QB's quick arrival not a moment too soon for USF

Published September 7, 2006

TAMPA - It was only a 6-yard pass, not even good for a first down, but the play brought a surprising, resounding cheer from the crowd at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday night.

Even before he had rallied the Bulls to a 41-10 victory against McNeese State, USF fans recognized that Matt Grothe had arrived.

For a football program that has struggled to find a star quarterback since Marquel Blackwell in 2002, the redshirt freshman had represented hope for the future. And after Saturday's debut - with two passing touchdowns, one rushing score and a 6-for-6 second half - he has quickly become USF's present, a new source of excitement since being named the starting quarterback Monday.

"I really didn't think much about it. Just happy," said Grothe, a softspoken 19-year-old with short-cropped black hair, whose aw-shucks calm belies a competitive drive. "I don't think I played as good as everybody said I did. I can definitely get better."

That could easily sum up USF's quarterback play in recent years, with a total of eight passing touchdowns in each of the past two seasons. Senior Pat Julmiste, with 24 career starts, was initially sidelined by a thigh bruise, but may never recover his place in the starting lineup.

Like Julmiste, Grothe is comfortable with the media, walking barefoot into a room of reporters for USF's weekly news conference Tuesday.

Grothe has emerged quickly enough that fans who don't yet know how to pronounce his name are chanting it anyway. For the record, think growth-ee, like trophy.

"Growth, groth," he said, wearing a yellow LIVESTRONG bracelet on his right wrist, given to him by his younger brother, David. "I hear it a lot of ways."

On Saturday, one day after his 20th birthday, he'll hear it as starting quarterback. USF coach Jim Leavitt said what he liked best about Grothe's debut was the way he reacted to problems, such as a fumbled snap in the red zone that spoiled a 64-yard pass to tight end Cedric Hill.

"I thought he handled adversity pretty well," Leavitt said. "He didn't do real well right away. There were some mistakes. I think he just stayed focused on the game. With some guys, when you bring them in like that, there are mistakes there, and they may not continue to go after it. I think that was important to me."

Leavitt saw enough from Grothe in four weeks of preseason practice to trust his leadership.

One morning, when USF had a scrimmage scheduled that night, Leavitt found nine players who weren't wearing thigh pads. Knowing the risk of injury, Leavitt sent the players back to USF's athletic facility to get their pads; Grothe ran there and back, while the rest showed up 10 minutes later, having walked both ways and drawn the ire of their coach.

Grothe showed confidence in himself just by coming to USF. He made an oral commitment in July 2004 before his senior season, then stuck with it even as the Bulls landed a coveted recruit in Carlton Hill and a scholarship transfer in Indiana's Grant Gregory. As he redshirted last season, the Bulls signed two more quarterbacks. Of those four, only Gregory remains as a quarterback at USF.

"There were times when I'd have a bad practice, and I'd say, 'C---, I'm going to be forgotten about,' " he said.

Physically, Grothe isn't all that memorable at first. He's not exactly towering - USF actually lists him an inch shorter (at 6 feet) than it did last year - and doesn't throw balls 70 yards from his knees. But ask coaches who have gone up against him, and they're not surprised at his success Saturday.

"He's not the tallest or the fastest, doesn't have a great arm, but we think he was the best quarterback we faced in those two years," said Armwood coach Sean Callahan, who beat Grothe's Lake Gibson team in the 2003 and 2004 state championship games.

As a sophomore, Grothe led Lake Gibson into Armwood and won a second-round playoff game. Armwood hasn't lost at home since.

"He finds a way to win. He just produces," Callahan said. "He's one of the most competitive kids I've ever coached against."

Grothe's success Saturday can only be so surprising after a stellar career at Lake Gibson in which he twice earned first-team all-state honors. Grothe was a finalist for Mr. Football in 2004, finishing ahead of current Gators quarterback Tim Tebow.

Grothe's athleticism was evident at Lake Gibson, where in each of his final two seasons, he passed for more than 2,000 yards and rushed for more than 1,000. He totaled 58 passing touchdowns in those two seasons, rushing for another 29 scores.

His USF teammates said they expected him to do well Saturday, having seen the way he runs their offense in practice.

"I wasn't surprised the way he came out and played," said receiver Marcus Edwards, who caught a 47-yard touchdown from Grothe. "He's comfortable at practice, and it was just like practice."

Even Saturday night, hours after his Bulls debut, Grothe had his first glimpse of celebrity. Walking with friends on campus, he was greeted by a student who invited him to join his fraternity; while flattered, Grothe politely declined.

"I don't have enough time for all that," he said.

By Sunday morning, his facebook.com had 20 new "friend requests."

"It's weird, seeing people I've never met in my life congratulating me," he said.

Thinking back to the fraternity, he flashes a freshman grin, saying he'd already forgotten the Greek letters of his suitor.

"They're having cookouts next week," he said. "I told him I'd think about going. Maybe I'll come and eat."