It's not at all uncommon when a traditional major conference powerhouse turns to the ranks of so-called "directional schools" for its season opener. These games are usually seen as good opportunities to hide early team weaknesses and at the same time get back in the groove of game situations before moving on to tougher conference opponents. However, the Crimson Tide won't be facing just another cupcake when the South Florida Bulls run into Birmingham's Legion Field on Saturday.
The University of South Florida, located in Tampa, should definitely not be confused for a "small school." Its enrollment of over 39,000 is almost twice that of the University of Alabama, and it sports other campuses in Sarasota, Lakeland and St. Petersburg.
The Bull that is most famous (or perhaps infamous) for most Alabama fans is head coach Jim Leavitt, who very publicly announced his intentions to stay in Tampa when he was mentioned as a replacement for former Tide coach Dennis Franchione. USF president Judy Genshaft went so far as to say, "Eat your heart out, Alabama," when Leavitt announced his contract extension with the Bulls. In truth, Leavitt admits he was never offered the job.
Leavitt commented on the game. "With me being involved with an interview with Alabama (last winter), and to get to know their program, what a great opportunity for South Florida to be able to line up and play one of the great traditional schools in the country. It ought to be interesting and it ought to be exciting.
"Getting ready for Alabama is a little bit difficult because we don't know, with coach Mike Shula coming in, we don't know exactly what offensively they are going to do. You can only guess at things and try to do the best you can preparing. We will try to adjust on the run, so to speak, and go from there."
But all perceived insult aside, it was often South Florida opponents that were eating their hearts out in 2002, as USF charged to an impressive 9-2 record. Although some of these wins came against less than stellar competition, the then D-1 Independents (South Florida has since joined Conference USA) also defeated the likes of Southern Mississippi, East Carolina, Memphis, and Sun Belt Conference champions North Texas. The Bulls only losses were on the road to Arkansas and Oklahoma. South Florida was blown out 42-3 by Arkansas, but put up a good fight against Big 12 power Oklahoma before falling 31-14.
USF is thought of as a "wide open" team offensively, but their 2002 season actually showed a fairly balanced attack. The Bulls ran the ball 403 times, while they had 427 passing attempts. Leading rushers Clenton Crossley (5-10, 210, Jr) and Vince Brewer (5-10, 215, Sr) return in the backfield. Each tailback gained just over 400 yards on the ground last year.
However, South Florida will severely miss their undeniable offensive leader, quarterback Marquel Blackwell. Blackwell, now with the New York Jets, had been starting behind center for the Bulls since half way through his redshirt freshman season. A rare combination of speed and throwing power, the loss of Blackwell's offensive production will be hard to make up for.
The task of filling his shoes falls to junior Ronnie Banks, a 6-3, 240-pound tank of a quarterback who the South Florida coaches believe has a stronger arm than Blackwell. However, they also note that Banks lacks the mobility and elusiveness that Blackwell possessed. Banks is expected to be used in more of a traditional drop-back passing scheme.
"Ronnie has been a tremendous leader in the spring," Leavitt said. "He has always had a big arm. He has been in our system, he is a red-shirt junior, he's anxious, he's confident, he's excited. He's not the same kind of player Marquel is, but can he better? Well we'll see, I don't know, maybe."
"He's done a good job," Leavitt continued. "I have great confidence in him, I really do. He knows the offense well and he's throwing the ball well. I am not too concerned about him quite honestly. I think he'll be fine."
Banks will be throwing to one seasoned veteran, and one new young talent at wide receiver. Senior Huey Whittaker will have the size advantage over almost any cornerback he plays. Standing at 6-5, and weighing 225 pounds, Whittaker is the Bulls' record holder with most catches in a season and most receiving yards in a season. Opposite Whittaker will be another tall receiver, true freshman S.J. Green. Green will be hoping his 6-3, 200-pound frame can overcome some of his inexperience as he takes his first collegiate snaps against some seasoned Tide defensive backs. Brian Fisher (5-9, 180, Jr) and Travis Lipp (5-11, 185, So) are also listed as starters at wide receiver, though South Florida is expected to play as many as eight different wideouts.
The Bulls have a good-sized offensive line, with center Alex Herron being the smallest (Herron weighs in right at 280 pounds). All five starters return from last season's unit. Left tackle Derrick Sarosi (6-6, 295, Jr) is the leader of the unit. Levi Newton (6-4, 305, Jr) starts at right tackle. Guards Shelly Houston (6-3, 295, So) and Chris Carothers round out the starting unit.
On the other side of the football, South Florida's defensive line looks small on the surface. No USF defensive line starter weighs more than 280 pounds, which could spell trouble against the talented (and huge) Tide O-Line. Lee Roy Selmon (5-11, 280, Sr) sports a famous name, but the son of South Florida's current Athletics Director is nowhere near as talented as the previous generation of Selmons who made the name famous playing for Oklahoma. From 2002 to this year, the Bulls have had to find replacements at all four D-Line slots. Tim Jones (6-3, 265, Jr) and Terrence Royal (6-3, 255, So) will start at end. Nose Tackle Craig Kobel (6-2, 265, Jr) rounds out the starting unit.
After studying film, Mike Shula says the Bulls do an excellent job of protecting the quarterback.
South Florida's outside linebackers, Devon Davis (6-3, 225, So) and Courtney Davenport (6-1, 220, Sr), could also be called "smallish". However, Alabama fans know that speed can often make up for bulk at the outside linebacker position. This tandem will rely on their quickness to make plays. Middle linebacker Maurice Jones (6-2, 245, Sr) is being touted as an all-star.
If you could pick one word to describe the South Florida secondary, it would have to be "experienced." Of the four starters in the Bull defensive backfield, three are seniors. Only cornerback Bruce Gipson (5-10, 180) is a junior. Gipson could be a problem, however, as he has been a wide receiver for most of his career in Tampa. The other three are returning starters, including star safety J.R. Reed (5-11, 200, Sr), who led the team last year with six interceptions, taking one back for a score. Strong safety Kevin Verpaele (6-0, 195, Sr) also notched three picks last season, while corner Ron Hemingway (5-11, 175, Sr) intercepted five balls.
Alabama's coaches have been particularly impressed with South Florida's safeties.
A familiar name handles the placekicking duties for the Bulls. Santiago Gramatica (5-10, 165, Jr), brother of NFL kickers Martin and Bill Gramatica, will be kicking for USF on Saturday. He should be an interesting story to follow, given his family history of field goals of superhuman length and celebrations of questionable magnitude.
Playing in front of 80,000+ will be out of the ordinary for South Florida, but they've gone on the road in front of hostile crowds before. Leavitt isn't worried about the noise. "No, not really. Last year we piped in all kinds of noise and all this kind of stuff for the Arkansas game and we didn't play very well, so we didn't do a thing for Oklahoma and we still lost, so I don't know. We don't have the capabilities really to make it loud or to simulate 80-some-thousand people, so we'll just go out practice and we'll holler at them a little bit and that will be about it."
Some fans groaned when they saw that Alabama had scheduled the University of South Florida a couple of years back. However, since then Coach Leavitt has shaped the Bulls into a formidable opponent that can give almost any top college team a run for its money. Now, it's Coach Mike Shula's first task as the head coach at The University to make sure that the "running of the Bulls" goes straight out of Legion Field, and back to Tampa with a defeat.
The Tide staff has gone out of its way this summer to keep the specifics of Bama's new offense under wraps. The idea was to make it difficult for South Florida (and Oklahoma next week) to adequately prepare.
"I really don't have an answer; I really don't," Leavitt said. "People can speculate all they want about all the different things you have to look at but until that group gets together and they have to see the personnel they have and they have to do what's best for their team. You don't really know. If you limit your preparations too much then you don't have answers to things that might be hurting you during the game I don't know. Yet if you do too much and they do a whole lot of different things then that's difficult, too."
This will be the first meeting between Alabama and South Florida.