When his team fell behind by 17 early on the road last weekend against a Power 5 team, Quinton Flowers didn't sense any panic on the South Florida sideline. The Bulls quarterback took control of the situation, gathering his teammates and reminding them to let it rip the same way they do every day in practice.
"It's fun. Everybody's loose. Everybody's happy to be around each other," Flowers said. "We're playing for each other. We go out there and practice and we're all happy to be there and happy to be around each other and have fun. Once I said that, a lot of the guys were like: 'That's what we've got to do, we just have to play our game like we're playing in our backyard.' Thats what we did and we started clicking."
Flowers concedes such an in-game turnaround like Saturday's 45-3 run at Syracuse was much easier said than done last season, his first full campaign as a starter. And yet, the growing up Flowers has done between his sophomore and junior seasons is the product of a big-picture approach he's had no choice but to take his whole life.
Flowers and USF enter Saturday's home tilt looking to knock off No. 13 Florida State behind one of the nation's most explosive offenses, which has scored a Group of 5-best 149 points (49.7) during its 3-0 start. The reigning team MVP and two-year starter under center has anchored a turnaround from a 1-3 start last season to an 11-2 mark in the 13 games since, with USF the lone unbeaten team in the East division of the American Athletic Conference.
For Flowers, this has been a long time coming. He caught the attention of his coach at Miami's Jackson High, former NFL receiver Antonio Brown, at a young age, with Brown telling Flowers that he was a leader in everything he did. Designated as an "athlete" on the recruiting circuit, the path less traveled for Flowers meant spurning a number of powerhouses interested in him as a receiver or safety in favor of being part of the foundation as a quarterback at USF.
"I could've gone to all the big schools and got championship rings, but I was the guy that wanted to be different and start my own legacy," Flowers said. "I just wanted to be different and not be that same guy. I didn't want to be another person; I wanted to have my own stats and start my own legacy when I came here. Growing up ever since, I've been doing that. That's just been my motivation: Always do your own thing, because there's a lot of people out there watching you."
In Flowers' case, that means making several close family members extra proud. His father was shot and killed by a stray bullet outside his home when Flowers was 7. His mother died of cancer when he was in high school. In November of 2014, the week Quinton was named USF's starter for the first time, his older stepbrother was shot and killed while playing football with kids.
There was the burden of maturing without so many guiding hands. But there's also the responsibility of spreading that love forward, as Flowers is expecting his first child, a baby daughter, soon.
"I don't think that anything on the football field is gonna rattle him," USF coach Willie Taggart said. "He doesn't get bent out of shape. I can yell at him and he can look at me and just say: 'Alright, Coach.'"
USF's 7-2 finish last season begat a three-year extension for the 40-year-old Taggart, who had recruited well by targeting a number of like-minded, overlooked leaders like Flowers but had just a 6-18 record and increasingly-warm seat to show for it through two seasons. In his first full campaign as starter in 2015, Flowers began to truly master Taggart's "Gulf Coast offense" midway through the year, as the Bulls averaged nearly 37.5 points over their final nine games and the then-sophomore QB finished with school-records of 991 rushing yards and 34 total touchdowns.
With the burden of hot-seat talk transformed into the expectations of being the preseason East division favorite, the Bulls have gotten things rolling this fall, winning their first three games by 36, 31 and 25 points, respectively, with Flowers earning himself relief from extended fourth quarter action in all three contests. His completion percentage has dipped slightly from last season (59.1 to 54.7), but his 3,000-plus-yard, 28-touchdown-pass pace over a 13-game schedule is way above his 2015 final line of 2,296 yards and 22 touchdowns, and he has remained a threat with his legs (150 yards and 2 TDs).
Flowers says he has had no shortage of love along the way from his five older brothers and sisters and his four nieces and nephews, some of whom affectionately call him "Boobie," the way his mother had when he was growing up as the baby of the family. The 22 year old makes it a point to spend as much time with the kids as possible whenever he makes it back to his Miami roots, and he talks to as many loved ones as he can before every game, knowing just how fragile a football career -- and life -- can be.
After playing FSU to a first-half draw in last year's 20-point defeat, Flowers says he isn't playing the "nobody believes in us" card when the Seminoles come to Raymond James Stadium. Part of that may be that the Bulls are not even a touchdown underdog against an FSU team coming off a 43-point loss, sure. But part of it can also be traced to the simple compartmentalizing from a guy who has been forced to keep everything in proper perspective.
A guy who knows his team is taking its cue from him while on its biggest stage of the year.
"I always said it's not about what school you go to, because at the end of the day if you go to a big school and just sit behind someone, you're just another member," Flowers said. "I didn't wanna be that. I wanted to be the guy that changes a program around or helps the program, and once I came here a lot of people believed in me, and now that I see everything that's working out I just have to keep going and show guys that I believe in them, they believe in me. We just have to keep playing."