TAMPA — These days, Christian Helms' right ankle throbs. His hip bears a little knot from a collision with a facemask. The shoulder soreness lingers.
“I’m a little banged up now,” the former Seffner Christian receiver said.
So is Yasias Young. And Joshua Green. And most of their scout-team peers who rarely get a rep off during the week. Following a recent 2½-hour practice, neither Young nor Green could recall getting a break during live 11-on-11 work.
“I’m sore for sure,” Young said.
Fortunately for USF, their egos and perspectives remain bereft of bruises.
“I feel if the team wins, I win as a person,” Green said.
If their names don’t ring a bell, it stands to reason. As scout-teamers, their chance for game time — much less glory — in 2020 is minimal. Most aren’t on scholarship; none are on the depth chart. Their most tangible reward arrives at home games, when they’re permitted to join the Bulls on the sideline in a jersey.
But their passion for football remains boundless. For a team struggling mightily with numbers in the COVID-19 climate, that’s priceless.
“Imagine every day you come out, and you get no recognition,” junior defensive tackle Rashawn Yates said. “Most of those guys don’t even get to travel. So to come out there and put it on the line for us, to make us better, that’s inspirational honestly.”
Scout teams at the college level are nearly as old as Lee Corso. Consisting primarily of walk-ons and freshmen, their job is to mimic the upcoming opponent’s offensive and defensive schemes in practice. In a conventional year, programs have scout-teamers in surplus.
“Like during a normal period, our starters may go out for five plays on offense, and then our second offense goes out there five plays,” Bulls coach Jeff Scott said. “So in a normal year, your first scout team goes out there for five plays, then they come off and your second scout team comes out for five plays, and you do that for a two-hour practice.”
Functional phrase: normal year. The coronavirus hasn’t discriminated in its decimation of USF’s roster, afflicting every segment from the A-listers to the anonymous. On Tuesday, the most intense practice day of a typical game week, Scott had only 12 defensive scout-teamers, forcing graduate assistant Kalon Davis to log some reps on the defensive line, with no pads.
“So now the difference is, those (scout-team) guys are having to go every rep,” Scott said. “Those guys have been great for us. They probably feel the extra brunt of the work because of the low numbers.”
Helms, in his second year on the scout team, estimates he sat out five total plays last week as the Bulls prepared for Cincinnati. To this point, he has lined up as a receiver, H-back, tight end and slot receiver on the scout-team offense.
“It’s really tiring, but the thing I found out more about practicing, especially with Coach Scott and them, it’s really all the mental aspect,” he said. “If I treat every rep like a game rep and don’t really focus on the clock and how many periods we’ve got left ... the next thing I know, it’s going to be done.”
Green, however, acknowledges some practices felt perpetual. A former East Lake High free safety, he returned home after a season at the University of Pikeville, an NAIA program in Kentucky. On Tuesday, he was blitzing — play after play — because that’s what East Carolina’s defense is expected to do liberally Saturday night.
“There were moments when they (the offense) were just going full-speed and running tempo,” he said. “And there were moments where I sat there and I bent down a little bit, and the play was about to snap and I had to get ready to go, basically because it’s a mindset that it’s not for me.”
Oh, it could be for them, indirectly. College football is rife with stories of players who rise from scout-team oblivion to become significant contributors or even stars. With a pandemic lingering and depth charts being ravaged, their chances of making an impression at practice and earning a tentative spot on a travel roster have mildly increased.
“Honestly, I’m just trying to get as many reps as I can because I’m just doing the best I can to give the defense a look, and also to make me a better player," said Young, an 1,100-yard rusher last season at Fort Myers High who received overtures — but no offers — from Division I-A schools. "Anything that I can do to get me off the scout team and getting actual reps with the offense, I’ll do that.”
But the odds generally remain heavily against these guys, especially those not on scholarship. Perhaps the most substantial external reward arrives via sentiment: In 2020, they’re considered far more invaluable than inconspicuous.
They’ve got the bruises and bum ankles to prove it.
“I spend a lot of my time just encouraging those guys and thanking those guys,” Scott said.
“In a year like this, you look all over the country, it’s very easy to decide you don’t want to play. And especially if you’re a scout-team guy, 'I’ll just wait ‘til next year.’ That’s a very selfless group, and without their help we don’t have a chance to prepare.”
East Carolina (0-2, 0-1 American Athletic Conference) at USF (1-2, 0-1)
Raymond James Stadium, Saturday, 7 p.m.
TV/radio: ESPN+/ 95.3-FM or 1250-AM