Charlotte High School graduate Elijah Mack didn’t come into his first season at the University of South Florida with the mindset needed to find early success.
Though he was slated to sit behind starters Darius Tice and D’Ernest Johnson as a redshirt freshman regardless, coming into his first two seasons missing the humble chip on his shoulder surely didn’t help his cause.
Now entering his redshirt sophomore season, Mack is letting his bruising play do the talk, which is helping him rise in the Bulls’ running back pecking order and enter the starter discussion.
“Maturity,” USF running backs coach Shaun King said. “I think that’s the word to attach to Elijah. He’s always been talented, always been skilled, but like a lot of incoming freshmen that were highly-recruited, high-profile guys, he lacked maturity when he got here.
“It’s come together now, he’s a different person on the grass and off the grass. I think he’s in a really good spot right now. You can always see the talent and the skill. I’m really proud of the strides he’s made. He’s really turned into one of the leaders on offense and I think he’s gonna have a big year.”
Mack was the man while donning the blue and yellow of the Fighting Tarpons. He was named to the Florida All-State Class 6A Second Team after rushing for 1,280 yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior. He rushed for 1,120 yards and 16 touchdowns as a junior.
He was a 3-star recruit, according to 247Sports, and set foot on USF in 2016 with a heap of confidence — maybe a bit too much.
But once at the collegiate level, he realized quickly that he was far from the comforts of Charlotte County.
“In high school you’re the guy and here you have to work your way up the ladder,” Mack said. “I kind of learned right off the bat that I was gonna have to work to get where I wanna be. I just try and focus on doing my job. I let coach handle the minutes and playing time part of the game.”
It’s not unlike when Mack first arrived at Charlotte High School where coach Binky Waldrop tried to mold him into a top runner. He was talented, but raw, and Waldrop could see what he could become.
“We had a little work to do when he got here,” Waldrop said. “We had some bad habits to break, but he did a great job. He responded. He got better as he went. We’re all very proud of him.”
Mack is in the midst of a wide-open position race and has been mentioned as a candidate to start at tailback.
In April on 620 WDAE’s morning radio show, USF coach Charlie Strong said Mack was “separating himself” in the battle for that lead spot, adding that he “is the guy that really has what you’re looking for at the running back position.”
Mack had a similarly strong spring in 2017, but managed just three carries in his first full season.
This season he’s looking to return to more of a featured roll, though he will split carries with teammate Jordan Cronkrite, who transferred from the University of Florida. King says Mack’s physical play style brings something the other backs can’t duplicate.
“He’s a tough physical runner,” King said. “He’s a high-energy guy, who’s elusive for his size. He does a lot of good things. You see him out there and he looks like a back’s supposed to look.”
The Fighting Tarpons ran the Wing-T offense and 6-foot-1, 225-pound Mack was the battering ram. He was an every down back that could lower the boom on defenders at will. Running a similar style as a Bull, Mack feels increasingly comfortable in the second year of Strong’s scheme.
“We’re a downhill running style,” Mack said. “It’s pretty much the same thing (from high school). It’s a running game I’m pretty used to.”
USF is far from a Wing-T offense and uses a committee rather than one bellcow. That was frustrating for Mack, who was used to getting 20-30 carries a game in high school.
Though he will most likely split carries, if he gets rolling in a game, the coaching staff knows they can continue to feed him if needed.
“He’s used to carrying the load and we’re looking for a work horse guy,” King said. “He’s got the body type and has the track record of being able to handle a lot of carries.”