The Mustangs senior fought for an opportunity, and got one in year four.
A year ago, the thought of Lakewood Ranch High senior Michael Cucci playing NCAA Division I football didn't seem reasonable.
After two years of mainly riding the bench, and one year in an option offense, where he was used as a blocker, Cucci was in a difficult position. Without much game tape to send to colleges, his football future was in doubt. All he wanted was a chance to show his skills.
That chance came in the form of Rashad West, who was hired as the Mustangs’ head coach in March 2019. Cucci, who is 6-foot-4, said West’s spread passing game was exactly what he needed to take the next step in his evolution as a player. He became both a deep ball and red zone threat. From last season's first game, when Cucci had seven catches for 93 yards and two touchdowns in a 19-9 road win against Lemon Bay Aug. 29, he was out to prove how dominant he could be.
Cucci finished the season with 51 catches — 52% of the team’s catches — for 654 yards and 11 touchdowns in nine games. He helped the Mustangs finish with a 6-3 record, their first winning season since 2014, and soon collegiate offers started coming. They were small at first, from Ferris State and a handful of other Division II schools, but they were offers nonetheless. Cucci was excited about deciding between them.
Until he got a text from new South Florida coach Jeff Scott's staff.
“They said they were looking to fill out their recruiting class,” Cucci said. “They had seen my film and were impressed. They like how long I am and how I can go up and get the ball.”
Cucci said he did not send Scott or any members of the USF staff his film, so the text message was “out of the blue.” He was stunned. Cucci said Scott could only offer him a preferred walk-on spot, meaning Cucci would receive no financial assistance for at least his first season, but would have a spot on the roster.
Cucci didn’t think twice. He wanted to be a Bull. After all Cucci has gone through, starting on a walk-on offer is just another stepping stone.
“I was so happy,” Cucci said. “I knew 100% that I had to take it. Hopefully I can earn a scholarship in a year or so. Never in a million years did I think this would be happening to me. Coach West, he changed everything for me. He showed me how to play football and how to be a real man.”
After the season, West said he was proud of how Cucci had progressed over the course of the season in terms of his non-ball skills — route running, etc. — and as a team leader. West said Cucci can have success as long as he keeps working hard and improving. He wants it bad enough, West said.
At South Florida, Cucci will join former Braden River High running back Brian Battie at South Florida, and will be surrounded by familiar foes in A.J. Franco, a former Riverview High linebacker, and Kelvin Pinkney, a former Booker High defensive tackle.