TAMPA, Fla. — On a hot, muggy night inside Raymond James Stadium, Quinton Flowers stood 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage in an empty-back set. Illinois had six defenders ready to rush Flowers. Surely one would get a clean run at the USF quarterback.

Illinois defensive back Cameron Watkins was that guy. Lined up outside of USF’s right tackle, Watkins blitzed untouched into the backfield, where it was just him against Flowers.

That was all she wrote. For Watkins, that is.

One side step to Flowers’ right sent Watkins sliding across the slick turf. Flowers rolled out to his throwing side just inside the 50-yard line. He could have run for the first down if he wanted to. But Flowers had his eyes downfield, just as USF coach Charlie Strong says he always does. Streaking toward the end zone was a wide open receiver. Flowers planted his feet and threw a perfect, 47-yard strike for an easy touchdown.

There was really nothing easy about it, yet it was exactly the play USF fans had grown accustomed to seeing from their senior quarterback. It didn’t surprise anyone that the No. 22 Bulls (the only ranked Group of 5 team) were 17-point favorites to cruise past Illinois at home. After all, they had a Heisman Trophy candidate on their side.

Perhaps by now, oddsmakers realized that Flowers has some extra motivation against Power 5 competition.

“Yeah, they mean a lot,” Flowers said about playing Power 5 teams. “A lot of people doubted me coming out of high school. A lot of people doubted me when I got to college. Some people still do it.

“But at the end of the day, I just go out there and do what’s best. I don’t care what people say or how they do it. I just go out there and play for myself, my team and my family.”

Flowers, a Miami native, was offered a scholarship from plenty of Power 5 schools like Illinois. In fact, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Tennessee recruited him. But USF was the only program that guaranteed Flowers he’d stay at the position he loved.

“When I came here, USF was 2-10. People asked me ‘Why there? Why USF? Why you wanna be there?’” Flowers said. “I just told people that I always wanted to be different. I don’t want to go to Alabama and be a receiver or sit behind somebody when I can start my own legacy.”

Now, Flowers is looking to cap that legacy with one more loud statement to the SEC and Power 5 teams that passed on him.

They could’ve had a star.

Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Flowers’ ankle-breaking touchdown pass against Illinois turned out to be the first of his five scores in the blowout win. The last time he accomplished that feat was in the 2016 Birmingham Bowl when he led USF to an overtime victory against South Carolina. Flowers earned MVP honors, which meant a little something extra considering who he did it against.

Before Will Muschamp led South Carolina against Flowers in the Birmingham Bowl, he was the head coach at Florida. Muschamp offered the dual-threat quarterback. But like the others, Muschamp didn’t think Flowers could play quarterback in the SEC. Flowers was listed at 6-0, 203 pounds, though both of those figures might’ve been a stretch.

"A lot of people doubted me coming out of high school. A lot of people doubted me when I got to college. Some people still do it."
USF quarterback Quinton Flowers

Nevertheless, Flowers didn’t need to be 6-6, 240 to show Muschamp that he could indeed play the position. Perhaps Flowers could’ve been the answer to Florida’s post-Tim Tebow quarterback struggles.

At USF, Flowers did something that Tebow never did. In 2016, Flowers became the first college quarterback in the state of Florida to throw for 2,000 yards and run for 1,000 yards in a single season.

What about the competition, you ask?

In Flowers’ three seasons as USF’s starter, he played against seven Power 5 teams (with a 4-3 record). Compare Flowers’ numbers vs. Power 5 competition on a 12-game pace to Tebow’s 12-game pace his senior year:

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Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson was also a 3-star dual-threat quarterback recruit from South Florida. The SEC whiffed on him, too.

Flowers’ teammates see the comparison.

“He’s a lot like Lamar Jackson. They’re very similar,” USF running back D’Ernest Johnson said of Flowers. “He’s just blessed, man.”

It’s hard to argue with that. Facing a 3rd-and-7 with four Illini defenders chasing him back to the USF goal line, Flowers threw off his back foot to an uncovered Johnson in the middle of the field for a 20-yard gain. The play was Jackson-esque.

No wonder Johnson thinks Flowers deserves to be in the same conversation as Jackson and Baker Mayfield.

Not surprisingly, Flowers’ five-touchdown performance against Illinois moved him up to No. 14 on the Las Vegas Westgate Superbook Heisman Trophy odds. Only two SEC quarterbacks (Nick Fitzgerald and Jalen Hurts) are higher.

“He’s a lot like Lamar Jackson. They’re very similar. He’s just blessed, man.”
USF running back D'Ernest Johnson

But Flowers knows that even as the top Group of 5 candidate, the odds aren’t in his favor. Illinois was the only Power 5 school on USF’s schedule in 2017. Unless his numbers far exceed the likes of fellow dual-threat quarterbacks like Fitzgerald, Hurts and Jackson, there’s not a lot he can do to earn a place on the short list of Heisman candidates.

“As a non-Power 5 school, we always get looked over,” Flowers said. “At the end of the day, we’ve still just gotta go out there and play. I don’t worry about the awards. As long as my team is happy and we winnin’, we fine.”

Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

On National Signing Day in 2014, then-USF coach Willie Taggart caught some heat. His lone quarterback signee was Flowers, who was labeled an undersized, run-first quarterback from Miami. A reporter asked Taggart about Flowers not fitting into the mold of a rangy, pocket passer that was needed to operate in a power-run offense.

“Neither (does) Russell Wilson or Johnny Football,” Taggart fired back, referring to Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. “… they aren’t rangy, either, but they’re football players, they know how to play football. They’re tough, smart and highly competitive people.

“That’s what we’re looking for, and I think that’s what you get out of Quinton Flowers.”

By Taggart’s own high standards, Flowers somehow lived up to his former coach’s comparison.

During Taggart’s final season at USF in 2016, he watched Flowers set program records in total offense (4,447 yards), rushing (1,530 yards), passing touchdowns (24), total touchdowns (42) and a slew of others.

“When I came here, USF was 2-10. People asked me ‘Why there? Why USF? Why you wanna be there?’ I just told people that I always wanted to be different. I don’t want to go to Alabama and be a receiver or sit behind somebody when I can start my own legacy.”
USF quarterback Quinton Flowers

Against Memphis, Flowers had another record-setting day. He set the all-time mark for rushing yards (210) by an American Athletic Conference quarterback, he became the first AAC player (14th in FBS) to rush for 200 yards and throw for 200 yards in the same game, and he racked up 473 yards of total offense (a USF record). Oh, and he scored five touchdowns.

In the middle of the night after USF’s big road victory that day, Taggart took to social media to give his quarterback some overdue attention.

Four weeks after that tweet, Taggart was introduced as the new head coach at Oregon. He became one of the top coaching commodities after a Flowers-led USF squad went from two wins in 2013 to a 10-2 mark in 2016.

Flowers elected to finish his college career at USF and be the key remaining piece to the beginning of the Strong era. When Strong sees Flowers make throws like the one he made off his back foot on his own goal line, he gets a friendly reminder.

“There’s not many guys like that,” Strong said.

Inevitably, Flowers will continue to rack up school records and go down as arguably the most prolific player in program history. USF will likely be favored to run the table and could even earn the Group of 5 spot in a New Year’s Six bowl.

But even if Flowers doesn’t get the chance to end his career with one more big statement against a Power 5 team, he won’t have any regrets on betting on himself to become a college quarterback.

“Even people that come on visits, I tell them everything I was doing when I was getting recruited. It’s not about going to a big school and just being a guy,” Flowers said. “I came to USF and I wanted to be the guy. I wanted to be doing what I’m doing now. I always wanted to be a difference-maker.”

As plenty of SEC and other Power 5 programs search for their guy, Flowers will continue to put up big numbers for USF. He carries those doubts with him every time he steps onto the field. Whether it’s a blitzing defender or a next-level talent evaluator, Flowers developed a bit of a habit.

Making people miss.