Mazzi Wilkins has had to fight for respect and playing time going back to his days at Tampa’s Plant High School.
He chose his hometown school, because he wanted to restore the Bulls back to prominence and have the opportunity to play in front of family.
Five years later, he was able to do just that.
He leaves USF, as part of senior class that won 36 games, the most in program history over a four-year span. However, he’s the other half of a play that injured UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton.
Wilkins sat down with UDD to talk about that play, how he wants to be known as a player, his pride in being from Tampa and his aspirations at the next level.
EH: What led you to USF?
Wilkins: It’s just home for me (Wilkins starred at Tampa powerhouse Plant High), I grew up watching them play.
I remember when they went to number two in the nation, the atmosphere was crazy.
Then the program went into a slump, so I wanted to be part of the group that put the team back on the map.
If you look at our team, it’s a lot of local guys who all played against each other in high school or camps and decided to go to USF together.
EH: Talk a little bit about being part of a senior class that won 36 game in four years, which was the most in South Florida history.
Wilkins: It’s amazing. There were times where we didn’t know, we thought we made the wrong decision.
Especially during my first year when we went 4-8.
Main thing was we didn’t understand how to win and then we just came together, stuck it out and just loved each other and playing for each other. And that’s how we ended up turning it around.
EH: You had an up and down start to your career. Talk about your journey at USF?
Wilkins: My freshman and sophomore years, I felt pretty good.
Then I’d gotten into a little trouble. Me and my old DB coach (Alonzo Hampton) got into it at times. I was young and was immature.
Not really understanding how to handle my business off and on the field. Do things like take film study seriously. I definitely got down on myself and it was a tough time for me.
Then when Coach Strong came in, I was really thinking about transferring.
However, my parents were like, wait, just give them the opportunity to see how things are going to go through spring ball.
The lowest point was right after that, I hurt my hamstring in the first practice. Coach (Blue) Adams told me I was mentally weak. You’re not tough enough.
From that moment, through fall camp, I just heard those words in my head.
I have a whiteboard in my room, and I wrote everything negative thing he said about me. I’d wake up every morning, and I would look at it and I just put my head down and started grinding. I never lost sight of what I wanted to accomplish.
I had to show that I was capable of making plays and I did that.
EH: Unfortunately, you were involved in the play that severely injured UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton. What was that like and what do you want people to know about you, outside of that play?
Wilkins: I’m a competitor and when I’m on the field, I’m going to give it everything I have.
I love the game and I take the game seriously.
I don’t play to harm anybody, but I do play with energy and tenacity. I have passion for the game and that’s what comes out.
So when you see me on the field, you can see my emotion. You can feel the passion I have. It bleeds out of me and that’s just what I want people to know.
Every time I step on the field, there’s new opportunities. So that’s how I approach it every day.
EH: After that game, you received some negative backlash on social media. How frustrating was that for you?
Wilkins: What people said about me didn’t frustrate me, I honestly felt bad for McKenzie Milton, because he’s an incredible player.
Going into that week, like, we know that McKenzie Milton is that guy.
That’s what I’d want UCF fans to understand.
We have so much respect for him on our side, because he’s that guy, he’s a baller, we’re going to have a big task at hand playing him.
I felt bad because I knew everything he had going for him, he was in the Heisman race and obviously we wanted to beat him, but his team was undefeated, to lose their best player and have to play the bowl game without him.
Competitors know competitors, I’ve played against him for a few years now.
He’s a competitor and I shed a tear on the field when I saw how bad he was hurt and seeing him in pain.
But it’s part of the game, things happen, I was playing hard and fast and so was he, there’s nothing I did wrong and nothing he did wrong.
I just wish that man the best.
EH: What does Mazzi Wilkins do to get away from football?
Wilkins: I grew up in Florida. The water is right around the corner. I love to fish. I’ve been fishing since I was two years old.
So that’s really the thing I do whenever it’s been a long week or a hard game.
I like to go and get the fish. I don’t really like to wait for them to come to me. Just like my style of play on the field.
So I like to go fishing and try to put my mind in the perspective of a fish. Just how like I play DB, I try to put my mind in the perspective of a receiver.
It’s all mental, just like it is out there on the field.
EH: What’s your favorite thing about growing up in Tampa?
Wilkins: The diversity. It’s hard to explain if you’re not from there.
The food as well. There’s this little restaurant, La Teresita, a little hole in the wall. Like you can go there and get some of the best Cuban sandwiches.
I just love the culture of Tampa. It’s a port city, so you’re going to have every type of person in Tampa. Another thing about the diversity, you could be in a bad area, then the next block over you’re in a very nice area.
It’s just home to me, there’s no place like it.
EH: Who’s your favorite artist to listen to pregame?
Wilkins: Nipsey Hussle
EH: What are some of your biggest strengths as a player and what are you trying to work on?
Wilkins: I’m an overall cornerback. I’m not afraid to tackle. I like to play man coverage, but I can play zone.
I’ll be in your face, press, play you off. I know how to disguise what I’m doing, and I understand defense very well.
I pride myself in the mental aspect of the game and I feel like that’s what helps me make plays and helps me go out there and be confident to make plays.
What I’m working on is just getting faster, so I can run a good time. But I feel like, my game is my game. I’m pretty solid in every aspect of the game.
I just want to grow to become the best player I can possibly be and become the best player to ever play. But of course, it’s baby steps, it’s all about learning.
EH: Who’s the best player you played against in college?
Wilkins: Either Andy Isabella from UMass or Courtland Sutton from SMU.
They’re two totally different players.
Sutton is a Calvin Johnson type. He’s huge, 6-4, 230 pounds and fast.
Then you have Isabella, who’s just lightning fast and super quick. You’ve got to get hands on him at the line of scrimmage. Plus, he can go inside, outside, play running back. He could play everywhere on the field.
So I tip my cap to those guys.
EH: What was your favorite game in college?
Wilkins: My first game starting when Coach Strong got here, we played San Jose State. They jumped up in front of us early in the game and they tried to go at me.
But I locked it down. I was thrown at seven times and I didn’t give up a catch. I also had two pass break-ups and an interception.
They saw the type of player I am. I can lock down any side of the field.
EH: Who’s an NFL player you model your game after?
Wilkins: I like Richard Sherman for his mental approach to the game and how he knows his x’s and o’s. I watch Patrick Peterson’s technique because he is just flawless.
He has some of the best technique of any corner I’ve ever seen, and then I like him because he’s a dog.
He’s going to get in your face and let you know that you have to earn it every play against him.
EH: What’s your most embarrassing moment on the field?
Wilkins: One time during a game, I made a tackle. But after I got back up, my helmet was all the way up, almost over my face, I couldn’t see anything.
So, I’m walking away, and it’s no huddle, I could just feel the offense lining back up.
But I couldn’t see me cause my helmet kept falling up and down over my face. Now I’m embarrassed because I’m like, what’s the call? What’s the play?
I’m just trying to line up and get my helmet down so I can see. I was just a hectic moment.
EH: Last one. If I’m an NFL head coach or defensive coordinator, why should I take a shot on Mazzi Wilkins?
Wilkins: I’ve been an underdog my whole life and it shows. I’m a resilient player.
I’m going to give it everything I have on every play, every practice, every route. And I’m a leader.
If I’m a pushing my teammates, it’s because I want to be pushed as hard. I’m not going to do something and not expect it back in return. You’re getting an overall football player with me.
Plain and simple. I’m ready to leave it all on the field.