TAMPA — He’s still a fresh-faced kid, a confident, outgoing, full-of-life 19-year-old who fully expected to be spending his college years on somebody’s pitching mound.
But things have changed.
Now, every University of South Florida fan hopes that sophomore quarterback Mike White can throw a season’s worth of touchdown strikes for the Bulls as USF’s football program seeks a big turnaround in Coach Willie Taggart’s second year.
“I love the opportunity to play Division I college football, because not a lot of kids get to do that and it’s my dream,’’ said White, a 6-foot-4, 213-pounder (up from 186 when he entered as a freshman) from Fort Lauderdale. “I thought I would be playing baseball, but I love where I am. It’s an honor. There are perks with being a quarterback. There are stresses, too. But I love it all and wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“My parents and I talk about it all the time. If you would’ve come up to me and said, ‘Listen, you’re going to play college football when you grow up,’ I would’ve thought you were crazy. I was a huge baseball guy. But when I got the chance to play football, I just fell in love with it.’’
In turn, USF teammates have fallen in love with the skills of White, who fought off a spirited challenge from junior Steven Bench, a Penn State transfer, for the starting job.
“I’m definitely excited about Mike White,’’ Bulls junior tight end Sean Price said. “You can definitely see his maturity growing.’’
“It seems like Mike’s abilities have gone to a completely different level,’’ Bulls sophomore running back Darius Tice said.
Last season, in the garbage-time conclusion of a 34-3 home loss against Louisville, Taggart elected to burn the redshirt of White, the fourth USF quarterback to be utilized in 2013. White started the season’s final five games, going 26 of 41 for 311 yards and two touchdowns at Houston in his starting debut.
From there, he got plenty of experience, but didn’t play nearly as well down the stretch. USF closed its season with a six-game losing streak and finished 2-10.
“At Houston, I was so worried about letting my team down,’’ White said. “I wanted to show them they could trust me. I took what the defense gave me, but I was a young freshman, and yeah, I was a little scared.
“After that Houston game, I felt the need to make more plays. Being a quarterback, you’ve got to realize that not every play is going to be a 15-yard completion. Sometimes, you need to throw it away and live to see another down; maybe check the ball down, get 2 or 3 yards. A punt isn’t worst-case scenario. I got away from that thinking, and now I’m determined to be a complete quarterback and just let our playmakers make the plays.’’
Taggart said White has learned his lessons well.
“Mike continues to learn and understand what we’re doing,’’ Taggart said. “He’s one of those guys who hasn’t played a lot of football. He’s only going to get better.’’
That’s what Taggart saw in him on Dec. 9, 2012, the day he was introduced as the third head coach in USF football history. Shortly after his news conference, by telephone, he offered a scholarship to White, who had just led Fort Lauderdale University School to the Class 3A state championship at Orlando’s Citrus Bowl.
“I was on the bus, actually leaving the parking lot of the state game,’’ White said.
That’s when the telephone rang. It was USF assistant Larry Scott, who said he had someone who wanted to speak with White. It was Taggart.
“Coach Taggart said, ‘Listen, I just got out of my press conference. I looked at your film and I want to offer you (a scholarship),’ ” White said. “I knew I wanted to be a Bull right then.’’
White had been to USF camp and knew the campus. One week earlier, as White’s team played in the Class 3A semifinals at Clearwater Central Catholic, USF coaches told him they would watch his performance and decide whether to offer a scholarship.
White, who didn’t throw an incompletion in the first half, was 25 of 29 for 329 yards.
“The coaches told me, ‘We’re offering you, but we just need (head coach) Skip Holtz to sign off on it,’ ” White said. “The very next day, Holtz gets fired. So I thought that whole USF thing was down the drain.
“Then when Coach Taggart got hired, it was back on. I knew this was where I wanted to be. It was a great city, a great school, the program was going in the right direction. I wanted to commit and I got the offer, so that’s all it took. I couldn’t be more excited to be here.’’
Taggart is equally excited to have him, along with the depth USF now enjoys at quarterback with Bench, Evan Wilson and freshman Quinton Flowers.
“The quarterback has to be a different guy,’’ Taggart said. “There’s a part of him that can’t belong to them (teammates). He has to have people skills. He has to lift everybody else up. And even if he’s younger, the others still have to look up to that quarterback.
“I think Mike is that kind of guy.’’