It all started in 1996, when the program was started from scratch, transforming a major urban university campus into a member of the college football fraternity. The immediate transition at hand at that time was simple things like buying footballs, equipment, laundry machines, tape, down-and-distance markers and the plethora of items needed just to run a play.
USF mastered the details early and set a course to make a transition into I-A football and Conference USA by 2001. The Bulls did indeed make that move to I-A in just its fifth season, but the Conference USA affiliation waited until 2003, simply setting the stage for USF to make yet another successful transition phase. The Bulls went 4-0 against C-USA teams in 2002, a year before official membership, and then staged a 5-3 C-USA season and tied for third place in their 2003 debut.
In seven years, USF is a remarkable 51-26, and other than a 5-6 inaugural season in 1997, the program has won at least seven games in each of the remaining six years of football. In fact head coach Jim Leavitt has reached 50 career wins faster than all but six active I-A coaches, placing him in the company of coaches like Joe Paterno, John Robinson, Philip Fulmer and Bob Stoops.
Now with the BIG EAST looming, some may question USF's focus on 2004, only the second, yet final season for the Bulls in the league. But there are at least 23 good reasons – and certainly far more – that USF is concentrated intensely on 2004. There are 23 seniors that have one final opportunity at a conference championship and what they hope will be a first-ever Bowl bid for the "think big" USF program.
Perhaps none of the seniors can sum it up better than Lee Roy Selmon, Jr., who is a sixth-year player (received two medical redshirt seasons) and has seen more of the program than any player on the roster.
"I'm looking forward to getting after it," Selmon said as the 2004 spring season closed. "We've got one more shot at (the) Conference USA (title)."
The Bulls head into their final opportunity in Conference USA with a team that is a microcosm of the program's transition theme. Other than the offensive line – where every starter is back for a second straight season – almost every segment of the team appears to be in transition.
At the most crucial position – quarterback – it's year two of the transition from four-year starter Marquel Blackwell. There's essentially a completely new – yet extremely talented – group of receivers, and in the backfield, only Clenton Crossley returns from a group of four players who essentially platooned as the feature back.
On defense, much of the line returns, but five of the six linebackers on the two-deep are largely untested, as are half the secondary players.
But talent is not considered a problem. In fact, Leavitt has never thought of talent as an issue. The head coach has always maintained the talent is in place to be successful, but it means nothing in and of itself without a commitment to work hard every single day in practice – and at every opportunity in the offseason. Things like tempo, efficiency and precision each and every day in practice remain the focal point of insuring success on game day.
"How hard our guys work over the summer may very well be the difference in how well we do this fall," insures Leavitt.
All that said, Leavitt likes what he sees in his 2004 team.
"Will we be a better team this year than this past year," Leavitt asks? "I don't know that. But we're better at this point (heading into the summer). We have a lot more weapons and playmakers on offense and defense. We have pretty good speed on the field."
To surpass the success of USF's 2003 debut in C-USA, the 2004 team will no doubt need to replicate the fortitude to fight in closely contested games. USF was 3-0 in double overtime wins in 2003, providing a major difference between a 7-4 season and a 4-7 season. In winning those three games, USF became the first program to ever win three OT games in one season.
Those overtime games were not the only closely contested games as two of USF's four losses – against TCU and UAB – were by three points. It may very well be the results of close games that measure how successful USF will be in its final season of Conference USA football.
USF remains committed to its up-tempo spread offense that features four and five receivers. But there was the unavoidable transition phase from Blackwell, who mastered the system from 1999-2002, to Ronnie Banks and Pat Julmiste, neither of whom had ever started a college game. The offensive numbers faltered in the transition, but progress continues to be made and there are promising signs for renewed proficiency in 2004.
There may be more outside speed from the receivers than last year and perhaps junior college transfer Andre Hall can light a spark in the running game that can lead to more freedom in the passing game.
The strength remains the offensive line, which returns every starter for a second straight season and features three seniors.
The cast remains the same in 2004, but Ronnie Banks (Sr., 6-3, 225) and Pat Julmiste (So., 6-5, 220) switch roles at the outset. In 2003, it was Banks who had to assume the large legacy left by Blackwell as he went into the season as the starter. Now, Julmiste jumps ahead of Banks at the outset, but does so with the knowledge that Banks will be pushing him every day.
Julmiste won the starting job between the close of the 2003 season and the end of spring this year, giving Leavitt confidence he's ready to assume the role.
"I think Pat has done a real good job," Leavitt says. "He was a lot better in the spring than he was last year. So I see improvement and that's something that's very important. He doesn't get rattled too much. He stays in there and just keeps moving. He's throwing the ball much better, he's got more command of the offense, and he's progressing. Is he there? No, he's not. But if he keeps working and going at this pace, he will get there. The thing that's encouraging is he's such a good guy and he works so hard and it means a lot to him. He moves extremely well, and he keeps the ball up well."
USF was 2-0 in Julmiste's two starts last season, those coming at East Carolina and Memphis. But, Banks played a major role in relief in the double overtime win at East Carolina, throwing two late touchdowns to seal the victory
Banks had opened the season as the starter and looked impressive in the opener at Alabama, especially in the first half when he led the Bulls to a 17-7 lead. He was 13 of 23 for 147 yards in the first half alone and really played well throughout. In fact, he was on target through the first four games of the season, when he was 81 of 152 for 959 yards and six touchdowns in leading USF to a 3-1 start on the season, including a 2-0 start in C-USA with wins over Army and Louisville.
It was the TCU game that seemed to slow Banks as he took a school-record nine sacks and in the hard contact, he injured a knee that never really fully recovered and forced him to miss two of the final six games of the season.
Even so, after a one-week absence against Charleston Southern, he was back starting at Southern Miss and against Cincinnati, but he wasn't as effective as he was in the first four weeks of the season. That set the stage for Julmiste to take over down the stretch, when the redshirt freshman played poised enough to lead the Bulls to victory in a season finale at Memphis, when he threw for 167 yards on eight completions.
Julmiste and Banks each have impressive arm strength, while Julmiste gets the edge in mobility.
Redshirt freshman Anthony Severino (Fr., 6-2, 185) heads into the fall as the number three, although rookie Louis Gachette (Fr., 6-3, 205) could be fast tracked.
"We'll go into the fall with Julmiste number one and Banks as the backup," says Leavitt. "And we'll move Gachette along as quickly as we can."
In addition to a largely new contingent of runners, the group has a new coach as well, as former Duke head coach Carl Franks is in his first season on the USF staff. Upon arrival, Franks finds just one key runner – Clenton Crossley (Sr, 5-10, 210) - back from last season, although he could conceivably receive a big boost from Brian Fisher (Sr., 5-9, 180), a shifty runner who has been a receiver and situational quarterback up until now. Yet another potential boost is junior college All-American Andre Hall (Jr., 5-10, 205).
Billy Henderson (Jr., 5-11, 190) appeared ready to contend as well, but a torn ACL will keep him out until at least midseason and perhaps longer.
Although he is essentially the lone returnee, Crossley is no small return. He is third on the school's all-time rushing list with 1,236 yards, needing just 11 more to move past Dyral McMillan into second place. And he's done this without ever really being a solo feature back. He has shared that spotlight with two and three other players from year to year.
Hall is a St. Petersburg, Fla. product who played at Dixie Hollins High School before a two-year stint in JUCO football that saw him gain more than 3,000 yards. While USF runs many one-back sets, it's not unreasonable to think Crossley and Hall could share the backfield more often than what may have been the case in the past.
And while the remainder of the group is mostly true freshman, Leavitt is confident there are some true contenders among that group. Regardless of who rises to the top, an increased productivity in the run game would help Julmiste at quarterback in keeping defenses honest against USF's pass-based offense.
With four and five receiver sets in the USF offense, it comes as no surprise that there are 17 receivers on the roster, more than any other position with the exception of offensive line (also 17). But only six of the 17 have any true experience at the college level.
That fact could make a coach nervous, but the talent level of the group is at a high enough level to have the staff excited at the opportunities. The task of developing the talent lies mostly on first-year receivers coach Lawrence Dawsey, a former All-American receiver at Florida State and a former standout NFL receiver.
Although he has only seen the group through the spring season, Dawsey has drawn early favorable impressions of Bruce Gipson (Sr., 5-10, 180), who switches over from defensive back, J.B. Garris (Fr., 6-2, 180), Joe Bain (6-4, 220) and S.J. Green (So., 6-3, 200). Among that group, you find a little bit of everything, including speed, athleticism, range and reliability.
Gipson, who brings additional speed to the corps, and Bain head into the fall as the one and two players at the outside X position, while Garris slotted inside at the H spot and Green is outside opposite Gipson and Bain at the Z. At the Y, or the second inside slot, Allynson Sheffield (Sr., 5-11, 180), who was a part-time starter in 2003, is the leading candidate to start, ahead of Cedric King (Jr., 5-11, 170).
C.J. Lewis (Jr., 5-11, 175), among the fastest in the group, backs up Garris and Travis Lipp (5-11, 175) heads into fall at number two behind Green.
Like running back, USF brings in an impressive group of freshmen at the receiver spots, perhaps none more impressive than Johnnie Peyton (Fr., 6-5, 185), who could push for a key role right away.
If a coach could pick one and only one area to have a wealth of experience, it would have to be on the frontlines. In that respect, USF counts itself fortunate with all five starters back, including three seniors.
Center Alex Herron (Sr., 6-3, 280) and left tackle Derrick Sarosi (Sr., 6-4, 305) anchor the line and also serve as the two offensive captains in 2004. Sarosi has started 33 consecutive games and Herron would have done the same if not for a slight road bump in 2001 when he missed four games with a sprained knee ligament. Other than that, he has started every game since 2001, including four at left guard last season while the staff eased Frank Davis (Jr., 6-4, 310) into that starting role and moved Herron back to center.
Herron and Sarosi's importance should not underestimate the value of Levi Newton (Sr., 6-4, 305) at right tackle. Newton has started 22 straight games at tackle and had an additional two starts at guard as a true freshman.
Complementing Davis at the other guard position is Chris Carothers (Jr., 6-3, 290), who has made 22 straight starts after a redshirt season in 2001.
Among the backups, center John Miller (Jr., 6-0, 275) enjoys the most experience having made four starts in 2003 while Herron had moved over to guard. Miller has impressed coaches from his true freshman season and they do not hesitate to use him. The remaining backups heading into the fall include two redshirt freshmen – Walter Walker (Fr., 6-5, 285) and Jerome Springfield (Fr., 6-8, 320) at right guard and right tackle respectively – and two true freshmen – Jake Griffin (Fr., 6-4, 300) and Martin Toewe (Fr., 6-7, 310) on the left side.
Griffin is a highly touted guard fresh off a high school state championship with Armwood High School outside Tampa, and Toewe is an intriguing prospect from Germany. While he may be somewhat of an unknown quantity at this point, his size is an obvious asset.
Tight end has largely been a blocking role in the USF offense and there may be no better blocker than Mike Ruegger (Jr., 6-2, 240), who can line up either as a tight end or at fullback.
Derek Carter (Jr., 6-4, 240) and Mark Feldman (Sr., 6-4, 245) each bring experience to the table and either would leave coaches confident in their abilities while on the field. Ruegger heads into the fall as the starter, with Feldman and Carter listed a close second and third on the two-deep.
Jim Leavitt will always demand the very highest levels of effectiveness from his defense. It's his coaching blood. Perhaps overly obvious, a defense needs to give up one fewer point than it's offense can score, and Leavitt never, ever allows his defense to forget that. Obviously, with a 51-26 all-time record, they've been largely successful in that regard, but the objective is for even better success.
Perhaps that was the line of thinking when the staff set a 2004 spring goal for a unit that has already been pretty darn effective through the first seven seasons.
"One of our goals in the spring was to be a tougher, more aggressive defense," says co-defensive coordinator Wally Burnham. "I see us getting to that point."
From exactly what point is the Bulls' defense coming? The Bulls have been 17th in the nation in defense over each of the past two seasons. They were also among the top 25 in scoring defense in each of those two seasons and ranked seventh against the run in 2002. Not bad for a seven-year-old program, but just a starting point for even better performances for Leavitt and staff.
Of course one of the truest marks of an outstanding defense is consistency over the course of time with the ever-changing roster of players. That consistency has started at USF and survived two generations of players. It is now tested with a third generation, especially behind the frontline where the vast majority of linebackers and secondary players have little experience. But like other positions in a similar state, talent could go a long way in overcoming any lack of experience.
What started out as a big question mark last year became one of the most steadily improved areas as the year went along, and now there's more experience on the line than there was at the outset last year.
While the entire front four is back from 2003, starting left end Tim Jones (Sr., 6-3, 265) is considering a late redshirt season and that helps prompt a move of starting tackle Craig Kobel (Sr., 6-3, 260) to Jones' end spot. In addition to the Jones factor, Kobel's move makes sense based on his outstanding speed and pass rush ability that led to a team-high six sacks and 19 tackles for loss in 2003, while he played both tackle and end.
Terrence Royal (Jr., 6-3, 255) returns to start on the right end, and like Kobel, brings outstanding speed to the line. He had 14 tackles for loss among his 41 total tackles last season and his best days are clearly ahead of him.
The backups on the ends will be rising sophomore Tavarious Robinson (So., 6-4, 255), who impressed tremendously as a true freshman and figures to push the starters all season, and Jon Simmons (Jr., 6-5, 245), who has steadily progressed and looks ready for his biggest contributions yet.
Woody George (Fr., 6-3, 250) gains his eligibility after sitting out last season and looks to be an intriguing option with loads of skill.
"Everything on defense starts with the front four," says Leavitt. "If you can't get good play out of your front four, you aren't going to get good play out of your defense."
Despite Kobel's move to end, there isn't a dropoff at the tackle spots with full-time starter Lee Roy Selmon (Sr., 5-11, 280) back along with part-time starter Cedric Battles (Sr., Sr., 6-4, 285). Both players are tested veterans and figure to do an outstanding job holding down the interior line.
Selmon is a Blue Ribbon Magazine Preseason all-Conference USA choice and he was on the league's third team for all-conference last season with 63 tackles (highest among all returning USF players). As a sixth-year player, he brings maturity and leadership to the squad and he serves along with safety Javan Camon as a defensive captain. Battles, meanwhile, is a fifth-year senior who also brings a high level of maturity and experience.
Matt Groelinger (Sr., 6-4, 285) is yet another experienced senior who has started several games and can capably back up at either tackle spot, along with JUCO transfer Antonio Searcy (Jr., 6-3, 290) who participated in spring and appears ready for I-A competition.
Although this is a unit filled with primarily freshmen and sophomores, the staff has been talking up each of the young players from the time they arrived at USF and has always maintained a confidence that they would be ready when their time arrived. That time has come, and they do indeed appear up to the task.
Leading the list are Stephen Nicholas (So., 6-3, 225) and Devon Davis (Jr., 6-3, 225), who came to USF together in 2002 and got high marks from the staff from their first day. Nicholas would require a medical redshirt in that 2002 season, but he and Davis were both playing as true freshmen that year, and Davis would go on to play the entire year.
Although Nicholas would have to wait his turn until 2003, he made the most of it, earning Freshman All-America honors from The Sporting News and Conference USA All-Freshman status with 46 tackles, including 5.5 sacks, which was the second most by any freshman in the nation.
"Nicholas is just a playmaker," says co-defensive coordinator Rick Kravitz. "He's just a flat-out player and he's special."
Nicholas is slotted as the starter at SAM linebacker while Davis will replace Maurice Jones in the middle, carrying on a strong USF legacy of middle linebackers, including Kawika Mitchell, who is now with the Kansas City Chiefs. Davis' marquee play thus far was a 70-yard interception return in the second of two overtimes against Cincinnati last year that helped clinch a big USF win.
Patrick St. Louis (So., 6-1, 220) will start at the WILL spot, and like Nicholas and Davis, coaches have been talking him up from his arrival. He saw duty as a true freshman last year and impressed both on the field and at practice.
Three redshirt freshmen will head into the fall as the backup linebackers, but again, with the full confidence of the staff. Ben Moffit (Fr., 6-2, 230) will play SAM, Ronnie McCullough (Fr., 6-1, 220) will be in the middle and Josh Balloon (Fr., 6-0, 215) will be at WILL.
The incoming freshmen (Brouce Mompremier and C.J. Hunnicutt) look to have the same strong credentials as all those linebackers to come before them, and USF is rapidly developing a solid reputation at the position. Another player who could rise rapidly is JUCO transfer Carlisle Johnson (Jr., 6-2, 230), who first caught the staff's eye as a high school player in Bartow.
USF must find a way to replace J.R. Reed at free safety and Kevin Verpaele at strong safety, as well as cornerback Ron Hemingway. Surely, Reed leaves the biggest shoes to fill as the fourth round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles left as the school's all-time leader in interceptions, having set a single season record for picks in three successive seasons. But Verpaele and Hemingway will be missed as well.
The task in replacing Reed falls upon co-defensive captain Javan Camon (Sr., 6-0, 185), a player who has developed a well-earned reputation as a tough-nosed, hard-hitting safety who has studied hard in preparation for the day he replaced Reed. While the shoes to fill are rather large, Camon takes the challenge with full gusto and has the confidence of his coaches. Camon's backup appears to be Antonio Warren (Sr., 6-1, 190).
The situation at strong safety is not as settled, although Johnnie Jones (Sr., 6-3, 205) has a similar background to Camon and was the heir apparent to Verpaele until an offseason neck/shoulder injury left him questionable for the 2004 season. He may opt for a redshirt year instead, but if he does play, he figures as the starter. If he should not play, the most likely candidate is Drametrice Smith (So., 6-1, 210).
The starting corners include a tested veteran in D'Juan Brown (Jr., 5-11, 175) and an extremely promising redshirt freshman in Mike Jenkins (Fr., 6-0, 200), a former SuperPrep All-American who has the coaching staff extremely excited about his future with the Bulls.
While competition will be intense to back up Brown and Jenkins, the leaders heading into the fall are redshirt freshmen A.J. Brant (Fr., 5-10, 175) and Sam Miller (Fr., 5-11, 190).
The status quo reins among the kicking specialists with Santiago Gramatica (Sr., 5-10, 165) handling all field goals and PATs, while Justin Geisler (Sr., 6-1, 170) handles kickoffs and Brandon Baker (Jr., 6-4, 220) returns as the punter. Also, Justin Daniel (Sr., 6-2, 250) returns for his fourth season as the long snapper.
Gramatica, a two-time semi-finalist for the Groza Award, still figures to have his strongest collegiate season still left in him, while Geisler excelled last season at limiting opponents' returns, holding them to a 15.2 yard average.
Baker enjoyed a solid season at punter, his debut as the starter. He has improved greatly on his consistency and has always enjoyed a powerful leg.
The Bulls will feel a potential loss at kick returner, where J.R. Reed led the nation last season. The key return men will be chosen in summer practices leading up to the season opener as will the primary punt return man.