On the field, it looks like any other football practice. Coaches are barking out directions as the players attempt to learn their plays. But something sets this practice apart.
Lining the sidelines are hundreds of scouts and members of the media, analyzing every step each player makes, scribbling notes to examine later. Such is life at college all-star games like the Gridiron Classic.
“I live for the challenge,” cornerback Maurice Tucker said. “That’s what you want. To ever be the best, the best has to rise to the occasion. You’re not ever going to be considered one of the best players if you back down from a challenge.
“I know from my standpoint, and from the other guys from South Florida, we’re ready to step up to the challenge. It’s no pressure. If there weren’t any scouts or a million scouts, we’re going to perform at our best.”
Tucker is one of seven former South Florida players participating in Saturday’s game at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, pitting Team Florida vs. Team USA. The game is for college seniors seeking another chance to impress the pro scouts before the NFL Draft in April. For Tucker and the rest of the USF contingent, it’s a chance for redemption following a 9-2 campaign that ended without a bowl game.
“Not just me, my whole team,” Tucker said. “I feel South Florida is one of the programs on the rise and we have one of the best teams in the country. With a 9-2 record, a lot of people overlooked us, and we didn’t get invited to a bowl. So, it’s not just me. These other guys — (Marquel) Blackwell, (DeAndrew Rubin), Hugh Smith, (Tavares) Jurineack – they’re all making plays. Not just me, I feel the whole team has been overlooked.”
USF has the most players in the game, all of them on Team Florida, which consists of players who were in Florida colleges or high schools. Three-fourths of USF’s defensive line is there, with tackles Greg Walls and Jurineack, joining end Chris Daley. Blackwell is one of three quarterbacks on the Sunshine State team, and he’ll be throwing passes to wideouts Smith and Rubin like he has for the last four years.
“I’ve never caught balls from anyone else,” said Rubin, Blackwell’s teammate since the two were children. “I just wanted to catch balls from a different quarterback. It felt the same, nothing different from Marquel.”
Adjusting to new teammates and learning new terminology in four days are a few of the problems players encounter at all-star games, but Smith said the experience has been a fun ride.
“We’re trying to showcase our talent, and it’s going to be a fun game,” Smith said. “We’ve made a lot of friends this week, and it seems like everybody gets along. I really can’t complain. I was telling (Rubin) yesterday, ‘It’s a great opportunity to be here. Feels like a dream come true.'”
As a unit, the USF players can bring a lot of respect to their team, but in the end it’s an individual quest to reach the pros.
“At a certain point, you have to feel it’s about you, but inside, I’m always a Bull until the day I die,” Daley said.
“I have family there, close friends that I shared four years of my life (with). And no one can take that away, no matter where I go or what I do. I will always represent USF for the rest of my life and, hopefully, they’ll always represent me.”