Big East Preview -- Part 6

This is the sixth in a seven part preseason tour of the Big East. I'll resume my tour of the Big East with a look at the fledgling South Florida Bulls. I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits, based upon my pre-season research and analysis.

SOUTH FLORIDA BULLS PREVIEW


South Florida (4-7, 3-5 Conference USA), like Connecticut, has made a rapid transition from Division I-AA to BCS conference.  An ascent that is even more impressive considering that South Florida did not even field a football team until 1997.  The Bulls played as a Division IA independent in 2001 and 2002.  South Florida played only two seasons in Conference USA.  In fact, South Florida agreed to join the Big East before completing its inaugural season in Conference USA.  The Bulls started quickly in Division I-A, finishing 8-3 in 2001 (with a win at Pittsburgh) and 9-2 in 2003 (with a win over Top 25 Bowling Green) but, as an unaffiliated independent, were shutout of the bowl process.  Moving up in class when joining Conference USA, South Florida started quickly with a third place (tie) finish in 2003 but struggled to a fifth place finish last year.  The Bulls squandered an early season OT win at Texas Christian with consecutive home losses – including one to hapless Army.  A road win at Alabama-Birmingham got the Bulls to 4-4 with a chance at bowl eligibility but the South Florida ended the season with three consecutive losses. 

In joining a weakened Big East, South Florida has not increased the caliber of its competition – at least not in the short term – but has stepped up in class into a BCS conference – again, at least in the short term.  South Florida has perhaps the best growth potential of any Big East program.  Located in the fertile recruiting grounds of Florida, South Florida has an opportunity to leverage a BCS berth as a means of crashing Florida's Big Three as a legitimate national program.  But Head Coach Jim Leavitt is still taking baby steps with his nine-year old program.  Leavitt has built a program with a lot of transfers, JUCOs, and academic risks.  Not surprisingly, the Bulls' roster is dealing with stability issues that are hampering development.  Leavitt returns 16 starters – plus one kicker – from a young and inexperienced team.  Leavitt force fed youth last season but now has an experienced team.  Can Leavitt quickly capitalize upon a momentarily weakened Big East and establish his program before the historical league powers can regain their former stature?  Here is a look at the fledgling South Florida Bulls. 


OFFENSE

South Florida lost only three starters from an offense that struggled to find an identity last season.  The Bulls opened the 2004 season with a spread offense but struggled with a young QB and receivers.  As the season progressed, the offense evolved a rushing emphasis with two back sets.  The Bulls are expected to continue using a run-oriented spread offense with a lot of 2RB sets.  South Florida's 2004 offensive statistics are summarized below:

  • 188 rushing yards per game (#3 of 11 in the old Conference USA and #21 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 166 passing yards per game (#11 in the old Conference USA and #105 in Division 1A)
  • 353 total yards per game (#9 in the old Conference USA and #74 in Division 1A)
  • 25 points per game (#8 in the old Conference USA and #62 in Division 1A)


South Florida features the leading returning rusher in the new Big East in First Team All-Conference USA Sr TB Andre Hall (210 carries for 1,357 yards and 11 TDs plus 18 receptions for 149 yards and one TD).  RB/FB Clenton Crossley (101 carries for 408 yards and 3 TDs plus 11 receptions for 37 yards), who was Hall's backup and finished the season as the starting FB in the two RB set, is the only loss in the backfield.  Backup FB and former walk-on Sr Mike Ruegger (6 receptions for 70 yards), who also plays TE, returns as a backup at both positions.  RS So FB Siaosi Uhatafe, a converted DE, will replace Crossley as the starter.  RS Fr Ricky Ponton will backup Hall.  Without a doubt, the backfield is the strength of the Bulls team. 

South Florida returns a very young receiving corps.  Only Backup R Allynson Sheffield (15 receptions for 101 yards) departed.  Backup WRs RS Jr Joe Bain (8 receptions for 176 yards and one TD) and So J.B. Garris (9 receptions for 129 yards) departed prematurely due to injuries and academics, respectively.  Two-year starter and second leading receiver Jr WR S.J. Green (22 receptions for 262 yards and one TD) and starting 3WR So Jackie Chambers (14 receptions for 197 yards and 2 TDs) return.  As does RS Sr TE Derek Carter, who displaced the starter late last season and will continue in that role.  Former walk-on and starting TE Sr Mike Ruegger (6 receptions for 70 yards), who also plays FB, will backup Carter part-time.  JUCO RS So WR Amarri Jackson will the incumbent starter opposite Green.  Former starting WR and leading receiver So Johnny Peyton (22 receptions for 469 yards and 2 TDs) curiously was displaced by Jackson.  Former backup WR RS Sr Travis Lipp (10 receptions for 151 yards) was displaced off the 3WR two-deep.  Fr WR Marcus Edwards and Fr WR Jessie Hester will complete the second team as backups. 

South Florida suffered most of its offensive losses on the OLine, losing 11 years of starting experience.  Four-year starter and two-time Third Team All-Conference USA LT Derrick Sarosi, four-year starter C Alex Herron, and three-year starter RT Levi Newton departed.  Starting LG RS Sr Frank Davis, who missed the last half of the season with an ankle injury, and starting RG Sr John Miller – who displaced the starter, then replaced Davis at LG, and was moved to C in spring camp – both return and will anchor the OLine.  Former starting RG RS Sr Chris Carothers, who lost his starting job to Miller, later filled Miller's vacated slot after Davis was injured and will maintain his starting job.  Former backup LT RS So Jerome Springfield will replace Sarosi and former backup RG RS So Walter Walker will replace Newton at RT, giving Leavitt rookie bookends in the starting lineup.  Former backup LG RS So Nick Capogna will backup Miller at C.  Backup RT RS Fr Mark Dile, who made the two-deep last year but did not play, also returns.  JUCO Jr LT Theodric Watson, RS Fr LG Matt Huners, and RS Fr RG Jake Griffin will complete a very green second unit.  The Bulls OLine is very young and very inexperienced and will be pressed to allow Leavitt to rely upon his running game to carry his offense. 

The QB position is in turmoil.  Backup QB Ronnie Banks (26 of 53 for 234 yards) departed.  Starting QB Jr Pat Julmiste (118 of 247 for 1,570 yards, 7 TDs, and 8 INTs plus 96 carries for 193 yards and 9 TDs) returns but his job is in jeopardy.  RS So QB Courtney Denson, who transferred from Auburn in 2004, will challenge Julmiste for the starting job.  The poor production at QB – a completion rate less than 50% and a negative TD-to-INT ratio has prompted Leavitt to deemphasize the passing attack in favor of the running game.  Julmiste and Denson could platoon at QB as neither distinguished himself in summer camp. 


DEFENSE

South Florida lost only two starters off a defense that was supposed to be the strength of the Bulls team in 2003 but struggled badly as Leavitt instead went with a youth movement.  The Bulls defense uses an aggressive offset 4-3 scheme with a NT, a weak side rush DE, a SLB up on the LOS, and the SS often deployed in an eight-man front.  The pass defense is soft behind the eight-man front, yielding yardage without making plays.  South Florida's 2004 defensive statistics are summarized below:

  • 151 rushing yards per game (#6 of 11 in the old Conference USA and #62 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 248 passing yards per game (#8 in the old Conference USA and #95 in Division 1A)
  • 398 total yards per game (#4 in the old Conference USA and #77 in Division 1A)
  • 32 points per game (#6 in the old Conference USA and #94 in Division 1A)


A young LB corps returns nearly in tact but a year older.  Former starting MLB Sr Devon Davis (41 tackles, 4 TFLs, and one FR), who was displaced early in the season, was dismissed from the team.  Two-year starter and second leading tackler SLB RS Jr Stephen Nicholas (98 tackles and 11 TFLs), who was switched to WLB mid-season, returns to SLB and is the leader of the LB unit.  Third leading tackler and starting WLB Jr Patrick St. Louis (61 tackles and 6 TFLs), who was switched to MLB mid-season, returns to WLB.  RS So MLB Ben Moffit (25 tackles and 3 TFLs), who ended the season as the starting SLB, also returns.  Former starting MLB RS So Ronnie McCullough (37 tackles, 6 TFLs, and one sack), who was displaced midseason, will backup St. Louis at WLB.  Former backup WLB RS So Josh Balloon (8 tackles) will backup Moffit at MLB.  RS Sr SLB Jason Allen, who missed last season with a torn pectoral muscle, will backup Nicholas.  Leavitt has shuffled his LB unit, which has hampered continuity.  The young unit must solidify its roles, which should improve chemistry and performance. 

Leavitt lost a one-deep on his DLine but only one starter – three-year starter and two-time All-Conference USA DT Lee Roy Selmon (33 tackles, 6 TFLs, and 1.5 sacks).  Former starter DE Craig Kobel (23 tackles, 11 TFLs, 6 sacks, 2 FF, and 2 FR), who was twice displaced last year, former starter NT Cedric Battles (22 tackles and 3 TFLs), who was also displaced last year, and former JUCO DT Antonio Searcy (14 tackles and one TFL), who had a year of eligibility remaining, also departed.  Backup DT So Curtis Chance (9 tackles, 5 TFLs, and 2 sacks) was dismissed from the program last spring.  Two-year starter Sr DE Terrence Royal (38 tackles, 13 TFLs, 4 sacks, one FF, and one FR), starting NT RS So Allen Cray (11 tackles, 4 TFLs, and one sack), who replaced Battles, and starting DE and former walk-on Sr Jon Simmons (8 tackles, 3 TFLs, and 2 sacks), who eventually replaced Kobel, return.  As does former starter Jr DE Tavarious Robinson (19 tackles and one sack), who was displaced early last season.  Former starting DT RS Sr Tim Jones, who redshirted last season, will reclaim his starting job.  So NT Richard Clebert (2 tackles and one sack), RS So DT Eric Thomas (3 tackles and one TFL), and RS Fr Josh Julmiste, who left school last year but returned, will complete the second team.  Like the LB corps, the DLine has experienced tremendous instability.  Nonetheless, this unit has shown a knack for getting into the backfield and making tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

South Florida also lost a one-deep in its secondary but, again, only one starter – leading tackler FS Javan Camon (101 tackles, 5 TFLs, and one FF).  Backups FS Antonio Warren (13 tackles), CB Bruce Gipson (38 tackles, 2 TFLs, and one INT), who switched from WR in mid-season and the replaced the injured starter at the end of the season, and CB Sidney Simpson (26 tackles, 4 TFLs, and 2 INTs) also departed.  Starting CB RS So Trae Williams (21 tackles and one INT) returns.  As does former starting SS RS Sr Johnnie Jones (5 tackles), who sustained a neck injury gained a medical redshirt last year and will regain his starting job at SS.  Freshman All-American FS So Danny Verpaele (55 tackles, 5 TFLs, 2 sacks, and one FR), who replaced Jones last year at SS, was switched to FS to replace Camon but suffered a broken foot in summer camp and will miss the early portion of the season.  RS Fr FS Carlton Williams will replace start in place of the injured Verpaele.  Former  backup CB So Mike Jenkins (27 tackles and 2 FF) will start opposite Williams.  Former two-year starter RS Sr CB D'Juan Brown (26 tackles), who missed the final two games of 2004 with a broken arm, was unable to regain his starting job and will backup Jenkins.  RS Jr SS Jeremy Burnett (8 tackles) is the only other experienced backup.  Fr CB Tyller Roberts and RS Fr FS Louis Gachette, a converted QB, will complete the second team.  The South Florida secondary is has experience at CB but the injury to Verpaele has compromised the safety position, which lacks experience. 


SPECIAL TEAMS

Special teams are witnessing the same instability seen on the rest of the roster.  South Florida lost four-year starter PK Santiago Gramatica  (7 of 11 FGAs and 23 of 24 XPAs).  Fr PK Mike Benzer will replace Gramatica.  Two-year starter RS Sr P Brandon Baker (42 yards per punt) returns.  Sr TB Andre Hall (21 yards per KOR) apparently is too valuable at TB and will not return kickoffs this year.  RS So CB Trae Williams (22 yards per KOR) will be joined by So WR Jackie Chambers (18 yards per KOR), who will replace Hall.  Chambers (8 yards per PR) will again return punts and will be joined by RS So WR Amarri Jackson, who will replace RS Sr Travis Lipp (8 yards per PR).  The Bulls special teams are solid but Leavitt will need a good PK if he can leverage a strong running game, an improved defense, and good special teams into a good year. 


SCHEDULE

South Florida has an 11 game schedule with only five home games.  The Bulls play exclusively on Saturdays.  South Florida has with two bye weeks – in mid October and again in late October.  South Florida plays seven 2004 bowl teams – Louisville (Liberty), Miami (Peach), Pittsburgh (Fiesta), West Virginia (Gator), Syracuse (Champs Sports), Cincinnati (Fort Worth), and Connecticut (Motor City).  The non-conference schedule is balanced with Division I-AA Florida A&M, Division I-A cellar dweller Central Florida, Big 10 second division Penn State, and national contender Miami.  The Big East schedule is brutal with only three home games including Louisville and West Virginia and road trips to middlings Connecticut, Rutgers, and Syracuse.  The road schedule has no easy dates but offers opportunities at Penn State, Rutgers, Syracuse, and Connecticut.  The home schedule doesn't compensate with visits from Louisville and West Virginia.  The key to the schedule will be the November road trips to Syracuse, East Hartford, and Piscataway.  South Florida must be road warriors if the Bulls are to have a successful season. 

 

September 3

@ Penn State

September 10

Florida A&M

September 17

Central Florida

September 24

Louisville

October 1

@ Miami

October 15

@ Pittsburgh

October 22

West Virginia

November 5

@ Rutgers

November 12

@ Syracuse

November 19

Cincinnati

November 26

@ Connecticut

 

PREDICTION

I predict that South Florida will finish 3-8 (1-6 Big East).  The Bulls will open the season with a loss at Penn State.  Yes, Penn State is down.  But State College is still an intimidating place and the Nittany Lion defense is good.  South Florida will rebound with back-to-back wins over in-state opponents Florida A&M and Central Florida.  The Bulls will go winless in a brutal stretch against Louisville, at Miami, at Pittsburgh, and against West Virginia.  Road losses at Rutgers and at Syracuse will extend the losing streak to six games.  A home win against Cincinnati will end the skid before a season-ending loss at fellow Division IA newbie Connecticut.  The Bulls are a year away from making an impact in the Big East. 


Coming Next:  Big East Preview, Part 7.  I'll finish my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at the decimated Cincinnati Bearcats.   I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits, based upon pre-season research. 


Please send any comments to dwelch11@comcast.net.  I just noticed an error in my email address hyperlink.  I apologize to those of you who have been trying to email me, to no avail.  The link has been fixed.  Drop me a line at my Comcast address.  I welcome and appreciate your feedback, even if I make it hard to do.  And please put "Rutgers" in the message header because I wouldn't want to miss your email in a sea of spam.  In the meantime, if you would like to discuss the spring camp with other Rutgers fans, please visit our message board.


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