The list of USF’s all-time leaders in sacks reads like a “Who’s Who” of the program’s most illustrious defensive players, both in green and gold and beyond. Number one, George Selvie, was a consensus All-American; number two, Stephen Nicholas, played six years in the NFL with the Falcons, and number three, Terrence Royal, enjoyed a handful of seasons on both sides of the ball with the local and now-defunct Tampa Bay Storm of the AFL.
It’s a bit surprising, then, that number four isn’t showing up on any draft boards. Traverse through the pages and pages of virtual literature on the 2018 NFL Draft, and the friendliest projection you’ll find for Bruce Hector, the man who’s led the Bulls in sacks for each of the last three seasons, is a rather lukewarm scouting report from NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein, who writes, “[Hector] could be a late round addition with a shot at being a backup.”
“It is what it is,” Hector says. “I don’t really look at it. All it takes is one team to love me.”
If he appears unfazed, it’s because he’s already made a career out of overcoming long odds. A composite two-star recruit out of local Robinson High, Hector caught the eye of then-USF coach Skip Holtz, who gave the young lineman his only offer from a power conference team. When Holtz was fired in December of 2012, Hector became a bit of an afterthought in Willie Taggart’s highly-acclaimed first recruiting class. Taggart’s signing day class consisted of 25 players; 247 Sports ranked Hector 21st of the bunch.
He recalls those days now with a chuckle and a quiet confidence.
“When I came to USF, I knew I was one of the underrated guys,” he says. “I didn’t have all the stars and stuff, but all of that goes out the window the first day of summer. All those stars don’t get you wins.”
He would know. Hector has become remarkably familiar with wins during the course of his USF career. Since bursting onto the scene as a redshirt sophomore in 2015, Hector and his fellow seniors have spearheaded what is inarguably the greatest three-year stretch in program history. From 2012 to 2014, the Bulls posted a 9-27 record; from 2015 onward, they’ve gone 29-9.
While he’s picked up his share of individual accolades (he earned Second Team All-AAC honors after his senior season, and his 18 career sacks are tied for the fifth-highest total in the conference’s admittedly brief history), the moments Hector relishes most from his time in green and gold are, fittingly, the times in which the Bulls found themselves on the wrong side of a David vs. Goliath showdown.
Our conversation drifts from the 2015 preseason, when virtually no one but the coaches and players themselves belived the Bulls to have a shot at a successful season, to the 2016 Birmingham Bowl against South Carolina, when USF earned their first bowl win since 2010.
“They were talking, everybody’s saying, ‘we’re gonna run all over you,” he says, recalling his interactions with the Gamecocks during the pregame festivies. “They just thought they had this swagger. They thought they were gonna beat us bad, but that was one of the best games our defensive line played.”
It was one of Hector’s best games as well. Against the only SEC offensive line he would face in college, he matched his career highs with two sacks and three tackles for loss. Add in a five-tackle, two-TFL performance against Florida State the same season, and it’s safe to say that the former two-star has proven himself against top-tier talent.
Statistics aside, it’s not difficult to see how an NFL team could become enamored with Hector. For a near-300-pound interior lineman, he’s remarkably athletic - his 4.94 40-yard dash at USF’s Pro Day would have been the third-fastest time among defensive tackles at the NFL Combine, and his 33.5-inch vertical leap would’ve placed him second. He’s versatile, too, having played all across the defensive line throughout his Bulls career, in both three and four-man fronts.
Most impressive of all is the ease with which Hector talks about football. During our conversation, he recalls the specifics of Tom Allen’s vaunted 4-2-5 defense from 2015 (“More movement across the line [...] and more freedom up front, freeing up gaps for the linebackers”), and breaks down the Bulls’ new, fluid scheme under Charlie Strong and Brian Jean-Mary (“We ran a lot more 3-3, dropped the end a lot”) as simply and methodically as one might recite a mathematical formula.
This isn’t surprising from Hector, who approaches the game with an academic efficiency. A self-professed film junkie who enjoys the mental side of the game every bit as much as the physical, he cites his knowledge of the sport as one of his greatest attributes and credits his pass-rushing skills to an encylopedic understanding of the tendencies of opposing offenses and offensive linemen.
By the time he reached his senior season, he and defensive end Mike Love would often take play-calling into their own hands, shifting their rushes and routes at will to counteract a certain formation.
“They always say that the NFL is 90% mental,” he says. “That won’t be much of a change for me.”
When we talk about the legacy he and his senior class have left behind in Tampa, however, his stoicism cracks for a moment, and the enthusiasm in this voice is tangible.
“That’s what we came here to do,” he says. “Coach T came into my living room and talked about turning this program around, and that’s what we did. The first two ten-win seasons. The winningest seniors of all time. It’s a great feeling.”
Now, with just hours left before the draft, Hector can’t help but notice the parallels between his 18-year-old self, fighting to prove himself at USF, and the potential draftee he is today, fighting to prove himself to NFL scouts.
“I’ve been here before,” he says. “I’ve just got to keep working, keep believing, and everything is gonna work out.”
It’s a formula that hasn’t failed him yet.