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USF’s Mitch Wilcox seeks new beginning after UCF ending

The fourth-year junior from Tarpon Springs appears poised for a breakthrough season
USF tight end Mitchell Wilcox (89) celebrates a touchdown reception during the first half of last season's game against UCF at Spectrum Stadium in Orlando. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times]
USF tight end Mitchell Wilcox (89) celebrates a touchdown reception during the first half of last season's game against UCF at Spectrum Stadium in Orlando. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Aug. 2, 2018

TAMPA — He arrived two weeks early, and still weighed almost 12 pounds. In hindsight, maybe that should've been a portent for Carole and Chuck Wilcox. This robust boy, the younger of their two kids, would be a handful.

Mitch Wilcox entered kindergarten with as many ER visits as birthday candles. When he wasn't losing two front teeth (and severing a facial artery) falling off a dresser, he was crashing his bike into a parked car or suffering head abrasions playing street football.

"We celebrated that he was alive on his fifth birthday," Carole said. "Five ER trips before he was 5."

The scars were profound, too. Plastic surgery was needed when his teeth tore through his upper lip during that dresser crash, and Wilcox still has a modest bald spot on the back of his head from the streetball incident.

"I remember probably like, around maybe 13 or 14, (Carole) looked me in the eyes and was like, 'It will be a miracle if you make it to 18,'" Wilcox recalled. "Kind of joking, kind of not."

Today, Mitchell Evans Wilcox is bearing down on 22, and remains undeterred by his wounds, be they physical or psychological. To be sure, he has experienced both.

In a sense, his tumble off the dresser was similar to his fumble at UCF, on the Bulls' last offensive play of that 49-42 defeat last November: Both were excruciating in their own way, but neither has stopped Wilcox from climbing.

If anything, they drove him to climb higher.

Only four months after that loss in Orlando, Wilcox had arguably the best spring of any Bulls player.

"Very humbling experience," Wilcox said of the UCF game. "But it's gonna make me a better player for years to come, hopefully."

Bulls fans have heard for years about the tight end evolving into a key cog in the offense, yet Trevor Hypolite remains the only USF player at that spot to catch at least 30 passes in one season (34 in 1997).

Wilcox, a fourth-year junior from Tarpon Springs High, appears to have a real shot at becoming the second. If his spring showcase wasn't an indication, his sleeker body (6-foot-4 3/4, 244 pounds) might be. He begins preseason camp tonight roughly 10 pounds lighter than last preseason.

He's also the only tight end in camp that has appeared in a college game.

"I'd like to be up a little bit heavier going up against some of the larger defensive ends, like when I really have to set my anchor in a pass-protection standpoint," said Wilcox, who had 17 receptions for 158 yards in 2017. "But I'm not too upset about it because…I'm running the best I ever have."

Coach Charlie Strong has taken notice. So has the Mackey Award committee, which named Wilcox to its preseason watch list as one of the nation's top tight ends.

Related: USF's Mitch Wilcox makes Mackey Award watch list

"I think Mitch Wilcox can be an unbelievable player," Strong said at last week's American Athletic Conference media day. "I don't think there is a player like him in this league."

Meantime, that fumble has been transformed into fuel.

Wilcox estimates he has watched the UCF game a half-dozen times, and for a while dwelt on the fateful final play, when he caught a short Quinton Flowers pass at the Knights 47 and turned upfield before defensive back Richie Grant popped it loose with 39 seconds remaining.

"Basically the message I got from friends and family and coaches was like, 'Remember who you are and what you bring to the table and don't let one play define you,'" he said. "There was a point where I was like, 'It (stinks) but I'm not gonna dwell on it anymore.'"

Today, he says he has made peace with the play, though another one still eats at him.

Wilcox estimates it was midway through the fourth quarter, when the Bulls clung to a 34-28 lead. He broke free on a seam route and was uncovered downfield. One rudimentary toss from Flowers, and the Bulls may have a two-touchdown lead.

"I think there might have been pressure or something, but we just didn't connect," he said. "Obviously the pit-in-my-stomach feeling is the fumble, but my brain goes back to that, just on what could have the game been like if we were up 13 points with less than seven minutes left?"

Time to put a little salve on that sting and press on. Another adventure awaits. Who knows, Wilcox may have to mend a broken tooth or spirit along the way, with perhaps a broken record to show in the end.

"(The UCF ending) has been an eye-opening experience for me, and there was definitely some growing up after that," he said. "But it's gonna make me a better player."

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.