VERO BEACH - Mention the name Luke Sager to Kevin Patrick and the USF defensive tackles coach's eyes light right up.
Sager, a junior, has been motoring along at a fast and furious pace in fall camp with a goal of getting his name called quite often when the Bulls kick off the season.
"I want to show the coaches that I'm a starter," he said. "I can fill the role and I can help the team. I can help us win."
Take off his helmet and you'd think Sager is a rock star with his long hair blowing in the breeze. He also has the swagger to pull it off, as defensive end Ryne Giddins will tell you.
"When he's walking around, he knows who he is and what he has to do," Giddins said.
By no means does Sager have an ego like a rock star, but he's quite good in front of TV cameras talking about the groove he's in during the Bulls' first week of camp at Vero Beach Sports Village.
"I'm confident and comfortable playing. I really feel like I can be a starter," he said.
You'll come to find out that Sager also is quite humble because he's been the complete opposite of an overnight success story. The Niceville (Fla.) High School graduate was a star defensive end at the prep level, but he went through some adversity before slipping into the green and gold.
Sager was still in high school when he participated in the Super Bull, the program's annual summer session for prospects, and his performance definitely wasn't a hit. Young defensive linemen went through a gauntlet drill and Sager looked way out of sync as he weaved through bags doing the swim move.
"That's bad," Patrick said. "Maybe we need to back off this kid a little bit and kind of did."
"I was pretty embarrassed about the way I went out and performed," Sager admitted.
Sager saw the poor performance as an opportunity, however, and took advantage of his high school's purchase of the equipment needed to conduct the drill. Sager rocked through the routine on a daily basis and was eager to show Patrick his progress the next time the two met.
"We want that kid. If a kid works at it every day until he perfects it, you have to love that," Patrick said.
Sager made the move to defensive tackle once he became a Bull and took on a supersized task the past three years. The 6-foot-3 newcomer stood tall with former USF star defensive tackles Terrell McClain and Keith McCaskill, but he looked more like a tight end at 235 pounds.
"Playing as an undersized defensive tackle is really one of the hardest things I've ever done," Sager said. "The weight helps so much, I don't think people really realize."
Sager was up to 285 pounds this spring and definitely has looked the part this fall as a 300-pound locomotive on the line.
"He's really controlling the line of scrimmage and making it difficult," Patrick said. "Sager and (starting center) Austin Reiter, what a battle that's going on in there."
Sager said it has been much easier taking on double teams at his current weight and noted things really started to click for him in the spring when he got increased reps after senior Cory Grissom was ruled out with an ankle injury.
"Pork Chop went down, so I was really the next to step up," he said. "I've tried to embrace the role as well as I can."
Sager has played the part well enough this fall that Patrick said, "He's probably had one of the best camps of anybody on the defense."
It's still early, but great things are ahead for Sager if he keeps it up. He's played in 24 games as a Bull and a headlining gig is a strong possibility if Sager remains on track in the three weeks leading up to USF's season opener at home against UT-Chattanooga on Sept. 1.
"It's going to be hard unseating him as a starter right now," Patrick said. "Inside, he's playing heads and tails above everybody."