USF’s Mitch Wilcox grimaces way to breakthrough season

The Tarpon Springs alumnus has posted a record-setting season despite three ankle injuries
USF tight end Mitch Wilcox (89) has established Bulls single-season records for catches (40) and receiving yards (506) by a tight end. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
USF tight end Mitch Wilcox (89) has established Bulls single-season records for catches (40) and receiving yards (506) by a tight end. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Dec. 19, 2018|Updated Dec. 19, 2018

TAMPA — Everything about his belly flop, from the few steps of acceleration to the liftoff to the chest-first plunge into piercing-cold water, was textbook.

But at only 245 or so pounds, Mitch Wilcox didn't possess the girth essential for such aquatic extremism at this Gasparilla Bowl beach outing on Treasure Island.

Which is to say, for once this season, the rangy tight end couldn't make a big-enough splash.

He'd like to rectify that Thursday night in what could be his final game as a Bull. For the first time in nearly two months, Wilcox feels good — really good — again. Hence his willingness to dive right in to Sunday afternoon's irreverence at the Bilmar Beach Resort pool.

"I did have some good opportunities this year," USF's fourth-year junior tight end said, "but I still believe I can show a lot more and showcase what I can do."

In this paradoxical season, one of USF's most snake-bitten players has remained one of its steadiest. In three separate games, a teammate has rolled up on one of his ankles ("friendly fire," he calls it), causing varying degrees of agony.

Yet the 22-year-old Tarpon Springs High alumnus, who had only 29 career catches entering 2018, still has posted the greatest statistical season by a USF tight end.

He enters Thursday's Gasparilla Bowl with 40 catches for 506 yards, both USF single-season records for his position. His 942 career receiving yards already are the most for any Bulls tight end, and he needs six catches to tie Sean Price's all-time receptions mark (75) for the position.

"He's a great leader just all around," Bulls fifth-year senior slot receiver Tyre McCants said. "Just for him to battle through some of the injuries and toughness that he's gone through just gives you a little extra (incentive) to go. … It's kinda like, 'If you can do it, I can give my all, too.'"

Bulls coach Charlie Strong is more succinct. "Mitch is a warrior," he said.

And at various junctures this season, a wincing one.

The first injury, to his left ankle, occurred in Game Four against East Carolina, where he didn't record a catch. Mercifully, a bye week followed.

Three weeks after the ECU game, Wilcox had five catches for 95 yards in a 25-24 win at Tulsa. The last two occurred on the Bulls' game-winning scoring drive, including a 15-yard catch over the middle from Blake Barnett on third-and-10 with 43 seconds remaining and no timeouts.

Two weeks later, on the second play of the second quarter at Houston, a teammate rolled up on his right ankle. With his then-unbeaten team trailing 14-0 at that point, Wilcox had trainers secure the ankle with tape and re-entered. He had two third-quarter receptions on a field-goal drive in a 57-36 loss.

"I just would have been sick to my stomach if I had sat out, just knowing that I could have made a play in that game," he said.

"So, unfortunately, in that game and I'd say a couple of other games, I couldn't quite get the power and the leg drive that I wanted in some run-game opportunities. But I just tried to do the best I could with what I was working with."

The final setback — a re-aggravation of the left ankle injury — occurred early in USF's 27-17 loss at Temple. Six days later, the ankle still throbbing, he suited up for the showdown with UCF. Operating mainly on adrenaline, Wilcox led the Bulls with five catches for 38 yards.

Five days later, he was named a first-team All-American Athletic Conference tight end. No other Bull earned first-team recognition.

"Mitch has played amazing. Extremely tough," Bulls junior linebacker Greg Reaves said.

"I've seen him going through the training room … going through the treatment. Hot tub, cold tub, just in here day-in and day-out. I know he's missed a couple of games, but he's still had an amazing season and is playing phenomenal for us."

The breakthrough has been so profound, Wilcox acknowledges he has had his NFL draft status "evaluated." The process is certain to continue with the NFL's College Advisory Committee, which annually advises underclassmen on their draft potential.

Related: Could Gasparilla Bowl be Mitch Wilcox's USF finale?

But instead of sitting out Thursday's game and risking further ankle aggravation, he views this contest against Marshall — 23rd in Division I-A in total defense — as an opportunity to put another solid performance on tape.

"No matter what my job description is in the bowl game," he said, "I'm gonna try and do it and execute it to the best of my ability."

Without a wince, for a change.

"That's part of the game and it's what I signed up for," he said. "You're never gonna be playing the game without something. Something is gonna be bothering you or nagging you, but you've got to fight through it."

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

Gasparilla Bowl
USF vs. Marshall, Raymond James Stadium, 8
TV/radio: ESPN; 820-AM, 98.3-FM