By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA - Mark Popek came out of nowhere in a hurry with a helmet on his head and a spatula in his hand.
USF's starting left tackle went from being a late bloomer on the gridiron in high school to a player that's now being considered as one of the best at his position after the Football Writers Association of America announced Thursday that Popek was one of 71 players from around the country to be named to the 2012 Outland Trophy Watch List, an honor that goes to the best interior lineman in college football.
"Just to even be mentioned in something of that caliber is pretty big," Popek said.
Popek is tall by anyone's standards at 6-foot-7 and his ability to become really big is what helped get him into the green and gold. The Plant City, Fla. product always was tall for his age growing up, which kind of hindered him from playing Pop Warner football. What once was a "lanky" kid morphed into a high school football prospect that grabbed college coaches' attention by the time he was getting fitted for his cap and massive graduation gown.
That was with the help of an apron, come to find out.
Popek could be found in a local restaurant all four years of high school where he became sort of a renaissance man. He started as a busboy, spent time as a dishwasher and filled out his giant frame as a cook in the kitchen by the end of his restaurant run as a teenager.
"I was always eating the food all the time - wings, anything you could eat," he said.
The timing of his free rein on food couldn't have been more perfect. Popek started playing football as a ninth-grader and said he really didn't start to get serious about the sport until his junior year.
"My buddies and I just became meatheads," he admitted.
Popek's routine around that time consisted of school, two or three hours in the gym and then a late shift at the restaurant where he chowed down at the end of a shift. Popek said he weighed about 245 pounds in December of his junior year and he was up to 295 pounds of "clean weight" by the time classes finished up for the summer.
"I was a completely different person. No one knew who I was," Popek said. "(College coaches) came out and there was this guy out of nowhere, just this huge guy."
Popek used his transformed body to earn Class 5A all-state honors and ranked as the 12th-best player in the Tampa/St. Pete area by the Tampa Bay Times. Offers flowed in from Vanderbilt, Illinois, USF and Troy and he gained more interest from Auburn and Michigan State after he committed to the Bulls.
"Towards the end of senior year it got very hectic - a lot of phone calls, a lot of voicemails, boxes of letters," Popek said. "For me it was a lot to take in for a 17-year-old kid but I made the right decision."
Popek's progress on the field has been notable since redshirting during the 2008 season. He made a combined 12 starts at tackle from 2009-10 and doubled that amount last season while helping the USF offense finish 30th in the country at 432.8 yards per game.
"Over the two years we've been here, especially from year one to year two, he's improved as much as anybody has," USF offensive coordinator Todd Fitch said. "He's really gained confidence in his play over the course of last fall. We saw more and more from him and going into his senior year we expect that growth to continue."
Popek will look to keep his play at a high level in his final year of auditioning for NFL scouts and he's got a pretty nice fallback plan if pro ball isn't in his future. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in criminology this spring and is six classes away from earning another bachelor's degree in history.
"I try to give myself multiple paths," he said.
Here is the complete 2012 Outland Trophy Watch List. Three finalists will be named Nov. 19 and the winner will be announced at the Outland Trophy presentation banquet in Omaha, Neb., on Jan. 10, 2013.
2012 OUTLAND TROPHY PRESEASON WATCH LIST (71)
OT Oday Aboushi, Virginia
G Alvin Bailey, Arkansas
OT David Bakhtiari, Colorado
G Chris Barker, Nevada
C Mario Benavides, Louisville
DT Josh Boyd, Mississippi State
C Braxston Cave, Notre Dame
G Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina
DT Everett Dawkins, Florida State
DT Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh
OT Chris Faulk, LSU
C James Ferentz, Iowa
DT Sharrif Floyd, Florida
OT D.J. Fluker, Alabama
G Blaize Foltz, TCU
C Travis Frederick, Wisconsin
C Dalton Freeman, Clemson
G Theo Goins, UCF
C Ben Habern, Oklahoma
DT Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State
G Braden Hansen, BYU
OT Caylin Hauptmann, FIU
DT Jordan Hill, Penn State
C Khaled Holmes, USC
OT Alex Hurst, LSU
OT James Hurst, North Carolina
G Gabe Ikard, Oklahoma
G Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State
DT John Jenkins, Georgia
DT Timmy Jernigan, Florida State
OT Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M
C T.J. Johnson, South Carolina
OT Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt
C Barrett Jones, Alabama
G Joe Kellogg, Boise State
C Tyler Larsen, Utah State
OT Taylor Lewan, Michigan
DT Bennie Logan, LSU
G Spencer Long, Nebraska
DT Star Lotulelei, Utah
OT Zack Martin, Notre Dame
OT Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
G Chris McDonald, Michigan State
C Andrew Miller, Virginia Tech
OT Morgan Moses, Virginia
DT Roosevelt Nix, Kent State
C Graham Pocic, Illinois
OT Mark Popek, USF
OT Justin Pugh, Syracuse
G Cyril Richardson, Baylor
C Weston Richburg, Colorado State
DT Kawann Short, Purdue
DT Akeem Spence, Illinois
DT Baker Steinkuhler, Nebraska
OT Matt Summers-Gavin, California
C Travis Swanson, Arkansas
G Lane Taylor, Oklahoma State
G Dallas Thomas, Tennessee
DT Aaron Tipoti, California
G Omoregie Uzzi, Georgia Tech
DT Joe Vellano, Maryland
OT LaAdrian Waddle, Texas Tech
OT Ricky Wagner, Wisconsin
G Mason Walters, Texas
G Larry Warford, Kentucky
G Chance Warmack, Alabama
C Stephen Warner, Louisiana Tech
DT Jesse Williams, Alabama
DT Sylvester Williams, North Carolina
G David Yankey, Stanford
G Carson York, Oregon
By conference: SEC (19), Big Ten (12), ACC (11), Big 12 (7), Pac-12 (7), Big East (4), Independents (3), Mountain West (3), WAC (2), Conference USA (1), MAC (1), Sun Belt (1).