From freshman replacement to budding star, USF’s Marlon Mack has experienced it all

Since his breakout performance as a freshman last season, Mack has been honored as a candidate for the Maxwell and Doak Walker awards, given to the best player and premiere running back, respectively. ORACLE FILE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU

On the eve of his collegiate debut, Marlon Mack remembers feeling content.

Then a true freshman, the heralded running back was only expecting to see a few carries here and there against Division I-AA Western Carolina last August. Maybe he could snag a few more toward the end of the fourth quarter if USF managed to blow it open.

“Our (former) running backs coach, (Telly) Lockette was telling me I was only going to get a few carries,” Mack said. “But I wouldn’t get as many as I think I would. Maybe one or two — maybe even five.”

But when game day rolled around, everything changed.

Shortly before the team was supposed to leave the locker room at Raymond James Stadium for warm ups, coach Willie Taggart called Mack into his office to tell him he’d better prepare, too. 

He was going to start because Darius Tice tweaked his knee.

“I mean, I was shocked,” Mack said. “I was just like, am I ready for it? It was all just in my mind.”

Elevating the pressure even more was the fact he had to think about it for 69 extra minutes because of weather delay. 

But when time finally came to show what he was all about, Mack never looked back.

***

Much of what the world —beyond the confines of USF’s football program — knew about Mack remained a mystery last season. Hidden behind the veil of Taggart’s policy that bans freshmen from speaking to the media, Mack never put a voice to the player that grew into the nickname of “Mack Attack.”

Those who follow the team, however, knew the potential Mack had to blossom into a star.

He was a four-star recruit coming out of Sarasota’s Booker High. He racked up 1,527 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns his senior season, and had contributed as a defensive back with 110 tackles and four interceptions.

Mack’s offers stretched from coast to coast with Michigan, Louisville, UCLA and Nebraska trying to get a piece of the two-way standout. He even pledged to UCLA and flirted with Louisville for a short time before settling on USF less than a month before signing day.

But off the field, Mack considers himself a regular college student.

“I’m a nice guy,” Mack said with a laugh. “You could say I’m shy, because I don’t talk a lot. I usually just go out there and do my job. But I’m a cool guy. I’m nice to be around — and kind of funny once I get to know people.”

On the field, it might be easier to compare him to a Mack Truck.

***

Trailing Western Carolina 14-3 late in the first half, the Bulls were desperate for an answer. 

Those who had waited out the weather delay in the stadium grew restless, voicing their displeasure by showering the team with boos.

For USF, which had been embarrassed the year before against a Division I-AA opponent in a 53-21 loss to McNeese State, it was time to turn to Mack. 

After a Marvin Kloss field goal brought the Bulls within eight points of the lead midway through the second quarter, Mack resuscitated USF’s flat-footed offense by busting away for a 62-yard touchdown run.

Then, after another field goal by Kloss cut the deficit to one at halftime, Mack broke away for another long score, a 60-yard scamper on his fifth carry of the half to give the Bulls a lead they would never surrender. 

In front of a raucous student section in the north end zone, Mack stopped and posed with his hands on his hips. 

After two more touchdowns, Mack finished with 275 yards to equal Andre Hall’s single-game mark and set a new AAC record. 

A legend had been born.

“That was a show,” Taggart said after the game. “I told our football team before the game that some people show up under the spotlight and some people run away. The spotlight came and he showed up and showed out.”

As hard as it might be to believe, Mack said he didn’t know just how good he was playing until he looked up at the scoreboard in the fourth quarter.

“All I really was worried about was getting the W,” Mack said. “My teammates just kept telling me, ‘Keep getting touchdowns, so we can win.’”

So, that’s what Mack did. But his breakout performance didn’t stop with his debut against the Catamounts. 

Three weeks later, on a rainy Friday night, Mack rushed for 103 yards and one touchdown against UConn. Then, at Tulsa on Oct. 18, he helped lead USF back from a 20-point shortfall at halftime to a 38-30 victory with 134 yards and two more touchdowns — including a 34-yarder. 

Mack dipped, juked and scurried his way into the USF record book by becoming only the fourth back in program history to compile 1,000 yards in a season with 1,041, and the first since dual-threat quarterback B.J. Daniels in 2009.

He was also named the AAC’s rookie of the year and earned a first-team spot on the all-conference list.

“It was an amazing eye-opener,” Mack said. “I was going under the radar and nobody really knew about me until after that first game. It was a shocker, but it was nice, though.”

***

He’s the centerpiece of the team poster. He’s been featured in preview magazines, highlight shows and is a candidate for the Maxwell and Doak Walker awards, given to the best player in college football and the premiere running back, respectively.

Even Taggart has hyped up his sophomore, telling reporters in early August during AAC media days in Rhode Island that he believes Mack has a chance to rush for more than 1,000 yards.

But Mack doesn’t pay much attention to preseason predictions and what might happen. His only focus is Saturday’s opener against Florida A&M.

“I just try to do what I can and what I’m capable of,” he said.

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