up at North Carolina, who I was really close with,” said Fortin, who previously had met Scott only once, at a Clemson football camp a few years earlier.
“The chaplain talked to me and he said, ‘Hey, just hear him out. Don’t leave any doors closed. Just see what he has to say.’ ”
That night, three days before the start of the NCAA’s dead period, Scott was visiting Fortin at his Suwanee, Ga., home, on Atlanta’s eastern fringe. On Sunday, Fortin was touring USF’s campus with Scott, who hadn’t yet hired an assistant.
“And then I committed on Tuesday,” Fortin said. “It felt right for me. It was kind of a faith walk; it was kind of an answered prayer for me, and something that I just really had to talk with myself about.”
Fast forward 3½ months, and Johnson is taking a shower at his grandmother’s Thonotosassa home when he’s jolted by a loud rapping on the bathroom door.
To that point, he had spent months in the NCAA transfer portal, having decided to move on from Alcorn State after his shoulder injury in Game 3 of the 2019 season.
“Our backup was playing really well,” recalled Johnson, who led Armwood to the Class 6A state title game in 2014.
“I was happy for him, very happy for him. He got his shot, and that’s the same way I came up ... as a redshirt freshman when the backup went down, so I know how it goes.”
Southern, whom Johnson had torched for 282 total yards in the 2018 league title game, had been the first to offer. A number of Historically Black Colleges and Universities followed. Johnson’s heart, however, was on USF.
To that end, he had communicated with Scott, who had expressed interest but first wanted to make sure Johnson would get a medical waiver from the NCAA allowing him a sixth year.
“The portal isn’t a comfortable place,” Johnson said. “Very few make it out. Dealing with that, mentally it was tough.”
Word of the granted waiver arrived via e-mail on April 2. Johnson’s mother, Dawn, found out first, having been logged into her son’s account. She quickly called her mother, who ran to the bathroom door and began banging in jubilation.
“I was just in tears,” Johnson said. “It was amazing. Tears of joy. Just so grateful.”
So far, the competition has been difficult to track. Because scrimmages are closed and media access to practice limited, sound bites and snippets of practice video provided by the school offer the only insight.
Fortin said he hasn’t “been playing the way I want to play,” indicating he has put too much pressure on himself. Johnson said he hasn’t committed a scrimmage turnover, and maintained a 65 percent completion rate in preseason camp. McCloud, who ran for a TD in the opening scrimmage, clearly has increased his velocity, based on the footage provided.
“The big thing with all those guys is they’re not repeat offenders,” offensive coordinator Charlie Weis Jr. said.
“They’re gonna make a mistake one day, I’m gonna coach it up in the meeting room, and they’re gonna get it right the next day. ... All three have different skill sets, different abilities, and I think we can use all of their strengths in different ways.”
They might have to. Should the fall season get underway amid the lingering COVID-19 crisis, all three could be summoned for significant duty at some point.
Talk about your divine resolution to a derby.
“Mentally, it was tough. There were a lot of things that I kept inside, but God is good,” Johnson said. “He ordered my steps and put the pieces to the puzzle better than I ever thought.”