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20 For 20 New Inductee: Marlon Mack

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The third new inductee to our group of the best USF players ever is the only current player on the list, and he has a chance to go down as the best player of them all.

NCAA Football: Memphis at South Florida Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Marlon Mack, RB (2014-present)

No one has ever made an entrance to USF football like Marlon Mack did. Certainly USF football has never needed someone to make an entrance as badly as they needed Marlon Mack to make one.

USF’s football program was at its lowest point ever when the 2014 season started. Their BCS status was officially gone. They were coming off a year where they were probably lucky to have even won two games. It was a chore to watch them play football. People were saying the Bulls could lose to their season-opening FCS payday opponent for the second year in a row, and they weren’t really kidding. Yes, there was a new athletic director, a new staff, and a new spirit behind the scenes. But still, how could you possibly sell that program to anyone?

Don’t forget how that Western Carolina game went, either. The Bulls couldn’t get their defense off the field early and fell behind 14-6 in the second quarter. I was on the sidelines taking pictures for most of that game. You could feel the impending meltdown/mutiny starting to build. That is, until the highly-touted true freshman from Sarasota’s Booker High School burst through the right side for a 62-yard touchdown. Instant relief.

Mack eased the jittery crowd’s nerves two more times. USF was still trailing 17-16 in the third quarter when he broke off a 60-yard replica of his first touchdown to finally give the Bulls the lead. Then in the fourth quarter, after the Catamounts closed to within 30-24, Mack turned in his best run of the night, a shifty, tackle-breaking, how-did-he-do-that 56-yard touchdown run that put the game away. The Bulls won 36-31, and Mack tied two school records with 275 yards rushing and four touchdowns, on top of saving the program from a bottomless pit of despair. All in his first game.

Unfortunately Mack couldn’t do that every week. The Bulls had arguably their worst defense ever, and even when they could afford to run the ball, USF’s inefficient passing game made it easy for opponents to gang up on the run. Still, Mack did reach 1000 yards rushing on the season and averaged over five yards per carry. More importantly, he was a light at the end of the tunnel. If nothing else came out of that season, and not much did, we knew USF had one really good player to try and build around.

It didn’t take very long for that building to take place. The Gulf Coast Offense gives an elusive, patient, and deceptively fast runner like Mack everything he could ever want. Inviting defensive fronts to run against. Defenders who have to try and stop him in space. Clear running lanes. Downfield passing to keep the secondary honest and out of his way. It’s a great setup, and Mack took full advantage last year. Even though he only had eight more carries than he did in 2014, he broke Andre Hall’s single-season rushing record with 1381 yards (averaging 6.6 yards per carry) and scored nine touchdowns. He probably would have had a lot more yards, but he missed one game with an injury and came out of three others early because the Bulls had insurmountable leads. Mack went over 100 yards rushing nine times, and his only subpar game was against Navy, when the Bulls only had the ball for six minutes in the second half.

There could yet be an even better game in Mack’s future, but against 22nd-ranked Temple last November, he played his best game in a USF uniform so far. Against an Owls defense that was tough against the run all season, Mack torched them for 230 yards and two scores, plus a third as a receiver. His final run, a sideline-tightroping, ankle-breaking 48-yard touchdown, sealed USF’s 44-23 win, their first over a ranked opponent since 2011.

We’ve talked about the potential for Marlon Mack to leave after this season for the NFL Draft. If he does, that’s fine with us. Running backs take such a pounding that if they’re good enough to go pro, we don’t think there’s any reason for them to stick around and take more hits for free. It’s likely that Mack breaks all of USF’s career rushing records this season. Even if he doesn’t come back for his senior year and put those records completely out of reach, Mack will still be one of the greatest players — possibly the greatest — that USF has ever had.

(Turn down the volume if you’re watching this video at work.)

Click on the “20 For 20” box at the top of this story to see all previous inductees. Five new players are being added to the original group of 15 this year, and they are being announced in alphabetical order. The first two new players were B.J. Daniels and Andre Davis.