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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 47: South Florida

Lady Luck is a fickle mistress. She was on South Florida’s side early – very early, like the first drive of the season – when Kayvon Webster scooped up a Notre Dame fumble and returned it 96 yards for a touchdown. She had the Bulls’ back early in the second quarter, leading Dayne Crist to throw an interception in the U.S.F. end zone; ballgame, Bulls. Then she wasn’t needed. Then she disappeared. It’s a funny thing: U.S.F. went from being the luckiest team in football to being the team most likely to lose a game decided by a touchdown or less – it’s funny, but not really. Only the Bulls could hold Connecticut to 16 points and lose. Rack up 507 yards of total offense and lose. Gain 228 more rushing yards than Rutgers and lose. Hold Miami (Fla.) to six points and lose. Completely rattle Geno Smith and lose. It’s about consistency: U.S.F. might get lucky sometimes, might be the most talented team in the league, might be the quickest, the strongest and the most athletic, but consistency – that’s always lacking.

Conference
Big East

Location
Tampa, Fla.

Nickname
Bulls

Returning starters
15 (8 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 39

2011 record
(5-7, 1-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 86

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    U.T.-Chattanooga
  • Sept. 8
    at Nevada
  • Sept. 13
    Rutgers
  • Sept. 22
    at Ball St.
  • Sept. 29
    Florida St.
  • Oct. 6
    at Temple
  • Oct. 20
    at Louisville
  • Oct. 27
    Syracuse
  • Nov. 3
    UConn
  • Nov. 17
    at Miami (Fla.)
  • Nov. 23
    at Cincinnati
  • Dec. 1
    Pittsburgh

Last year’s prediction

I have a Big East favorite. I see two teams above the rest, one a bit more than the other. And I see three Big East teams that can sit back in July and have very real B.C.S. hopes: South Florida is one of those teams. There’s a lot to like, starting with a very good coaching staff entering its second season with the program. So why do I have U.S.F. third in the Big East? Because the team is not as talented as either West Virginia or Pittsburgh, in my opinion, though the gap isn’t all that large. Because while the team will be better in year two under Holtz, I still think the Bulls need to learn what it takes to win a Big East crown. But they’re learning, and have the right coach in place to eventually get there. For now, U.S.F. is running third in a pretty weak Big East, behind Pittsburgh and West Virginia.

2011 recap

In a nutshell Once again, U.S.F. started with a bang and went out with a whimper. The Bulls started 4-0, and it wasn’t your normal 4-0 start: Notre Dame was one of the wins, of course, but this offense was so dynamic during the year’s start as to make U.S.F. a very real Big East contender heading into conference play – the Bulls looked like an even better team than most had believed they’d be. Then came a soul-crushing 44-17 loss to Pittsburgh to cap September, which seemed to rob U.S.F. of all of the confidence it had accumulated over the year’s first four games. The Bulls would close with seven losses in eight tries, closing as poorly as any team in the country, even if five of those losses came by a touchdown or less. Could several of those games have gone either way? Absolutely. But you had a feeling that U.S.F. would find a way to lose.

High point The 23-20 win over Notre Dame. It was a great win for the program and a very satisfying win for Skip Holtz, who obviously has very deep ties to the university. That was followed by easy-breezy wins over Ball State, Florida A&M and UTEP by a combined score of 159-48.

Low point The loss to Pittsburgh really took the wind out of the Bulls’ sails. U.S.F. would go on to suffer four losses by a field goal: Cincinnati (37-34), Rutgers (20-17 in overtime), Miami (6-3) and West Virginia (30-27). In the latter, U.S.F. coughed up a 27-20 lead with about six minutes left.

Tidbit U.S.F. is tired of hearing this, but in case you forgot: From 2005 – when the program joined the Big East – through 2009, South Florida went a combined 24-7 from the first game of the season through Oct. 15. From Oct. 16 through the end of the season, the Bulls went 16-17. The discrepancy was especially clear over Jim Leavitt’s final three seasons with the program; from 2007-9, the Bulls combined to start 16-2 and finished 9-12. The tide turned in Holtz’s first season, when U.S.F. was 3-3 on Oct. 15 but went 5-2 the rest of the way. Then came last fall, when the Bulls were back up to their old tricks: 4-2 at the midway point, U.S.F. closed with five losses in six games. In all, the Bulls are 31-12 since 2005 in games before Oct. 15 and 22-24 the rest of the way.

Tidbit (winning percentage edition) U.S.F. has suffered only three losing seasons in its 15-year history: 1997, 2004 and 2011. The program has won games at a 61.0 percent clip, which ranks it 20th in the F.B.S. in career winning percentage – fourth in Florida, behind the Seminoles (66.4), Hurricanes (63.1) and Gators (62.9). A few of the teams just behind the Bulls: Virginia Tech (60.9 percent), West Virginia (60.1), Texas A&M (59.8), Arkansas (59.8) and Clemson (59.1).

Former players in the N.F.L.

19 S Nate Allen (Philadelphia), P Delbert Alvarado (Dallas), WR Dontavia Bogan (San Francisco), C Sampson Genus (Green Bay), CB Mike Jenkins (Dallas), WR A.J. Love (Minnesota), DE Craig Marshall (New York Giants), DT Terrell McClain (Carolina), LB Tyrone McKenzie (Minnesota), WR Carlton Mitchell (Cleveland), CB Jerome Murphy (St. Louis), LB Stephen Nicholas (Atlanta), DE Jason Pierre-Paul (New York Giants), S Mistral Raymond (Minnesota), WR Darrell Scott (Dallas), DE George Selvie (Jacksonville), OG Jeremiah Warren (New England), LB Jacquian Williams (New York Giants), LB Kion Williams (Carolina).

Arbitrary top five list

N.F.L. players born in Tampa (years in league)
1. FB Rick Casares (1955-66).
2. DT Ted Washington (1991-2007).
3. QB Matthew Stafford (2009-present).
4. WR Michael Jenkins (2004-present).
5. LB Ted Washington (1973-82).

Coaching

Skip Holtz (Notre Dame ‘86), 13-12 after two seasons at South Florida. He arrived in Tampa after leading East Carolina to back-to-back Conference USA championships, as well as four consecutive bowl trips. His stature grew with each successive season at E.C.U., in direct correlation with his team’s win total: 3-20 from 2003-4, the Pirates won five games in 2005, seven in 2006, eight in 2007 and nine games in both 2008 and 2009. In all, Holtz compiled a 37-27 record over five years with the Pirates. He was hired following five years as the assistant head coach under his father at South Carolina, though he had previous head coaching experience at Connecticut from 1994-98 (33-23 record). In his final season, Holtz lead the Huskies to a 10-3 record and a national ranking in the final F.C.S. poll. It is not hard to imagine why Holtz had a degree of success with E.C.U.; in addition to working under his father with Gamecocks and at Notre Dame (1990-93), Holtz coached under Bobby Bowden at Florida State (1987-88) and Earle Bruce at Colorado State (1989), compiling a career mark of 67-15-2 as an assistant. Holtz’s decision to accept the U.S.F. position came as a surprise to some who felt he could have landed a job at a more historically successful program. However, Holtz saw in South Florida the same factors that attracted a Bobby Bowden to Florida State or Howard Schnellenberger to Miami: a fertile recruiting base, the opportunity for massive growth and the potential to be the defining figure in the history of the program. If Jim Leavitt laid the groundwork for future success, it became Holtz’s job to get South Florida off the lower levels of the Big East and into the penthouse. He’s off to an up-and-down start.

Tidbit (coaching edition) U.S.F. hired two new coaches while redirecting a few duties on the offensive side of the ball. For starters, the Bulls lost defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, who left to take the same position at Texas A&M. He’s replaced by Chris Cosh, who spent the last three seasons as the coordinator at Kansas State. Cosh has been around: Maryland (2006-8), South Carolina (1999-2003), Michigan State (1998) and Illinois (1995-96), among others. Holtz also replaced wide receivers coach Phil McGeoghan with Jerome Pathon, the eight-year N.F.L. veteran who spent the last three years at the University of San Diego. Among the changed duties on offense, coordinator Todd Fitch will take over as the quarterbacks coach, replacing Peter Vaas, while Vaas moves to tight ends coach.

Players to watch

It’s obvious that B.J. Daniels has grown more and more comfortable in Skip Holtz’s offense, just as it’s clear that Holtz did alter his typically set-in-stone offensive system last fall to give Daniels a little more room to operate – Daniels had more freedom, by and large, which helped him turn in a stronger junior year after a disastrous first season under Holtz. This is a good sign heading into the fall: Daniels, another year wiser and more experienced, is poised to play the finest football of his career. Then again, it’s not as if Daniels brings three years of top-notch results into his senior season; in his case, finest comes with an asterisk.

He’s still a very average thrower, even if his running ability makes him one of the top three at his position in the quarterback-thin Big East. He’s inconsistent. He lacks touch. Daniels will protect the football – he was much better in this area as a junior – but simply put, he’d be better used in a bombs-away offense, not the short passing game Holtz has preferred throughout his coaching career. Barring a lights-on turnaround, something that would come as a significant surprise, Daniels is going to remain an adequate passer who will look to overcome his faults by moving the chains with his legs.

That’s enough against the weaker teams on the Bulls’ schedule. But Daniels’ deficiencies as a passer take center stage against teams with a defensive pulse: Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Rutgers and West Virginia last fall, for example – he went 86 of 168, 51.1 percent, for 901 yards and 3 scores against 4 interceptions. That’s just not good enough. On the other hand, Daniels broke loose on the ground against Pittsburgh, rushing for 130 yards, and did a nice job with his feet throughout much of the Big East season.

Perhaps more experience will lead to an improved performance; perhaps Daniels is now fully comfortable playing under Holtz and Fitch. U.S.F. certainly hopes so. Unless the fourth year’s the charm, Daniels will remain the league’s biggest enigma, the player most likely to follow up one sublime, highlight-making play with a head-scratching error. Why the spotlight’s on Daniels is simple: the Bulls go as far he takes them. If he can maintain steady play throughout the season, U.S.F. could fulfill its expectations and win the Big East; unfortunately, Daniels’ consistency leaves much to be desired.

At the very least, Holtz and his staff have given Daniels weapons to work with. Two years after being one of the weakest positions on the team – and undoubtedly its thinnest – the Bulls’ receiver corps is loaded with talent, athleticism and depth; an undisputed weakness is now an unquestioned strength. For Fitch and Pathon, the hardest task will be picking a top five from a group of eight or nine qualified candidates. Three sure cogs in the rotation are sophomore Andre Davis (22 catches for 273 yards), junior Sterling Griffin (43 for 530) and senior Victor Marc (34 for 362). Griffin was last season’s leading receiver despite missing four games, but it was Davis, a non-factor until late October, who stole the show during spring ball.

The depth becomes evident as you look towards the second level. Sophomore Deonte Welch (31 for 433) finished second on the team in catches and receiving yards. Speedy junior Terrence Mitchell is healthy after missing nine games last fall. Sophomore Ruben Gonzalez would give U.S.F. a taller option in the red zone. Incoming freshman D’Vario Montgomery arrives with a four-star ranking and tremendous expectations. Former Florida transfer Chris Dunkley, a sophomore, has more game-breaking ability than any skill player on this offense. And then there’s tight end Evan Landi (29 for 297), a converted quarterback who should challenge for all-Big East honors.

U.S.F. pulled a big year out of Darrell Scott, the former five-star recruit who transferred into the program from Colorado. But Scott, the team’s leading rusher, parlayed his breakthrough season into an early ticket to the N.F.L. Draft. His departure robs the Bulls of production, but it won’t drastically alter the way this team approaches the running game. That’s because senior Demetris Murray (503 yards, 8 touchdowns), while smaller than Scott, has the same running style: he’s a stronger, powerful runner with enough speed to surprise opposing defenses outside the tackles. Holtz and Fitch will team Murray with two shiftier backs in senior Lindsey Lamar (150 yards) and junior Marcus Shaw, the latter a former receiver who was moved into the backfield earlier this year.

And don’t forget that Daniels (587 yards) is going to do some heavy lifting in the running game. In fact, U.S.F. might be hard-pressed to find carries for the four primary backs, with JUCO transfer Michael Pierre joining the above trio. Pierre, a bigger back, would cut into Murray’s carries if he proves himself on the field in August; look for Lamar and Shaw to share touches as the change-of-pace back. Alone, this backfield has promise – but with Daniels added into the mix, U.S.F. could control the clock with an effective ground game. Even without Scott, the Bulls are going to lead the Big East in rushing if the offensive line rounds into form.

If the Bulls have weapons at receiver and sturdy options at running back, why shouldn’t this offense develop to the point where it can move the ball effectively during Big East play? Well, the interior of the offensive line is a worry, one that I’ll touch on below, but so is overall consistency – something that starts at quarterback and moves on down the line. The Bulls’ speed and depth out wide will be for naught if Daniels doesn’t make a significant progression in the passing game. Athleticism is useless if Daniels can’t convert on third down, or keep defenses from loading up the box, or complete the easiest, simplest passes in this playbook. Until Daniels proves that he has developed, this offense will continue to take one step back for every two it takes forward.

This is your typical U.S.F. defense: quick, strong, athletic, fairly young, promising and prone to the odd mental misstep. Last fall, the breakdowns occurred most commonly in a secondary that started strong – though Notre Dame threw for nearly 400 yards – but collapsed late due to injuries. As noted with other teams, the injury woes that plagued the Bulls’ secondary last fall comes with a silver lining: those freshmen and sophomores thrust into action over the second half will hit less of a learning curve as they transition into permanent more permanent roles in the two-deep.

The secondary is still waiting for the return of senior Jon Lejiste (47 tackles, 1 interceptions), who missed spring ball following offseason surgery but will slide back into the starting role at strong safety in August. His partner on the back end, junior Mark Joyce, steps in at free safety. Joyce won the starting job in March and April, but he’s a bit of an unknown; can he replicate Jerrell Young’s production? One positive to take from Lejiste’s absence is that it handed springtime snaps to junior JaQuez Jenkins and senior Ernie Tabuteau, which should come in handy in the fall. U.S.F. does have some depth issues all along the back seven, so going four deep at safety gives Holtz and Cosh some flexibility.

The Bulls had three defensive back recruits on campus for spring ball, including one, JUCO transfer Fidel Montgomery, who is poised to grab a starting role opposite of senior Kayvon Webster (49 tackles, 2 interceptions). What level of cornerback play U.S.F. lands outside of Webster – who you know is going to deliver – will define this team’s efforts against the pass. In that sense, it’s a good thing that Montgomery hit the ground running, impressing this staff; it’s also a good thing that the competition will continue in August – this competition will bring the best out of the three or four battling for the starting role.

Montgomery must continue to prove himself. U.S.F. has other options in redshirt freshman Kenneth Durden and junior Joshua Brown – another JUCO transfer – who were running second and third on the depth chart coming out of the spring. The Bulls could also call on true freshmen Chris Bivins, Jarvis McCall and Jalen Spencer, though Bivins might not return from his A.C.L. tear in time to participate in fall camp.

Seeing that the secondary is in questionable shape, U.S.F. desperately needs a healthy pass rush from its front four. The Bulls will get help in that area and more from junior Ryne Giddins (44 tackles, 5.5 sacks), a reigning second-team all-Big East selection. You’re seeing textbook progression: Giddins was useful in a situational role as a freshman, doing a nice job rushing the passer, and maintained that talent while becoming a more complete end as a first-year starter – look for him to take another step forward in 2012. He’ll be joined at end by junior Julius Forte (21 tackles, 3.0), who takes a step up from his role behind Patrick Hampton. The issue at end is proven depth: U.S.F. will head into August with JUCO transfer Tevin Mims and true freshman Eric Lee as the primary backups, which is a concern.

How U.S.F. looked at defensive tackle during the spring was not what U.S.F. will look like in the trenches come September. Come the start of the season, the Bulls will return seniors Cody Grissom (38 tackles, 6.0 for loss) and Anthony Hill, who missed the spring due to injury. Grissom will move right back into a starting role while Hill has shown the flexibility to play both end and tackle, increasing his value. There’s very nice depth inside: Grissom, Hill, junior Luke Sager and sophomores Elkino Watson and Todd Chandler – once a national recruit – give U.S.F. plenty of options. The toughest choice will be picking a starting pair; you’d think Grissom and Sager, but the staff won’t make a decision until every linemen gets on the field.

Nothing will change at linebacker – U.S.F. returns all three starters – but as elsewhere, the lack of experienced depth is worrisome. Here’s what you know: senior Sam Barrington (72 tackles, 6.5 for loss) will be on the strong side, junior DeDe Lattimore (94 tackles, 13.0 for loss, 7.0 sacks) on the weak side and senior Michael Lanaris (87 tackles) in the middle. This group doesn’t merely bring enviable experience to the table but also terrific production, from Barrington’s ability to attack the line of scrimmage to Lattimore’s all-conference talent coming off the edge. But seeing that this group serves as the backbone of this defense, any significant injuries could be deadly. Senior Mike Jeune has played some in the past, but the rest of the depth comes in freshmen and sophomores.

It’s easy to root for senior Maikon Bonani, who suffered a very frightening off-field injury in 2009 that caused him miss that entire season but has rebounded to give U.S.F. great consistency in the kicking game over the last two years. The Bulls are also blessed with a strong leg on kickoffs, thanks to sophomore Marvin Kloss. Punting has been an issue in recent years, however, perhaps opening a path for redshirt freshman Mattias Ciabatti to leapfrog past senior Justin Brockhaus-Kann to grab the starting job. U.S.F. gets significant production out of Lamar and Mitchell on kickoff and punt returns, respectively.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line The Bulls need to address the line’s interior, especially with senior Danous Estenor still working his way back from injury. Even when Estenor returns, U.S.F. has some large shoes to fill at left guard and center – especially in the latter spot, where Chaz Hine, a team captain, was the most valuable member of last year’s strong offensive front. With that pair gone, along with leading interior reserve Kevin McCaskill, the Bulls’ strength will shift outside to tackle, with senior Mark Popek on the left side and junior Quinterrius Eatmon on the right.

Popek, who has played extensively since his freshman season, and Eatmon, who developed nicely as a first-year starter last fall, combine to give U.S.F. the Big East’s best tackle pairing. If nothing else, the Bulls should continue to do an admirable job in pass protection. But the lack of answers inside provide ample reason for concern, particularly if Estenor isn’t 100 percent by the end of August – and if that happens, this team’s running game could fail to reach its potential.

Let’s go off the idea that Estenor returns by September. That would lead U.S.F. to try JUCO Lawrence Martin on the left side – he’s currently in Estenor’s shoes at right guard – where he’d battle senior Damien Edwards for the starting role. At worst, the loser of that battle is the team’s top reserve lineman at both guard spots. The bigger issue is the Bulls’ hole at center: Hine and McCaskill were the only pair to take snaps at the position last fall. So U.S.F. is turning the job over to an unknown, even if sophomore Austin Reiter put a stranglehold on the starting role with a strong spring. Interior play is a worry even if Estenor returns; if he doesn’t, U.S.F. could be in some trouble.

Game(s) to watch

South Florida takes on three major tests in September, though only one, at home against Rutgers, carries conference title implications. On Sept. 8, U.S.F. heads to Reno to take on a very underrated Nevada team. The Bulls end the month with a home date against Florida State. While U.S.F. faces Rutgers at home, it gets both Louisville and Cincinnati on the road. More to keep in mind: U.S.F. gets Rutgers on a short week, Louisville on the road, Cincinnati on the road and Pittsburgh on a short week. Consider that, in addition to tough non-conference games against Nevada and F.S.U., before anointing U.S.F. as the Big East’s best and a 10-win contender.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I can almost regurgitate the same line that opened last year’s preview: South Florida is one of the top four teams in the Big East and a very obvious contender to net the league’s automatic B.C.S. bid. And as during last summer, I can also say that I don’t trust the Bulls to mount a successful run to the top of the Big East; I can even cite the same issues that led me to question this team heading into last September – not speed, not talent, not athleticism, but simple consistency. U.S.F. strikes me as a team that still lacks proven production in the spots that ultimately decide a team’s season: at quarterback, along the offensive line and in the secondary. I want to get on board, seeing that U.S.F. clearly has the overall talent level to win the Big East, but I can’t get past the idea that this team will again struggle to put together extended periods of solid football.

On defense, the most looming concern is a lack of depth everywhere except at defensive tackle. That’s big, however: U.S.F. has enough bodies up front to do a nice job against the run. But this defense could fall apart if it losses Giddens or Forte, or if one of the three linebackers – Lattimore in particular – goes down for an extended amount of time, or if Cosh is forced to go deep into his depth chart in the secondary. Offensively, everything will continue to run through Daniels’ arm and legs; while he is entering his fourth season as the Bulls’ starter, I’m not confident in Daniels’ ability to take advantage of the weapons at his disposal at receiver. Where U.S.F. will win games on offense is by running the football effectively, something it can do if the interior of the line rounds into form.

I’m putting U.S.F. behind Cincinnati, Louisville and Rutgers – that’s in alphabetical order, by the way – but hedging my bets with this projection: If Daniels provides balance to the offense, the front seven remains healthy and a cornerback steps up opposite of Webster, the Bulls should win the Big East. My issue is that I can’t see all of those events coming to pass – if even just one of them.

Dream season The Bulls lose to Florida State, as expected, and drop a Big East game at Cincinnati. But that’s all for U.S.F., which nets its first double-digit win season, first Big East title and first B.C.S. berth.

Nightmare season U.S.F. drops every conference road game – Temple, Louisville and Cincinnati – and two Big East home games, to Rutgers and Pittsburgh. These five are joined by losses to Nevada, Florida State and Miami (Fla.), handing the Bulls eight losses for the first time in school history.

In case you were wondering

Where do South Florida fans congregate? As always, begin with the independent site. In South Florida’s case, it’s The Bulls Pen. If you’re more interested in recruiting, check out USFNation.com and USFBullsEye.com. Fans can also find local coverage at the Web sites of The Tampa Bay Times and The Tampa Tribune. For a blog’s take, visit Voodoo Five and The Bull Rush.

South Florida’s all-name nominee C Thor Jozwiak.

Word Count

Through 78 teams 306,030.

Up Next

Who is No. 46? The president of tomorrow’s university was once a judge; the school’s two live mascots are judges, in a way, though it’s unclear just in what court they currently serve.

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Comments

  1. DotBone89 says:

    Baylor up next.

    (gotta love my screwed up sleep cycle)

  2. Jim Narby says:

    Nebraska must be next

  3. Dave says:

    GOT to have a post here on PSR on Penn State’s sanctions today – level of discourse on the rest of the web is awful…Paul, I think you made it clear your were for death penalty earlier – are you satisfied with what the NCAA just announced?

  4. DotBone89 says:

    The penalties are not the “Death Penalty”, as much as the “Coma Penalty”.

  5. Lane says:

    Go Bulls!
    Thanks for the article, Paul.

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