Bryce Singleton could be the future of Florida International University football.
The 8-4 FIU Panthers, who will play the 6-6 Temple Owls on Dec. 21 at the Gasparilla Bowl in St. Petersburg, are a veteran team with 19 seniors, most of them starters.
But Singleton, a freshman wide receiver from Hilton Head Island, represents the next wave of talent, part of coach Butch Davis’ first recruiting class at FIU.
Listed at 5-10 and 190 pounds, Singleton had just 10 catches for 112 yards and no touchdowns in his first 10 games, when he was mostly a backup. However, after an injury to top receiver Thomas Owens, Singleton got his chance and came through.
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In FIU’s regular-season finale against Massachusetts on Dec. 2, Singleton caught six passes for 111 yards, tying a school record with three touchdown receptions.
After that game, Davis raved about Singleton’s leaping ability.
“Some of the 50-50 jump balls, it isn’t 50-50 when you’re throwing to somebody who has a 39- or 40-inch vertical,” Davis said. “Bryce plays like he’s 6-4 because he can out-jump guys.”
B.J. Payne, who coached Singleton at Hilton Head Island High, believes FIU was extremely fortunate to land his former player.
“This is an SEC kid,” Payne said, relating his opinion that Singleton has the talent to play in the nation’s top league, the Southeastern Conference. “I don’t think FIU knows what it has yet.”
How did this happen?
It’s rare for FIU — or any mid-major school — to sign elite recruits. For example, on ESPN’s list of the top 300 senior football prospects in the nation, every player who has committed has done so to a Power Five school except for one who has pledged to Princeton.
FIU has landed players in the NFL, such as wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and tight end Jonnu Smith. But in both cases, they were overlooked out of high school because they didn’t have ideal size and didn’t play for a prep power.
Coming out of high school, there were 1,930 seniors nationwide who ranked higher than Hilton, and 2,375 seniors were deemed better prospects than Smith.
Singleton was ranked No. 2,219, but there were extenuating circumstances.
The son of Tim Singleton, a former Division II quarterback at Newberry College in South Carolina, Bryce grew up playing QB just like his dad.
But Bryce quit football as a sophomore, opting instead to play point guard on the basketball team and center field in baseball.
Then, just before his junior year, Singleton went to Coach Payne, announcing he was back for football.
“He said: ‘Don’t put me at quarterback. I will play wide receiver, and I’m going to catch passes for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns,’” Payne said. “I said: ‘OK, we’ll see what you got.’”
What Singleton had was quite a lot. In his first year at receiver, he broke school records for receptions (73), yards (1,219) and touchdowns (13).
As a senior, Singleton was given additional duties as a wildcat quarterback. He ended up scoring 24 touchdowns — 11 as a runner, 10 as a receiver and three as a kick-returner. He caught 38 passes for 876 yards that season while also running for 430 yards and passing for 193 yards.
In those two years of high school competition, Singleton had proven his ability. But because he had opted to skip his sophomore season, recruiters were late to find him.
By Singleton’s senior year, schools such as Cincinnati, Marshall, Purdue and Illinois had emerged as his main options.
Meanwhile, Davis had taken over at FIU on Nov. 15, 2016. Scrambling to find recruits in time for the Feb. 1, 2017, National Signing Day, FIU caught a break.
Bobby Babich, who had been retained as an assistant coach by Davis before ultimately bolting for the NFL and his current job with the Buffalo Bills, spent part of his winter break on Hilton Head Island, where his father owns a vacation home.
While there, Babich decided to call some local coaches about potential recruits, which is how he found Singleton. This happened in late January, less than 10 days before decision time.
But once FIU coaches saw the film, they were all in on Singleton.
“I made Bryce aware of Butch Davis and his track record,” Tim Singleton said. “And once Bryce visited Miami, he said, ‘Dad, I’m coming here.’”
Payne said Singleton was “raised right” and has lived a charmed life.
Singleton’s father, for example, is a former Hilton Head High head football coach who owns a cigar lounge, Tim Buck 2; and two restaurants, Ruby Lee’s North and Ruby Lee’s South.
“Best fried chicken you ever had,” Payne said of Ruby Lee’s place in the Hilton Head Island community.
As for sports, Bryce has been a starter his whole life. Early this fall, however, Singleton was third-string, and his confidence was shaken.
“You think to yourself, ‘Am I really that good?’ You question yourself,” Singleton said. “ ‘Is this really for me?’
“There were times I had to fight through. I had to tell myself, ‘You didn’t travel all the way from South Carolina just to go home and be like everybody else.’”
Singleton said he had numerous people from home motivating him, but he still felt out of place when he arrived in Miami this past summer.
“I was the new kid,” Singleton said. “Most of the kids here are from Florida. I was not the outcast … but you feel different.”
Indeed, out of 98 players on the roster, 90 are from Florida.
Fitting in was Singleton’s first big test, which he passed.
“By the first game of the season, I felt like family,” said Singleton, who is majoring in business with a minor in finance. “Everybody’s close.”
The next challenge for Singleton was getting on the field and connecting with starting quarterback Alex McGough.
As a backup, most of his practice repetitions were with quarterbacks other than McGough. But now that he’s a starter, McGough, a senior, is learning more about this freshman.
“With all quarterbacks, you have to earn their trust,” Davis said. “If you catch it, ‘OK, I will throw it to you again.’ ”
Singleton admitted he dropped several passes in practice and in games as he learned how to “high point” a football. That’s where you jump up and grab the ball at its highest point in order to snatch the pass away from a defensive player.
“I didn’t have much confidence,” he said. “In practice, my coaches put a pad in front of my face, trying to get me to focus only on the ball.”
“The ball would hit my hands, and I would look away because I thought it was an automatic catch, which it wasn’t. I learned to stay focused throughout the whole catch.”
McGough now trusts Singleton.
In fact, in the Massachusetts game, McGough kept throwing the ball up to Singleton, and the freshman kept making grabs.
“After the third touchdown, I ran over there and told him, ‘You owe me a chicken nugget!’ ”
Perhaps after the bowl game, Singleton can do even better than that and invite McGough to Ruby Lee’s for some of that famous fried chicken.
After all, Singleton could be the future of FIU football.
Former Hilton Head Island High School football standout Bryce Singleton was honored by Conference USA for his freshman season at Florida International.
Singleton was named as kick returner on Conference USA’s All-Freshman team, released this week. He averaged 23.2 yards on 11 kick returns.
Singleton also caught 16 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns. The former Seahawk had six catches for 111 yards and three scores in FIU’s regular-season finale against UMass.
FIU finished 8-4 and plays Temple in the Gasparilla Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Dec. 21.