This year?s excitement for the the Bulls is magnified as they begin their first full season in Division I-A, college football?s highest category.
This new classification in effect means the Bulls? opponents will be of a higher quality and the games more nationally recognized.
?There is more media attention,? said coach Jim Leavitt. ?Everything is elevated.?
There are several question marks for the Bulls as they enter the season. Out of 108 players listed on the Bulls? preseason roster, 55 are freshmen.
?There?s enough talent there, how good it?ll be, I don?t know yet,? Leavitt said.
Offensively, the Bulls will be anchored by junior standout quarterback Marquel Blackwell and junior wide receiver DeAndrew Rubin.
?We?re all pretty anxious for getting going (into Division I-A),? Blackwell said. ?We?ve got a lot more to play for.?
While the Bulls have proven returning starters at quarterback and wide receiver, the running back job is more open. Senior Derrik Rackard holds the position, but several others are close behind.
Blackwell said having so many players striving for playing time at the position is making them work harder.
?There?s a lot of competition back there, but its going to do nothing but make them better,? he said.
The other major concern for the Bulls is an offensive line which lost several of its stars to graduation last season. The roster for linemen this year contains a lot of young talent, but only three returning seniors. Blackwell said the new line has practiced well so far.
?They looked really good in the spring,? he said.
The main returning star for the line is senior guard Jimmy Fitts, who has received a lot of praise from Leavitt.
?Fitts is a potential draft pick,? he said.
The offense will be guided this season by new offensive coordinator Mike Hobbie, who said he looks forward to the challenge of this first season of Division I-A.
?I have high expectations,? he said. ?We expect to be competitive in every game.?
On the other side of the ball for the Bulls, what promises to be a strong defense will be lead this year by junior linebacker Kawika Mitchell. Excitement around Mitchell grew as he was selected to the Preseason All-Independent Team and named the No. 13 Independent player in the nation. Mitchell said he is looking forward to the opportunity of playing I-A football.
?It means our program is getting better ? good enough to play against people like that,? he said.
Mitchell said the defense has a lot of good returning players and exciting young players.
?We?ve got some real experienced players coming back,? he said. ?We?re trying to help the young players and push them along.?
Defensive coordinator Rick Kravitz said he believes the hard work put in by the Bulls will pay off.
?Good thing about last year, we played a lot of people,? he said.
?A lot of leaders got on the field. A lot of guys played well.?
Kravitz said his team is ready to be seen on a larger stage.
?We want to show we can play,? he said. ?We want the whole nation to watch us.?
The special teams unit is another area with talented but inexperienced players. Leavitt said there are several concerns in this area.
?There is inexperience in a lot of places,? he said. ?The No. 1 concern is the long snapper.?
With the graduation of kicker Bill Gramatica last season, the kicking duties are up for grabs in the upcoming season. The competition is between Justin Geisler and Bill Gramatica?s younger brother Santiago Gramatica, both freshman.
Santiago Gramatica said the goal for the team is simply to win games.
?We?ve got to go at it one game at a time,? he said. ?We?re I-A because we can win I-A games.?
Santiago Gramatica said he is ready for the challenges of season.
?Just looking forward to getting that first game started,? he said.
The first game will come soon for the Bulls. They open their season Thursday in a game against Northern Illinois. The schedule for the upcoming season features several tough and intriguing matchups for the Bulls. USF will play such opponents as Utah and Pittsburgh, who was given the preseason ranking of 28th in the nation by Sports Illustrated.
In addition, the team will face Memphis and Houston, who will be Conference USA foes when the Bulls enter the league in 2003.
The Bulls recently announced they will face the defending national champion Oklahoma Sooners in Norman, Okla. in 2002. This will be a Homecoming of sorts for Leavitt, as he and Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops were assistants together at Kansas State from 1990-95. In addition, USF athletics director Lee Roy Selmon played for the Sooners from 1972-75 before being drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
With all of the developments and anticipation around the team as it prepares to walk onto college football?s main stage, Leavitt said the focus continues to be on winning.
?It is real important to realize from day one we talked about winning,? he said. ?This program is going to be successful.?
Rob Brannon covers football and can be reached at email@example.com