TAMPA — Once, Marcus Shaw was a very big deal. Once, every time he touched the football, small-town fans gasped in anticipation of another highlight-reel touchdown run. Once, he thought it would always be that way.
Now he knows better.
College football hasn’t been easy for Shaw, a senior running back at the University of South Florida. He has struggled academically. He didn’t always work hard and occasionally wasn’t on time. There were scattered injuries.
At Arcadia DeSoto High School, where they take football very seriously, Shaw motored for 34 rushing touchdowns as a senior. In three seasons at USF, he has just three.
So, why does Bulls first-year coach Willie Taggart get so excited at the prospect of building his running game around Shaw?
“I’m seeing the guy I remember from high school, all that potential, and I think Marcus has the capability of becoming the running back we all know he can be,’’ said Taggart, who tried to recruit Shaw to Western Kentucky University.
“Marcus knows this is his year to put up or shut up,’’ said USF running backs coach Telly Lockette, former head coach at Miami Central High.
Here is Shaw’s perspective:
“It has been a long journey for me. Now I know how much it means to me. I want to work hard and be as perfect as I can, every opportunity I get.’’
Shaw, a 5-foot-9, 178-pounder, suffered a high ankle sprain in last season’s opener, causing him to miss two games. He never really caught up, finishing with 248 rushing yards and catching eight passes.
With the departures of Demetris Murray and Lindsey Lamar, last season’s primary ball-carriers, it’s probably Shaw’s job to lose. There is additional promise in the backfield — notably junior-college transfer Michael Pierre, plus freshmen Darius Tice and Sta’fon McCray — but it is unproven.
“Right now, Marcus is taking the young guys and going over the playbook with them, showing them the right things to do,’’ Lockette said. “Marcus always said he didn’t have anybody to grab his hand and show him. Now he feels like it’s his turn to show the young guys. That’s working to his advantage.’’
Learning the playbook, mastering pass-protection techniques, accepting responsibility, that wasn’t part of his game plan at DeSoto.
“I just got the ball and ran,’’ Shaw said.
In 2009, he led all Florida prep rushers with 2,380 yards, an 11.3-yard average. Against Estero, he ran eight times for 344 yards, with touchdowns of 72, 44, 80, 40 and 68 yards.
“I heard Marcus was the man,’’ Murray said. “I’ve actually been to Arcadia. It’s one of those places where ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’ is on the same sign. There were a lot of cows and horses. I think I saw a rodeo in the middle of town. I’m sure when you’re the man in a smaller place and you come to a big school, it’s like, ‘Wow!’ Everything is bigger and faster.’’
“Kids from that area are pretty tough kids,’’ said former USF running backs coach Larry Scott, now at Miami and a native of Sebring. “It’s a high migrant area. People go to work, come home, go to work, come home. So Marcus was thrown in a different world in the big city. He had a lengthy acclimation period. But he has grown up — a lot.’’
Shaw credits his coaches, his mother, Tammy Jackson, and his faith as the biggest influences on his development.
He won’t make any predictions about this season, simply saying he hopes to play a key role for the Bulls. No worries, Lockette said. That’s going to happen.
Taggart’s offense, an off-shoot of Jim Harbaugh’s brand of football with the San Francisco 49ers, is running back-friendly. At WKU, Bobby Rainey was twice the Sun Belt Conference offensive player of the year, with 1,649 and 1,695 rushing yards in those seasons. Last year, the Hilltoppers featured Antonio Andrews, who rushed for 1,728 yards and accounted for 3,161 all-purpose yards — just 89 shy of Barry Sanders’ record from 1988.
A potential concern is Shaw’s durability and size. Will it translate to Taggart’s smash-mouth offense?
“For what we run, Marcus is not the prototype guy (for) this type of offense,’’ Lockette said. “But he shows some toughness. We’re going to make it happen with him. He can take it the distance at any time. His durability, his size (might prompt questions), but he has the heart of a champion.’’
At long last, the ball is back in Shaw’s hands.
Now he intends to run with it.