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July 12, 2008
THE SCHEME: The Bulls use a spread attack, and this season's offense – like last season's – will revolve around junior quarterback Matt Grothe.
STAR POWER: Grothe lacks ideal size – he's listed at 6-0, with the emphasis on listed – but he generally comes through. He is a good scrambler and seems to have an innate sense as to the last possible instant he can get rid of the ball. He has a nice arm as well, though he needs to understand he can't always fit the ball into a tight spot. He has thrown 29 TD passes in the past two seasons, but he also has thrown 28 picks. He has rushed for 1,494 yards and 19 TDs in the past two seasons, and is the Bulls' leading returning rusher. If he gets hurt, USF is in trouble.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: No true or redshirt freshman is expected to start. Unless there's an injury, it's unlikely any newcomer will play valuable minutes.
IT'S HIS TIME: He's only a sophomore, but tailback Mike Ford still needs to live up to the high school hype. He was a mega-recruit as a high school senior out of Sarasota (Fla.) High and signed with Alabama in 2005. He didn't make the grade, and after two years of prep school he signed with USF last season. He ran for 12 touchdowns but too often played second-fiddle to 5-7 Benjamin Williams, who began his career as a walk-on. Ford did play better late in the season, but he still lacked the burst that separates stars from journeymen. For USF to be as good as it can be, Ford needs to be a 1,000-yard guy.
STRONGEST AREA: The line returns four starters, and three of those are seniors – center Jake Griffin, left guard Ryan Schmidt and left tackle Marc Dile. Each of that trio has all-league potential, with Schmidt probably the best of the bunch. The other returning starter is sophomore right guard Zach Hermann, and the one new starter is sophomore right tackle Jacob Sims. But depth is a big issue here, because no backup is proven.
WEAKEST AREA: There isn't a glaring weakness on the offense. We've talked about the running game, so we'll go with the wide receivers. It's a solid group, but no one truly stands out. Seniors Marcus Edwards and Taurus Johnson are expected to start, but neither is going to strike fear in opposing secondaries. Sophomores Carlton Mitchell and Dontavia Bogan are guys to keep an eye on. Mitchell has great size (6-4/210) and has 50-catch potential, while Bogan could end up being the Bulls' best deep threat. Again, the receivers really aren't a weakness – just a group that needs to play better.
OVERVIEW: Grothe is fun to watch and makes this offense go. But too often last season, he was the only playmaker. That has to change. There's no reason the passing attack can't move from a national top-60 unit to one that ranks in the top 40. In that regard, it's incumbent that Grothe cut down on his interceptions. USF also needs Ford – or someone else – to emerge as a star at tailback. Grothe was the leading ground-gainer last season, and coordinator Greg Gregory doesn't want that to happen again. The Bulls also need someone to emerge as a legit go-to receiver.
THE SCHEME: The Bulls use a 4-3 set and have good speed all over the unit. Coordinator Wally Burnham likes his guys to be aggressive, though it will be interesting to see if he dials it back some this season because he has two new starting corners.
STAR POWER: Meet junior end George Selvie, who emerged from nowhere last season to earn All-America honors. Selvie, a cat-quick 242-pounder who was a high school center (seriously – he was a center!), had 31.5 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks. He sometimes can be overpowered by bigger tackles on running plays, but so what? The guy is an extraordinary pass-rusher even though he's still learning some of the nuances of the position. Every quarterback who plays against USF this season will make it a priority to watch out for Selvie.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: For the most part, this is an experienced unit. Backup end David Bedford, a junior college transfer who has three seasons of eligibility, is someone to watch. He comes highly touted after compiling 13.5 sacks last season for Independence (Kan.) Community College. Bedford is expected to back up senior Jarriett Buie at the end spot opposite Selvie. Also watch for backup cornerbacks Tyson Butler and Quenton Washington. Both redshirt freshmen are from Fort Myers, Fla., about two hours south of the USF campus. They could see more time than expected if the two new starters at corner struggle.
IT'S HIS TIME: Senior cornerback Tyller Roberts has waited patiently and now gets to start. USF lost starting corners Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams, who were perhaps the best cornerback duo in the nation last season. Roberts has excellent size (6-1/185), comes from an excellent high school program (Orlando Edgewater) and has played well when he has been on the field. But he'll see a lot more action this season than he has in the past. Roberts and junior Jerome Murphy have big shoes to fill.
STRONGEST AREA: While the Bulls are breaking in two new corners, at least there's a nice safety duo. Free safety Nate Allen started last season because Danny Verpaele was ineligible. Well, Verpaele is back, but Allen is keeping the starting job after starring as a sophomore last season. Allen has good speed and is equally aplomb against the run and the pass. Senior strong safety Carlton Williams is huge (6-4/214) and a big-time hitter in run support. Depth is excellent with Verpaele and Louis Gachette.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Jenkins and Trae Williams combined for 96 tackles, nine interceptions, 23 pass breakups and six tackles for loss last season. That's a ton of production to lose, but coaches are hopeful Roberts and Murphy – who has great speed – will make sure there isn't that much of a drop-off. In addition, keep an eye on the new nose tackle. Richard Clebert was disruptive in the middle last season but is gone. He'll be replaced by sophomore Terrell McClain, who wasn't that productive as a reserve last season.
OVERVIEW: Even with the new corners, expect Burnham to be as aggressive as possible because a veteran safety tandem is a nice last line of defense. There is good speed in the front seven and the Bulls can be expected to get after the opposing quarterback. Selvie is hard to handle and his presence gives teammates opportunities to make plays when opponents key on him. USF lost star middle linebacker Ben Moffit, and Tyrone McKenzie has moved from the strongside to the middle. McKenzie has better physical tools than Moffit, but Moffitt always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Regardless, USF will put three speedy 'backers on the field. Junior college transfer Kion Wilson is expected to see a lot of time at linebacker. USF lost four key players off the defense, but, really, the drop-off won't be noticeable as long as Selvie, McKenzie and Allen play up to their capabilities.
Junior Delbert Alvarado again is expected to handle the punting and kicking chores, and he probably is better as a punter than a kicker. He averaged 41.6 yards per boot and dropped 17 inside the 20. He was 19 of 29 on field-goal attempts, but his consistency from kick to kick – much less game to game – is lacking. He also had three field-goal attempts and one punt blocked. USF signed a punter and a kicker/punter to keep Alvarado on his toes, as it were. For a team with this much speed and athleticism, the return units were mediocre last season. But the coverage units were solid, especially the punt-coverage team.
Jim Leavitt is the only coach the Bulls have known, and he has done an unreal job building this program from scratch. A lot of folks derided USF after it lost three in a row after reaching No. 2 in the polls last season. Instead, those folks should be lauding USF for reaching No. 2 in the polls in just its 11th season of college football. Leavitt is a good motivator who made his coaching bones as a defensive assistant under Bill Snyder at Kansas State (people forget that Leavitt and Bob Stoops were co-defensive coordinators with the Wildcats before both moved on). Burnham is a top-notch defensive coordinator; he has a bunch of good athletes to work with and he puts them in position to make plays. The jury still is out on Gregory as offensive coordinator. Too often, the Bulls seem to get into a "hey, let's just let Grothe do something" mode on offense. There are two new assistants this season: defensive line coach John Hendrick (from Division I-AA South Carolina State) and defensive end coach Kevin Patrick (back at USF after nine years in private business). Hendrick perhaps is best-known for not allowing players to curse.
The Bulls play five games before September ends, including an intriguing Friday night ESPN matchup with Kansas in Tampa. Two other potentially tough non-conference games are on the road, against UCF and NC State. The first conference game is a big one, Oct. 2 against Pitt. That comes just five days after the Bulls play at NC State. Each of the league road games has a degree of difficulty: Louisville, Cincinnati and West Virginia. The Bulls get Rutgers and Connecticut at home in back-to-back weeks in November. It's still humid in Florida in November, so the weather could be a big advantage for USF in those contests.
USF was one of the biggest feel-good stories of last season, ascending to No. 2 in the polls after early season upsets of Auburn and West Virginia. But a three-game losing streak in late October/early November brought them back to earth, and USF looked awful in getting mauled by Oregon in the Sun Bowl. No matter – this remains a program on the rise. Grothe is simply a winner at quarterback, and the offense could be even more productive if Ford plays up to his hype. Defensively, USF always should be good. The Bulls have a ton of good athletes, and those athletes are allowed to attack and make plays. The schedule is a tough one, though, and while a 10-victory season is possible, eight or nine seems more likely. One thing to consider: USF has won despite not reeling in much elite talent on the recruiting trail. That seems to be changing this year.
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.