USF’s Jordan Cronkrite shining in career reboot

The University of Florida transfer ranks third nationally in rushing yards per game
USF running back Jordan Cronkrite (2) during a game against East Carolina Pirates on Saturday September 22, 2018 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fl. (USF Athletics)
USF running back Jordan Cronkrite (2) during a game against East Carolina Pirates on Saturday September 22, 2018 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fl. (USF Athletics)
Published Oct. 10, 2018|Updated Oct. 10, 2018

TAMPA — In a phone conversation earlier this week, USF senior slot receiver Tyre McCants tried breaking the news gingerly to former Bulls signing classmate Marlon Mack.

Who are we kidding? McCants was needling Mack's pride like a pin cushion.

"I said, 'Jordan might be a little bit faster than you,'" McCants told the Bulls' three-time 1,000-yard rusher and Indianapolis Colts tailback. "He just laughed, he kind of smirked. He said, 'I knew my time was gonna come up.' I said, 'We still love you over here, but somebody's got the (record) right now.'"

That somebody is the second-oldest of seven kids (including five girls) who enjoys drawing and typically sits down to a pregame meal of chicken tenders, broccoli and sweet potatoes.

On an overcast New England Saturday, junior Jordan Cronkrite — built eerily similar to Mack — ran for 302 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries in a 58-42 victory against UMass.

The performance eclipsed the USF single-game rushing record shared by Andre Hall and Mack, who gained 275 yards on 24 carries as a last-minute starter in a 36-31 victory against Western Carolina in the 2014 season opener.

"I wanted (Cronkrite) to get 300 yards," Bulls coach Charlie Strong said. "I left him in the game…because the way he had played that night he deserved it."

The Mack-Cronkrite comparisons have wafted around the Selmon Center ever since. There's quite a bit to compare.

A University of Florida transfer, Cronkrite is listed at 5-foot-11, 207 pounds; Mack was listed at 6-foot, 210 pounds his final college season. Both played some safety in high school (Cronkrite at Miami Westminster, Mack at Sarasota Booker) and probably could've flourished on defense at the Division I-A level.

And both are three-down backs with a fourth-gear explosiveness.

"Both backs, they're both gifted," McCants said. "And I tell (Cronkrite), 'It's amazing watching you run, how fast you are and how you can do it.'"

Yet in this deliberation of Bulls backs, perhaps it's wiser for now to cool all jets instead of comparing theirs. Mack, after all, ran for 3,609 career yards and evolved into a fourth-round NFL draft pick.

Whether Cronkrite reaches such stratospheres remains to be seen. But four games into his USF career, one observation appears solid: If this 21-year-old south Floridian isn't a replicate of Mack (who departed after the 2016 season), he's a darn solid replacement.

Which is to say, he appears custom-made for Strong, who sermonizes on establishing the run.

"When he hits that burst, then he takes off and it's hard for guys to go catch him," Strong said. "Has outstanding speed, runs behind his pads, can run through tacklers and does a really good job of just protecting the football. He's an all-around back."

RELATED: USF's Jordan Cronkrite named AAC Offensive Player of the Week

His breakthrough as a Bull (Cronkrite has three consecutive 100-yard games) represents a second lease on his collegiate life. He showed promise in a limited role (157 rushing, 89 receiving yards) at UF as a freshman in 2015, but found himself mired in a tailback logjam the following season, when he managed only 31 carries.

"At the time it wasn't a good situation for me personally, and I didn't feel I could excel athletically," said Cronkrite, a U.S. Army All-American who ran for more than 3,000 yards at Westminster.

"Nothing against them though, it's a great school and a great program. It just wasn't the right fit for me."

When his search for another school commenced, he gravitated to USF. Strong had recruited him while coach at Texas, and Bulls defensive ends coach Damon Cogdell had made an in-home visit with Cronkrite while on West Virginia's staff.

Additionally, Bulls running backs coach Shaun King knew Cronkrite's high school coach, former NFL tailback Sedrick Irvin.

In April 2017, weeks before Mack was drafted, he announced his enrollment at USF, and sat out the ensuing football season per NCAA transfer rules.

Act II of his Division I-A career was postponed a week when he sat the season opener against Elon with a minor undisclosed injury. After a limited stint against Georgia Tech (nine carries, 39 yards), Cronkrite broke out at Illinois, running for 136 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries.

With the Bulls' once-diverse backfield depleted by injuries, Cronkrite (69 carries, 606 yards, five touchdowns) has emerged into a bellcow of sorts. He enters Friday's game at Tulsa ranked third nationally with 151.5 yards per game.

He can thank the coach who helped re-boot his career, and helped him upstage — for at least a day — his prolific predecessor.

"It shows that (Strong) has a lot of love for me," Cronkrite said. "Usually if you have a big game or something like that, like 200 yards, they put everybody else in. He wanted me to get an achievement for myself personally, and I love him for that."

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

USF vs. Tulsa
Where/when: Friday, Chapman Stadium, Tulsa, Okla., 7 p.m.
TV/radio: ESPN, 820-AM