By: Walter Villa, Special to USA TODAY High School Sports | August 8, 2017
MIAMI – The fourth-quarter, 72-yard touchdown pass that vaulted Miami Southridge to its first state title in 23 years last December almost never happened.
The play, according to wide receiver Mark Pope, was a “bubble and go” from quarterback Michael Cox, who was trying to rally the Spartans from a 10-7 deficit.
After a faked bubble screen, Pope took off down the left sideline.
There was just one problem.
“At first, I didn’t see the ball,” Pope said. “It was in the lights.”
Fortunately for Southridge, Pope kept running and found the football, rallying the Spartans to a 14-10 win.
This year, the lights are even brighter – at least they are on Pope, who is the seventh-ranked receiver in the nation according to 247Sports.
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Pope isn’t the biggest or fastest receiver out there, but one national website claimed he had the best hands and best ball skills among all the elite receivers at The Opening, a huge summer football event at Nike’s headquarters in Oregon.
And it’s not just the website writers who are talking.
Pope has earned respect from athletes on other teams.
Case in point is Lorenzo Lingard, a Miami Hurricanes recruit from the Orlando area and the nation’s second-ranked running back.
When Pope committed to Miami in March, Lingard tweeted:
“This is the dream team I always wanted.”
Whether that “dream team” materializes on a college field for the Hurricanes again remains to be seen. But Pope is certainly doing his part to provide optimism, given his strong junior year that included 37 catches, 619 yards and seven touchdowns.
In fact, Pope has already been named to compete in the 2017 U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
Southridge’s Billy Rolle, the first Florida coach to win state titles at three different schools – Northwestern and Killian were the others – has special praise for Pope.
Rolle said Pope is the best receiver he’s coached since he tutored Northwestern’s Amari Cooper, now a star with the Oakland Raiders.
Patrick Cooney, a former Southridge player who coaches his alma mater’s offensive and defensive lines, goes way back with the Spartans program, recalling the state title teams in 1991 and 1993.
Cooney said Pope is the most talented receiver Southridge has ever had, noting his 98-yard kickoff return in a state semifinal win over Deerfield Beach last year as another sign of his big-play ability.
“Mark is the firecracker that at any moment will ignite you,” Cooney said. “He’s a dynamic player who could do a great job for us at cornerback, safety, running back and quarterback in addition to wide receiver.
“That’s why all these universities want him so bad. He can do just about everything.”
Among the college scholarship offers Pope has accumulated are Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Auburn and Florida.
Pope, though, said he is considering no other school.
“This where I’m from – it’s Miami,” he said. “My family can come watch me – it’s just a 30-minute drive. Why leave?
“I can put my city back on.”
Southridge, which finished 12-2 last season, was mostly led by its defense in 2016. The Spartans posted nine shutouts and held opponents to an average of just 5.0 points.
But 14 Spartans signed with colleges this past February, and only two starters on defense return.
Pope and Cox are back, and there could be more pressure on an offense that also features wide receivers Daquaris (Miami recruit) and Jordan Dillard (Toledo recruit). Junior running backs Courtney Reese and Darren Davis Jr. lead the ground attack.
By the way, Davis’ father and uncle – Darren and Troy Davis – are two of the greatest running backs in Iowa State history. Troy, in fact, is in the College Football Hall of Fame.
But, for now at least, Pope is the biggest star on the Southridge offense.
“Mark is shifty, and if you throw it up to him, nine times out of 10, he will come down with the ball,” Cooney said. “He knows how to change speeds, how to beat press coverage.
“You have to respect him deep, but he also runs a great curl pattern. And when he catches a curl, you have to be scared again because he can make you miss.
“Everybody he goes up against, Mark ends up winning. It’s inevitable.”