When Gaither High football coach Jason Stokes first met Alex McGough, he had a hunch there was something different about him.
It wasn't just the young quarterback's spindly sophomore figure or unique haircut — a comb-over that strongly resembled the look of pop star Justin Bieber — that stood out to the then-first-year coach in 2011. It was something much more remarkable.
"That sucker had an arm," Stokes recalled with a smile. "He wasn't afraid of anything, even as a true sophomore."
From that summer day forward, McGough, who transferred to the Hillsborough County school from Wesley Chapel after his freshman year, proved his coach right.
He passed for more than 5,000 yards and 52 touchdowns in high school. McGough helped turn Gaither from a program mired in a downward spiral with a trio of losing seasons into a consistent winner as the Cowboys made the state playoffs all three years (2011-13) he was under center, including a district championship in 2012 for the first time in 12 years.
But with high school now in his rearview mirror, McGough is attempting to create a similar legacy on a much grander scale — as a true freshman starting quarterback at Florida International University.
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McGough never imagined he would reach this point so quickly.
After graduating early from Gaither, he enrolled at FIU in January in hopes of getting a leg up on the playbook before the start of spring practice.
Right away, Panthers coach Ron Turner, a longtime NFL assistant and former Tampa Bay Bucs quarterback coach who took over FIU in 2013, thrust McGough into competition for the starting job with junior incumbent E.J. Hilliard.
"They told me I was going to have a chance to start when I came. But I didn't think it was going to be a battle throughout training camp," McGough said. "It was just eye opening to me."
With that battle came some early struggles of adjusting to the college level. But luckily for McGough, a familiar face was there to help — one of his former teammates at Gaither, wide receiver Shug Oyegunle, who signed with FIU a year earlier.
"Shug helped me through the whole thing," McGough said. "He helped me through the playbook. He helped me at practice when I would have a bad day. He would come up to me and tell me to keep my head up. That was really beneficial to me."
In FIU's spring game, McGough shined at the helm under Turner's pro-style offense, throwing for 131 yards and one touchdown. But during preseason practices three months later, Hilliard was named the starter for the team's opener against Bethune-Cookman on Aug. 30.
McGough didn't have to wait long to see the field, however. With his parents watching from the stands, he entered in the second quarter, completing his first collegiate pass for a 9-yard gain. He also threw his first touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
While McGough's performance wasn't enough to get FIU a win over Bethune-Cookman, he was rewarded with a solid consolation prize days later: the starting job, which he has held onto ever since.
"Just to be able to play in the first game was an unbelievable moment," said McGough, who has completed 51 of 112 passes for 652 yards and seven touchdowns through five games.
"Then to be named the starter, that was unbelievable. Words can't describe that feeling."
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FIU's road back to respectability in Division I-A is going to be a process. The Panthers (2-3), who made back-to-back bowl appearances in 2010 and 2011, finished 1-11 last year in their first season in Conference USA and have won just six games since going 8-5 in 2011.
But McGough doesn't pay attention to the negatives. He is proud to be "at home," as he describes it, and is confident FIU has the pieces to return to prominence.
It starts with winning consistently, McGough said, just like he did at Gaither.
"I just want to win games. That's all we want to do. Just win games and make the team successful," he said.
"The people we have here are just amazing. The work ethic and the want to win is ridiculous. … If we keep playing and executing, we will have a great chance."