No place like home
Even before graduating high school, tight end Mitchell Wilcox knew he wanted to be a Bull.
One of the first recruits to pledge to USF before the 2015 season, he had committed to the Bulls and coach Willie Taggart before his senior year at Tarpon Springs High School.
With the support of his parents, both USF alumni who also attended the first football game in USF history, the decision to stay home was never a difficult choice.
“I wanted to stay close to the family, I thought it would be awesome for my friends to see me play,” Wilcox said. “Plus, I knew from the beginning that USF seemed like a perfect fit for me.”
Growing up just across the Bay in Pinellas County, the 6-foot-4, 248-pound redshirt freshman was a two-sport athlete in high school, playing football and basketball during his time as a Sponger.
As an underclassman at Tarpon Springs, Wilcox’s natural size led him to start his high school career as an offensive tackle on the football field while serving as one the basketball team’s ‘big men.’
It was during his sophomore year that Wilcox would meet Jordan Williams, a vital voice in Wilcox full-time commitment to the gridiron over his pursuit of basketball.
Williams, a former tight end at the University of New Hampshire, was Wilcox’s offensive coordinator at Tarpon Springs.
Wilcox credited Williams with convincing him that the football field was the place to be, making the conversion from offensive lineman to tight end after his sophomore season.
“When I became the offensive coordinator, I just knew how hard he worked and I knew how invaluable a tight end could be to an offense,” Williams said. “Not only is he a good tight end, but a great kid that cares about the sport.”
Converting from tackle to tight end proved to be the right choice for Wilcox, earning him All-Big County Preps First Team Offense his senior year.
His successful position change after the advice of Williams led him to receive offers from Division I schools including Ball State, James Madison and Miami of Ohio before ultimately choosing to stay home to play as a Bull.
Now the offensive coordinator at Land O’ Lakes High School, Williams still keeps in regular contact with his former player. He pointed to Wilcox’s humility and devotion of as an explanation for his early success at USF.
“I think Mitch has always shown loyalty,” Williams said. “We always talked about that in the recruitment process … I never really talked to him about the schools much because I knew he was basically coming (to USF).
“He always felt that USF was very loyal and it was like family to him. It was very similar (to Tarpon Springs) … he felt like he could fall in line — which he has — and adapt to the culture of what USF has going on.”
With Taggart leading the program in the right direction after a 7-2 start to 2016, Wilcox said that his timing in becoming a Bull couldn’t have been better.
“It was just a good fit,” Wilcox said. “Being honest, the program was on the up-rise. But, it seemed like everything was in place … and look what it is now.”
Since burning his redshirt, Wilcox has seen his role develop substantially this season.
After starting in a backup roll, an injury to starting tight end Elkanah Dillon saw Wilcox thrust into his first career start in the Bulls’ most high-profile game of the season, a 55-35 loss to then-No. 13 Florida State.
Highlighted by a 51-yard touchdown grab against the Seminoles, his longest play of the season, Mitchell has become an explosive downfield threat for the Bulls with eight catches for 200 yards and two scores.
“It’s been almost surreal,” Wilcox said. “I didn’t think I’d be playing this much, but I feel like I’m built for this. I played almost every single play in high school, and now I’m playing upwards of 50 plays a game here … I think I can continue to do that, I just have to keep working on my technique.”
Despite beginning to show up in the offensive stat line, Wilcox prides himself most on blocking for an explosive Bulls’ backfield.
Wilcox said one of his most memorable college moments has already happened, doing just that.
While on the road in Cincinnati this year, Wilcox was on the field for a piece of USF history as junior running back Marlon Mack passed Andre Hall as USF’s all-time leading rusher.
Not only was Wilcox on the field, his block was the one that set Mack free.
Lining up to Mack’s right, Wilcox laid a block on Bearcats defender Mike Tyson that would leave the safety upside down, creating a gaping hole for Mack to run 49 yards into the end zone and the history books.
“Personally, I really like that,” Wilcox said. “It was very sentimental to me.”
With only a handful of games remaining in his freshman season, Wilcox is confident that staying close to home was the right move.
“It’s just as good as I envisioned it,” Wilcox said. “I really feel at home here. There is a really great support system through my family, friends, and the Bulls’ family. I definitely feel at home and I feel like I made the right decision coming here.”