CHICAGO — USF coach Charlie Strong spent most of the offseason stumping for junior TE Mitch Wilcox, insisting the Tarpon Springs High alumnus was poised for a breakthrough year.
Not to mention a few break-record games. Such as the one he delivered Saturday at Soldier Field in a 25-19 win over Illinois.
Wilcox's eight receptions were the most in a game by a Bulls tight end, eclipsing the 21-year-old record of seven held by Trevor Hypolite. His 109 yards were the most by a USF player at his position since Kano Dillon's 126 at East Carolina on a rainy November night in 2015.
"Wilcox had an unbelievable day," Strong said. "He just continues to find the open space to get open and make the catches, and then he's able to run with the ball afterward."
Wilcox has 14 catches this season and is on pace to shatter Hypolite's season record for catches by a tight end (34).
"I think I'm built for this," he said. "I've worked my (butt) off all during offseason to condition myself and prepare myself for this, and this is something I feel I can handle. No problem."
Though erratic (7-for-14, two interceptions) in the first half, graduate-transfer QB Blake Barnett rallied for one of the best statistical efforts in school history.
Barnett finished 23-for-40 for 411 yards, the school's second-highest game yardage total behind Quinton Flowers' 503 at UCF last season. One of his interceptions hit Wilcox in the hands before being popped loose by an Illini defender.
"We weren't putting the pieces together," Barnett said of the opening half.
"As you could tell, I think toward the end we were all on the same page on what we were doing, what our assignment was and how to completely execute it."
With redshirt freshman Duran Bell (ankle) and fellow speedster Johnny Ford not making the trip, junior Jordan Cronkrite assumed more of the running load and responded with a career-best 136 yards (and a touchdown) on 22 carries.
"I'm not 100 percent right now," said Cronkrite, who missed the season opener with an ankle injury, "but my team needed me, so I'm going out there and giving it my all."
The performance was the first bell-cow-type effort from the Bulls' backfield, where carries had been evenly distributed before Saturday. None of USF's five tailbacks entered the game with more than 12 carries or fewer than eight.
"(Cronkrite) came into this game and we needed some rush yards, we needed some big runs, and he was able to provide them for us," Strong said.
"He was fired up."
Wilcox, when asked to characterize Strong's locker-room demeanor at halftime, at which USF trailed 16-7.
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls