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Offseason changes affect football team

With the beginning of the 2001 football season, the Bulls are going through what all college football teams go through ? the constant change in roster and loss of key position players. Entering Division I-A, the Bulls are facing their toughest challenge to date. But challenging seems to sum up the time since the team took its last snap of 2000.

A sad event scarred the Bulls off-season with the death of redshirt freshman Patrick Payton. Payton died June 22, 2001, due to injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident in Miami.With the loss of three members of the coaching staff and the ever-changing roster that college football faces, the team will enter Division I-A football with a lot of new faces on the field and on the sidelines.

?We keep losing a lot of people all around. But we have a lot of young talent that I think is ready for the next step,? coach Jim Leavitt said. ?When we came here from Day one, we always talked about Division I-A. And we always set our sights on I-A. It has always been our ambition.?

The offense may face the biggest change within the ranks of its coaching staff with Mike Hobbie as the new offensive coordinator, replacing Mike Canales. Along with the coordinator change, the team will also have a new running backs coach in Leroy Ryals, and a new pass game coordinator and quarterbacks coach in Rod Smith.

The new offensive coordinator is no stranger to the Bulls offense; he was the tight ends coach in the inaugural season in 1997. Hobbie returns to the Bulls coaching staff after two head coaching positions at Gaither and Sarasota High schools.

Ryals joined the staff in January 2001, also after a tenure as a high school head coach, as well as being the athletics director for Booker High School in Sarasota.

Smith joins the staff after being a graduate assistant last year working with quarterbacks at Clemson. According to preseason reports, Smith will be looked at to help Hobbie develop an up-tempo, no-huddle offense similar to the one used by Tommy Bowden last year at Clemson.

Leavitt began preseason practices with high expectations for the offense, saying he expected big things in this season?s passing game.

?Offensively, we?re going to throw the ball. We?re never going to change that way,? Leavitt said. ?We are going to try and have some balance with our running game, but we want to be pretty exciting offensively. We want to stretch the field a lot of different ways. I think the fans should be excited about that.?With returning third-year starter Marquel Blackwell at quarterback, the team will have an experienced arm leading that offense. The Bulls have also been taking a look at sophomore Kevin Patullo and freshman Ronnie Banks in the preseason practices. Patullo saw action in five games last season, completing 14 of 22 passes for 173 yards. Banks spent last season on the scout team, and had a strong 15-of-20 passes and two-touchdown performance in the 2001 spring game.

In the wide receiver position, the Bulls will look to junior DeAndrew Rubin, who after starting five games in the 2000 season, had 17 catches for 189 yards. However, after a severe ankle sprain in the Troy State game, he saw limited playing time. Rubin will also be looked at to return punts and kickoffs for the special teams. Also returning to the receiver position are senior Hugh Smith and sophomore Chris Iskra, who combined for three touchdowns last season. The wide receiver position also has some new, young talent that may be used: freshman Bruce Gipson and sophomore Huey Whittaker. Gipson comes fresh from high school to USF, but the 6 feet 5 inch, 225-pound Whittaker, who played one season with a junior college, Whittaker comes with a little more experience.

At running back, the Bulls have, in the past, relied mainly on a one back set. However, with leading team rusher Rafael Williams graduating, the position will dramatically change. The Bulls will look to a corps of backs with limited experience. Senior Derrick Rackard led in preseason depth charts. And freshman Clenton Crossley gives coaches a power back with quick feet. Also, returning sophomore Vince Brewer could see some playing time. Brewer gained 105 yards in 14 carries in the last game of the 2000 season.

The tight end position is one that has primarily been used as a blocking back in the past. However, sophomore Casey Cobb, who is returning from a torn knee ligament in the 2000 preseason, has coaches excited about the tight end being used as a severe passing threat in this seasons offense. On the offensive line, the Bulls will have to replace three starters including offensive tackle Kenyatta Jones, USF?s first NFL draftee, and four-year starter and three-year starting center Joey Sipp. But the offensive line will return four-year starting right guard Jimmy Fitts.

At center, the Bulls will have freshman Alex Herron, who has also spent time working at guard this spring. At left guard, senior Matt Sparrowhawk will bring experience from last season as a backup, where he saw a good amount of playing time.

At the two tackle spots, the Bulls will have senior Ken Dawson and junior Mike Snellgrove, both of whom saw a lot of playing time last season with Dawson as a five game starter.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Bulls also face the challenge of replacing some key players. The defensive line lost three four-year starters from last season. The Bulls do return three players who have starting experience on the defensive line. Senior Tchecoy Blount will return after 8 1/2 sacks last season. Also returning will be juniors Chris Daley and Emerson Morris, both seeming prepared for the changes and challenge of competing in Division I-A.

?There are challenges every year. But I?m excited about that challenge,? Blount said. ?We?ve been lifting harder and trying to get our alignment right to get prepared (for Division I). We don?t have any room for errors.?

The rest of the defensive line will be open to a lot of young players with limited experiences. So young players such as sophomores Ian Blackwell, Cedric Battles and Shurron Pierson may be getting some starting opportunities.

?The whole defense lost a number of people. Almost the whole secondary is gone, and we lost a lot up front. But we played a lot of young people,? said Rick Kravitz assistant head coach and defensive coordinator. ?We have some pretty good young players who we are real excited about getting on the field.?

The linebacker position is one of the strongest returning positions for the Bulls this season. Last year?s leading tackler, junior Kawika Mitchell, returns to the weak side, although he has also shown strengths in the other two linebacking positions. Senior Anthony Williams also returns to the middle position with 53 tackles from last season. Sophomore Maurice Jones will be on the strong side with some help from sophomores Mike Minus and Clay Rebol.

A set of juniors, Greg Walls and Tavares Jurineack, have been slated as starters at the tackle position. A group of redshirt freshmen assure that the position will have a strong backup lineup. One of these freshmen, Matt Groelinger, rated highly on the preseason depth chart.

In the secondary, the Bulls will be looking at a group of new faces. One returning member of the secondary will be senior Joe Morgan at strong safety. Coaches are also hopeful that redshirt senior Bernard Brown will be able to play cornerback after a broken hip in the off-season.

?Hopefully he (Brown) can play. We are going to take him along slowly,? Leavit said. ?Bernard is one of those guys you have to slow down, he wants to play so bad, but its amazing that he has gotten to the point he?s at now where he may have a chance to play.?Also at the cornerback position, sophomores Kenny Robinson and Ron Hemingway look strong. But the position will be competitive with junior Maurice Tucker and redshirt freshman Sidney Simpson looking for playing time. At free safety, sophomore J.R. Reed and freshman Javan Camon are looking strong in preseason depth charts. Also, sophomore Kevin Verpaele looked strong with some hard hits in a preseason 64-snap scrimmage. Verpaele also saw some snaps at quarterback (his position in high school) during some preseason practices.

The special teams positions hold many challenges for the Bulls this season, featuring a battle between two freshmen for the place kicker position ? Santiago Gramatica and Justin Geisler. The punting responsibilities will probably fall on junior Devin Sanderson.

At the Aug. 8 media day, Leavitt said his biggest concern going into practice was the long snapper. This position could be filled by Cobb, but could also fall on junior Carl Zalak or freshman Justin Daniel. With Rubin taking kickoffs and punts along with help from Hugh Smith, the return team seems like less of a concern for the coaching staff.

The Bulls will face steep challenges in their first Division I-A season, starting with two away games. The first is with Northern Illinois and the second against a very tough Pittsburgh team that is coming off last year?s appearance in the Bowl. The Bulls will face other challenges like future Conference USA rival Memphis (the second time USF has faced a C-USA opponent), and tough opponents in the Utah Utes and Houston Cougars, who both regularly face tough schedules. The change to Division I-A will be a significant challenge to the Bulls, and it will have the team facing faster and stronger players. The challenge will be to step up to the competition and build a strong team.

?I wanted to be a very powerful (Division) I-AA team as we went into (Division) I-A,? Leavitt said. ?Certainly we didn?t want to be a middle of the row team, moving into it. I think most would say we?re about as good as there is in I-AA, which means we probably aren?t very good at I-A. So it starts over right now. But I feel pretty good where we are right now.?

Jarrett Guthrie covers football and can be reached at