Blue Ribbon Preview: South Florida
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One of USF coach Skip Holtz's favorite things about spring practice this year was that he didn't have to put any tape on players' helmets with their names scrawled across it.
"You learn everybody's face, and then you go out onto the field, and you say, 'Who's number nine?' Holtz said, laughing.
Such is the life of a coach who takes over a program. Before you can even worry about whether anybody can play football, you have to learn who's who. Last season, it would seem as if Holtz and his staff accomplished that quickly and were able to move on to the business of putting together a team. The Bulls finished 8-5 and dumped Clemson in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Even though its 3-4 league record wasn't overwhelming, USF knocked off Miami on the road and came within a touchdown of three Big East opponents.
"I tell the team we were three plays away from 11 wins," Holtz said. "Of course, some might say we were three plays away from five wins."
You get the picture, right? USF was not a juggernaut last season. It was, however, a solid team that won eight games for the third straight year and allowed Holtz to lay a foundation for bigger things. There's no guarantee those will come in 2011, because the Bulls lost 12 starters, but there is definitely the chance for USF to win eight games again and improve its lot within the Big East.
Holtz cites the continuity that comes from moving past that "getting to know you" stage and beginning a second season with an entire crop of assistants intact and enough talent and experience to create a sense of confidence -- or at least an idea of how the team will be able to proceed in 2011.
"This spring, we felt good about where we are," Holtz said. "We understand what we have."
The Bulls don't have a national title contender. They may not even challenge for the Big East title, although the league is as wide open as any in the country. Part of that stems from a small senior class (12 members) and questions of depth at a variety of positions. USF has talent, and the young people who are stepping in for departed starters may actually be better than their predecessors. The return from injury of some key wideouts will fortify that area, and the arrivals of several highly-touted newcomers will upgrade the talent levels at several spots.
But that experience problem is one that could prove to be daunting. Even though there are a lot of juniors on the team this year, many haven't played a lot. Usually, a coach wants to rely on his seniors for leadership and productivity. USF just doesn't have a lot of them this year and only five of them ended the spring atop their positions on the depth chart.
"When you look at most of the players around the country who are making big splashes, most of them are juniors and seniors," Holtz said. "Underclassmen want to play and start. Upperclassmen want to win."
We'll learn a lot about the Bulls quickly, because they open at South Bend, where Holtz was an assistant for eight years and where his father coached Notre Dame to its last national title (1988) during his tenure there. "One of my friends joked that I had better turn and run to the correct sideline when I come out of the tunnel there," Holtz said. The Bulls play Miami again, this time at home, and have four of their seven Big East games on the road. It's not a killer schedule, but it's certainly challenging, especially the games with Notre Dame and Miami.
"The opportunity to play Notre Dame and Miami is an opportunity to play national games," Holtz said. "That's the level we want to play. The only way to understand that is to get on the field. You can't understand it by watching on TV or reading about it. You have to buckle up the chinstrap and play."
Head Coach: Skip Holtz (Notre Dame '86)
Record at school: 8-5 (1 year)
Career record: 46-32 (6 years)
• Rick Smith (Florida State '71) Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Backs
• Todd Fitch (Ohio Wesleyan '86) Offensive Coordinator/Running Backs
• Mark Snyder (Marshall '88) Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers
• Vernon Hargreaves (Connecticut '86) Special Teams Coordinator/Defensive Ends
• Phil McGeoghan (Maine '08) Wide Receivers
• Kevin Patrick (Miami '94) Defensive Tackles
• Larry Scott (USF '00) Tight Ends
• Steve Shankweiler (Davidson '74) Offensive Line
• Peter Vaas (Holy Cross '74) Quarterbacks
When Holtz took over last year, he had one QB at his disposal, B.J. Daniels (6-1, 214), then a sophomore used to running a spread formation. That was it.
"When I told the quarterbacks to walk over to a spot on the field, one guy went over," Holtz said.
That's different now. Not only is Daniels back and comfortable with the system run by Holtz and coordinator Todd Fitch, sophomore Bobby Eveld (6-4, 209), who threw 75 passes in seven games last year, and true freshman Matt Floyd (6-1, 191), who enrolled early and took part in spring drills, are on board.
"We have a better quarterback situation than we had a year ago," Holtz said. "We have an experienced quarterback and two promising young quarterbacks."
Daniels exploded onto the scene in 2009 when, as a redshirt freshman, he led the Bulls to an upset win over Florida State. Last season, he completed 58.4 percent of his passes for 1,685 yards, 11 TDs and 13 interceptions, as he grappled with learning both a new system and the QB position. Were he more experienced Daniels would have been able to absorb the information of the new offense and apply it smoothly. Because of his inexperience, he struggled. One example of that came in the waning moments of the first half of the Bulls' game with Florida. USF held a 7-0 lead and faced a third-and-seven from its own 20.
Fitch called a screen pass that didn't set up well. Instead of throwing the ball into the ground, Daniels forced a pass that was intercepted. Florida scored to tie the game before intermission and gained momentum that helped it to a 38-14 win. This season, Holtz expects Daniels to be much more effective, thanks to a greater familiarity with the offense and another year of maturation.
"We know he's athletic," Holtz said. "Now we're feeling good about his understanding of the game. He's making good decisions, and we can utilize more of his strengths."
Eveld didn't receive a scholarship offer from the many colleges that recruited him and walked on at USF. He saw some time against Stony Brook and sporadically against four other opponents before his big day against Miami. Eveld entered the game in the second half and completed 8-of-15 passes for 120 yards. Three big connections came on the late drive that tied the game at 17 and forced overtime. Eveld's 1-yard sneak culminated the drive.
In overtime, Miami kicked a field goal to make it 20-17, and Eveld brought the Bulls to the Hurricane 10, first-and-goal. Fitch called for a double slant, a call that Holtz immediately ridiculed. After the game, he explained his momentary dissatisfaction.
"It's like, 'What are you thinking? You need a field goal, you've got a freshman quarterback and you're going to have him throw the ball over the middle?' I said on the headsets, 'This is a stupid call' -- till Joel Miller caught it on the 1."
Demetris Murray's 1-yard run gave USF the win and solidified Eveld's legend.
This spring, Eveld built on his solid debut while fending off the challenge of Floyd (Milton HS/Milton, Fla.). He threw for 1,711 yards and 14 touchdowns last year, while running for 421 yards and nine scores. His presence gives Holtz security at the position and leaves him with a decision to make.
"I'd love to redshirt one of the quarterbacks," he says, referring to Eveld and Floyd. That tells you Floyd has a chance to be the backup this year, and it will be interesting to see how things play out.
The Bulls may have lost last year's top rusher, Moise Plancher (793 yards, five TDs), but they have a strong collection of backs at their disposal that boasts some variety of skill, along with fairly solid depth. "It's a competitive situation," Holtz said.
The most likely starter is Demetris Murray, (5-10, 202), a junior who finished second on the team last year with 542 yards and four scores. Murray is a solid performer who does a lot of things well but isn't going to overwhelm teams with his talent. He's best getting about 15 carries a game and can be a weapon in the passing game after catching 11 passes and scoring twice in 2010.
He'll battle for the starting spot with 6-1, 230-pound junior Darrell Scott (University of Colorado/St. Bonaventure HS/Ventura, Calif.). Scott was a highly-touted recruit in Boulder but never lived up to the advance notice. Though he played a lot as a freshman, in 2008, and gained 343 yards, he was criticized for being out of shape the following season and saw his rushing total drop to 95 yards.
Scott brings power, but he also has some speed, as evidenced by his work as a kick returner for the Buffaloes in 2009. If Scott is in shape and focused, he can be a solid weapon for the Bulls.
The final member of the starting running back competition is sophomore Marcus Shaw (5-9, 187) who rushed for 105 yards on just 12 carries last year and has great speed. He may not be ready for full-time work, but he'll give USF a nice changeup.
"Shaw is the speed, space guy, Murray is the all-around guy, and Scott is more of a power guy," Holtz said. "All three are talented enough to be starters, but Murray and Scott will likely be the two main guys."
Expect depth to come from sophomore Bradley Battles (5-8, 203) and powerful 5-9, 224-pound sophomore Dontae Aycock (Auburn/Chamberlain HS/Tampa, Fla.), who transferred home to USF after redshirting the 2009 season at Auburn. As a prep senior, he rushed and passed for more than 1,400 yards.
The Bulls' passing game took quite a hit last year, thanks to the serious injuries suffered by A.J. Love (knee) and Sterling Griffin (ankle). Although last year's top receiver, Dontavia Bogan (47 catches, six TDs) has departed, the returns of Love and Griffin, along with the expected solid contributions of junior Evan Landi (6-3, 221) and junior Lindsey Lamar (5-8, 161) and the arrivals of three highly-regarded newcomers, should give USF a solid corps of targets.
Landi made the switch from QB to wideout last year and was a reliable target who occasionally could make a big play, averaging 14 yards on his 28 catches. "He's dependable and catches the ball well," Holtz. "He knows what to do and brings stability."
Love (6-2, 205) is a sixth-year senior who caught 31 balls in 2008 and 26 in '09. He showed the ability to get downfield two seasons ago and brings experience along with some speed. Griffin (6-1, 192) caught 14 passes and scored two times in '09 and averaged a whopping 18.9 yards per catch.
Speedy sophomore Terrence Mitchell (5-10, 157), who was part of the 400-meter relay team that finished second at the Big East outdoor championships, finished the spring atop the depth chart at flanker, although it's more likely he'll be behind Love when the season starts. Still, he is a weapon.
Senior Joel Miller (5-10, 194), who moved to receiver from cornerback last year and made 11 catches, looked more comfortable at the slot position during the spring.
Holtz was happy with the spring junior Victor Marc (5-10, 208) had and expects him to find his way into the rotation, as could sophomore Derrick Hopkins (5-5, 155), who won the Big East 100-meter dash.
Freshman Andre Davis (Jefferson HS/Tampa, Fla.) is 6-1, 197 pounds and fast, while 6-2, 194-pound Ruben Gonzalez (Robinson HS/Tampa, Fla.) has size and speed.
Because depth is a concern, versatility was the theme for the spring, at least along the offensive line. "The key to the spring was that everybody had to learn two positions," Holtz said.
With only two starters returning, it's hard to be certain what the first five will look like, especially in light of Holtz's mandate for his linemen to diversify. The losses of first-team All-Big East center Sampson Genus and second-team all-league tackle Jacob Sims leave two big holes in the line. The loss of tackle Jamar Bass, who was a fixture at tackle for much of his last two seasons, hurts, too.
The guard positions are set, thanks to the returns of seniors Jeremiah Warren (6-4, 327) and Chaz Hine (6-4, 296), both of whom have been stalwarts the last two seasons. But each could be playing a different position at least part of the time this year. Hine spent time at guard and center this spring, while Warren slid to tackle on occasion. Their mobility highlights the Bulls' strength up the middle, despite Genus' departure. Senior Kevin McCaskill (6-0, 315) is a center by trade, but he could play guard, and junior Danous Estenor (6-3, 296) has that flexibility, too.
A couple of youngsters, sophomore John McGhin (6-4, 324) and redshirt freshman Austin Reiter (6-4, 273) are making strides and could contribute inside, too.
For now, the left tackle spot belongs to junior Mark Popek (6-7, 283), while redshirt freshman Quinterrius Eatmon (6-6, 299) looked good on the right. "I think he's going to be a really good football player," Holtz said. "This isn't a thing where he won the position by default. He played at a high level this spring."
Senior Darren Powe (6-3, 293) and junior Damien Edwards (6-5, 321) will vie for backup work.
A trio of freshmen arrives with the opportunity to fill backup roles immediately. Unlike many newcomers, 6-5, 268-pound Max Lang (Boone HS/Orlando, Fla.), 6-3, 290-pound Thor Jozwiak (Lake Region HS/Eagle Lake, Fla.) and Bryniar Gudmundsson (Wellington HS/Wellington, Fla.), who goes 6-4, 285, are ready to compete.
Despite the loss of three 2010 starters, including first-team All-Big East tackle Terrell McClain, Holtz is upbeat about his line's prospects this season. Even though there is no one player capable of replacing McClain, the Bulls should have improved depth and increased production, at least on the outside.
Holtz can say with a high degree of certainty that junior Cory Grisssom (6-2, 317) and senior Keith McCaskill (6-0, 286) will start at the tackle spots. Grissom started all 13 games last year and had three tackles for loss, while McCaskill made 14 stops last year, four behind the line.
"Grissom had a great spring, and I love the way McCaskill plays," Holtz said. "He doesn't have the measurables of Terrell McClain, but he has a great motor."
The question in the middle revolves around the backup brigade. Holtz subscribes to the old Earle Bruce adage that "you need a pair, and you need a spare" at every position. So, he's hoping to find three more tackles he can rotate through. Right now, the top candidates are sophomores Luke Sager (6-3, 276) and Demi Thompson (6-1, 273) and redshirt freshman Todd Chandler (6-0, 308). It's possible that 6-4, 310-pound true freshman Marquis White (North Carolina Tech/Olympia HS/Orlando, Fla.) could find his way into the rotation.
Even though 2010 starters David Bedford and Craig Marshall are gone, Holtz is enthused about sophomore Ryne Giddins (6-3, 259) and senior Patrick Hampton (6-0, 240). Giddins had 3.5 sacks last year and is the highest-rated prep player on the USF roster, so it's time for him to become a standout. Hampton had 2.5 sacks last year and is a steady performer.
"I feel very good about the productivity we'll get from the position," Holtz said. "Both players are talented and productive. They don't have the height Marshall and Bedford had, but if you look at their speed and tenacity, we have a chance to be more productive there."
Senior Claude Davis (6-2, 233), sophomore Julius Forte (6-2, 262) and junior Anthony Hill (6-4, 293), a converted tackle, will vie for time on the outside.
Holtz expects this position group to have some of the same flexibility as the offensive line, with players filling a couple different roles until a defined rotation is established.
If the season started today, the trio would probably include junior Sam Barrington (6-1, 235) on the strong side, junior Michael Lanaris (6-0, 237) in the middle, and sophomore DeDe Lattimore (6-2, 237) on the weak side. That, however, is subject to change. "It could be a case of musical chairs, because we don't have depth there," Holtz said. Lattimore had a great 2010 season, finishing second on the team with 69 tackles, including 6.5 for loss. Barrington wasn't too far behind him, registering 65 tackles, while Lanaris had 29 in a backup role.
Because those three have pretty good experience, the work for the coaching staff comes from building a solid reserve line. Holtz was impressed with redshirt freshman Reshard Cliett (6-2, 220), who was moved from safety and was considered a "pleasant surprise" this spring by the head coach. Senior Curtis Weatherspoon (6-0, 215) came to the program as a junior college transfer and has the potential to become a more significant contributor this season. Speaking of JC newcomers, 6-0, 216-pound hitter Mike Jeune (Independence [Kansas] CC/Terry Parker HS/Jacksonville, Fla.), made an impression during the spring, showing he can play either outside spot.
Because the backup brigade is not completely set, there could be work for newcomers Zach Bullock (Sebring HS/Sebring, Fla.), a 6-4, 206-pounder, and Corian Hamilton (Olympia HS/Orlando, FL), a 6-1, 224-pounder whom Holtz said "physically has a chance."
The strength of the defense could well be the secondary, which returns three starters and several key reserves. The most important job is determining whether junior Kayvon Webster (5-11, 193) can move from nickel corner into the starting role held down by second-team All-Big East performer Mistral Raymond. "Webster played a lot last year," Holtz said. "We felt like we had three starters a year ago." Webster made 29 tackles last year and gets the left side to himself.
Senior Quenton Washington (5-10, 190) returns at right corner after making 59 tackles and breaking up four passes. There are several candidates to take Webster's "third starter" spot, most notably juniors George Baker (5-11, 180) and Ernie Tabuteau (5-10, 181) and sophomore Ricardo Dixon (5-10, 173).
All four safeties return from last year, and Holtz is hoping for more production from them. Leading the way is senior Jerrell Young (6-1, 208), the free safety who led the team with three picks last year. Junior Jon Lejiste (5-11, 201) made 43 tackles and was third on the team with 7.5 tackles for loss.
Holtz was impressed by senior Tyson Butler (5-11, 203) during the spring, but Butler sprained an ankle and missed half the practices. He can swing to corner if necessary. Sophomores JaQuez Jenkins (6-2, 186) and Mark Joyce (5-10, 200) provide backup.
With all the speed on the Bulls roster, it stands to reason they have some weapons in the return game. Take Lamar, who was the Big East Special Teams Player of the Year after averaging 26.6 yards per kick return and taking a pair to the house. Then there's Mitchell, who has speed to burn and averaged 11.0 yards every time he returned a punt.
"He has the chance to make things happen with the ball under his arm, but he didn't catch the ball as consistently as we wanted him to last year," Holtz said.
The USF coverage units could use some improving. Rivals brought a punt back for a score against the Bulls, and opposing kick returners averaged 21.8 yards, too much. Adding depth to the linebacking and secondary groups will help those two areas.
When 2010 began, junior Maikon Bonani (5-9, 191) was on the bench behind Eric Schwartz. But when Schwartz struggled, making just 1-of-5 placement attempts, Bonani got the job and didn't let go. He converted 17-of-21 tries and was a solid 4-of-6 from 40-49 yards. Though he didn't flex a gigantic leg, he was solid throughout the year. "It's hard to go away from him and what he did last year," Holtz said.
Bonani is a great story. He made 15-of-21 kicks as a freshman in 2008 but then suffered a broken vertebra the following summer while working at Busch Gardens. He missed 2009 and returned last year to reclaim the job. Now, he's the main man, with redshirt freshman Marvin Kloss (6-0, 191) in reserve. He was rated the No. 7 kicker in the country as a prep senior.
There is an interesting competition taking place for the starting punting job between last year's incumbent, Justin Brockhaus-Kann (6-2, 226), a junior, and redshirt freshman Chris Veron (6-3, 214).
Brockhaus-Kann averaged 37.6 yards per punt last year, hardly an inspiring total. That's why he finished the spring behind Veron, who averaged 45.5 yards per kick during scrimmages. The numbers don't lie. Starting this summer, Veron has to prove he can do it when the pressure is turned up.
"Last year, Brockhaus-Kann started struggling and overanalyzing himself," Holtz said. "He worried about his drop, his steps and his mechanics. He has a very strong leg, and he has experience.
"The thing Veron has is that kicking is a measurable function. How long does the ball stay in the air, and how far does it go? He did that better in the spring, but we have two very strong-legged punters, and it's going to be a heckuva competition in the fall. This summer will be important. They can gain confidence and come to camp ready to kick."
The Bulls may not be making great use of too many fresh faces this year, but that doesn't mean they didn't get some keepers. Floyd showed during the spring that he has the potential to be a productive QB and could actually end up being the primary backup this year, if Eveld redshirts.
Holtz hopes Davis and/or Gonzalez can contribute at wideout this year, while it's possible Lang, Jozwiak or Gudmundsson could fill a reserve role on the offensive line right away.
Jeune used the spring to find his way into the linebacker rotation, and White could get some time in the middle of the D-line. Bullock and Hamilton are reserve candidates at linebacker, and 6-1, 210-pound Antoine Pozniak (Oak Ridge Academy/Jersey City, N.J), has potential down the road, as does 6-1, 195-pound Edsel Caprice (Cape Coral HS/Cape Coral, Fla.).
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Holtz enters his second season in Tampa upbeat, and he should be. His entire staff returns, ensuring continuity in recruiting and instruction. There are enough starters back to ensure a nucleus of proven performers on both sides of the ball. And this crop of newcomers follows a solid 2010 class that should keep things moving toward the future.
The key to the offense is Daniels, who must become a sharper passer and a better decision-maker. Though he has seen a lot during his two years as primary starter, he is still learning, and how well the lessons stick will determine if USF has a potent attack or one that misfires at times. He'll have the benefit of a deep receiving corps, although game breakers do not abound, and a trio of running backs who should provide a solid ground complement to the passing game. If the line comes around, USF will be potent.
Holtz's defense lacks depth along the front seven, but its starting contingent should be productive. If quality reserves emerge, USF will be pretty tough. The secondary has better depth, although a sound third cornerback needs to show himself; now it's time for the defensive backs to be more productive.
USF is well positioned within a Big East that lacks a monster atop the league. The race for the title should be pretty interesting, and it's possible five wins might take it. USF can't be considered a favorite, because there are too many variables that can cause worry, but the Bulls have the potential to be a solid team and should play in another bowl. Whether that is of the BCS variety depends on how well the second 22 fortify the starters.
BLUE RIBBON: BIG EAST PREVIEWS
"Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook" previews the 2011 season for each Big East school. Take a look: