The transition process continues for coach Jim Leavitt and the Bulls.
USF moved from I-AA to a transitional season in I-A in 2000, and the Bulls had good results, going 7-4. However, the only win USF could muster against a Division I-A foe was UConn, which was also making the transition from I-AA.
A year later, the Bulls were full-fledged I-A members and it was the rest of the nation that was having to make a transition to the Bulls. Employing a new spread offense featuring numerous four and five wide receiver sets, the Bulls made the transition to an explosive offense, averaging 35.2 points per game.
The changes won’t stop for USF in 2003, when the Bulls become a member of Conference USA.
But what about the 2002 version of Leavitt’s troops.
“I think this is a transition process for us,” Leavitt said. “I want to win conference championships, and someday we’re going to have to knock heads with these C-USA schools. We’re building to that level, and I think we’re taking steps in the right direction. This program keeps getting a little better, so we keep setting the bar higher. And we have to keep our heads above water.”
Leavitt’s ambitious scheduling might have the Bulls drowning this year. USF went 8-3 in the program’s first full year of I-A, so Leavitt replaced Western Illinois and Liberty with 2002 Cotton Bowl participants Oklahoma and Arkansas. The Sooners are a year removed from a national championship. But while the opposition may be changing and improving, the Bulls aren’t planning on doing anything different.
“As far as schedule wise, it’s changing, but as far as everything else, we’ve worked hard since Day 1,” running back Clenton Crossley said. “And we’ll continue to work hard. And it’s just getting harder and harder every year. The level of competition is getting harder, and plus, we have new guys coming in, and everyone has talent. Everybody has to stay focused, work hard and we’ll win together.”
Crossley is correct as the Bulls appear to be improving along with their opponents. USF’s depth has been the most drastic change in the program. The Bulls’ two-deep roster now features quality players who can compete at a Division I-A level, whether it’s the starters or the reserves.
“The bottom part has risen dramatically,” Leavitt said. “There’s not a guy here who can’t go in there and get the job done.”
Leavitt cited receiver Ryan Hearn, who has progressed from a walk-on when he transferred to USF from Campbellsville (Ky.) College in 1999 to a team captain in 2002.
Amid all the changes though, there is one constant for USF – quarterback Marquel Blackwell.
Blackwell will once again be the man at the helm of USF’s four-receiver spread offense. Entrenched as USF’s starter since the third game of his freshman year, Blackwell has made the USF record book his personal playground. Blackwell’s 7,451 total yards of offense in his first three seasons nearly doubles the total of Chad Barnhardt, who is No. 2 on the list. Blackwell also owns three of the four best totals for single-season completions and total offense.
Freshman David Mullins had a slight edge on sophomore Ronnie Banks for the No. 2 quarterback spot coming out of fall practices, but the competition between the two will probably continue throughout the season. Mullins enrolled in January out of Bolles High School and impressed in the spring game with a 5 of 12 performance, including a 49-yard touchdown. Mullins possesses good athleticism, running for more than 500 yards and nine touchdowns in his senior year.
Banks owns great size, clocking in at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds. Not possessing the mobility of Blackwell or Mullins, Banks resembles a classic dropback passer. As the No. 2 quarterback a year ago, Banks played in seven games in a mop-up role. Banks completed 12 of 22 passes in 2001 with his best game coming against Utah Oct. 6, when he was 4 of 6 for 55 yards with his lone touchdown pass of the season.
Taking redshirt seasons in 2002, Jean Julmiste and Evan Kraky will figure in the mix in 2003, when Blackwell will be out of eligibility.
Four running backs made starts for USF in 2001, and as many as five could contend for playing time this season. Of the three runners who started a year ago, only Derrick Rackard has departed. Crossley’s four starts put him tops among the backs last season, and he appears to be the front runner to start heading into the opener. A redshirt in 2000 after being named a PrepStar Top 50 recruit in Florida coming out of South Sumter High School, Crossley had a big impact last year in his first season as a Bull. Crossley ran for a team-high 380 yards and seven touchdowns.
Quinton Callum and Vince Brewer also made starts last season and will continue to push for playing time. Callum, who signed with Florida State out of high school, joined the team late in August and went on to post a 5.5 yard per carry average, best on the squad. Callum has good breakaway speed as evidenced by a 62-yard touchdown against Liberty, USF’s longest score on the ground.
Brewer started the first two games of the 2001 season, but a nagging shoulder injury limited his effectiveness. Brewer had the two highest single-game rushing totals last season.
Billy Henderson, a rugged redshirt freshman from Pinellas Park, and Georgia transfer DeJuan Green are two newcomers who are also making pushes to pick up carries.
Green played in 11 games in two seasons for the Bulldogs.
Receiver was the deepest position on the team heading into fall practices, but injuries have thinned the ranks a bit. The Bulls return nine receivers who registered catches a year ago, but Ryan Hearn, Brian Fisher and Elgin Hicks have been through every fall practice.
Huey Whittaker posted team-highs with 52 catches for 548 yards in his first season as a Bull. But Whittaker, a junior who played one season at Hudson Valley Community College, suffered an injury to his medial collateral ligament in USF’s first scrimmage in August, which could keep him out until the third week of the season.
Hugh Smith missed time to finish up his degree, but the senior returns to give the Bulls a seasoned speed merchant in the slot. Smith tied for the team lead with four touchdown catches and was second on the squad with 40 receptions.
Hearn, a former walk-on, has earned the respect of his peers to be named a team captain. Hearn snagged 25 passes for 263 yards a year ago, and will be the other starting slot receiver.
Chris Iskra doubled his numbers from the 2000 season to account for 37 catches and 461 yards. Hicks has finally put aside a year and a half of academic issues and will battle with Iskra for playing time on the outside. Hicks originally signed with Florida, but transferred to USF in 2000. Concerns about his academics kept Hicks from playing in the first five games, but he’s showcased the talent that made him a Super Prep All-American in spring and fall workouts.
A sprained ankle slowed Bruce Gipson’s progress in the fall, but once he’s healthy he will provide more depth at the slot receiver positions. The multi-dimensional Brian Fisher is a player who can give the Bulls plenty of options. Fisher ran for two touchdowns and caught a pair as a freshman in 2001. Fisher completed a pass to Blackwell and as a former high school quarterback at Pine Forest High School, Fisher might also be called on to run some option for USF. Fisher also saw action as a returner as a freshman, returning two punts and a kickoff.
DeAndrew Rubin was explosive against Northern Illinois and Pittsburgh in the first two games last year, scoring four touchdowns and posting back-to-back 100-yard receiving days. But turf toe made him nearly invisible for the next seven games, but he caused a spark with a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown against Utah State in the season finale. However, academics and a sore hamstring has caused Rubin to miss almost all of spring and fall practice. When healthy, Rubin has been a firestorm, but injuries have cut short each of his last two seasons, and it’s easy to get lost amid the Bulls’ plethora of receivers.
In addition, the Bulls add a talented quartet of redshirt freshmen to the mix this season. Joe Bain boasts the best size of the group at 6-foot-3, and in Whittaker’s absence, he could see ample action at one of the outside spots. With an impressive vertical jump and good speed, Bain could emerge out of this group to be a bonafide deep threat for the Bulls.
C.J. Lewis is the burner of the group, displaying a 4.43 time in the 40-yard dash. At Astronaut High School in Titusville, Lewis was a two-time all-state selection in football, as well as a runner-up in 100 meters as a junior.
The other half of the quartet sport great pedigrees. Cedric King played quarterback like his brother, Tampa Bay Buccaneer Shaun King, until his senior year at Gibbs High School. Marcus Edwards is the son of New York Jets head coach Herman Edwards and could also break into a lineup that saw nine players catch at least 12 passes a year ago.
USF lost six starters from a year ago, but the area hardest hit was the offensive line, which sustained half of those losses. The two returners are just sophomores, but both established themselves during stellar redshirt freshmen campaigns. Center Alex Herron slid in nicely into the shoes of Joey Sipp, who started 33 straight games for the Bulls. If not for a sprained ligament, Herron would be well on his way to matching Sipp’s 44 career starts.
Derrick Sarosi, like Herron, appears on his way to starting every game in his career. An integral part of a line that yielded 10 sacks in 456 pass attempts, Sarosi started all 11 games at right tackle as a redshirt freshman. With the early departure of Matt Sparrowhawk, Sarosi will move over to left tackle to cover Blackwell’s blind side.
The three newcomers figure to all be freshmen or sophomores. Levi Newton pegged down right tackle early with strong spring and fall camps. He picked up two starts last year as a true freshman when Herron went down.
Shelly Houston traveled with the team all last year as a redshirt and figures to be the starter at left guard in his first season. Chris Carothers, another redshirt freshman, has the lead to step into Jimmy Fitt’s spot at right guard.
Frank Davis and Mark Sopcik were also singled out as potential starters for the Bulls should an injury cause an opening on the line.
The Bulls defensive front four returns intact with three seniors who emerged last year. Tavares Jurineack was the solid man in the middle while his three counterparts put up the eye-popping numbers. An eight-game starter a year ago, Jurineack compiled 52 tackles, 10 of which resulted in a loss for the opposition. A 6-foot-3, 290-pounder, Jurineack runs a 5.02 40-yard dash and showcases great strength with a 455-pound bench.
Greg Walls led the Bulls in tackles for loss as a sophomore in 2000, but he upped his output in 2001 to have a true breakout season. As a junior, Walls registered an astonishing 16 tackles for loss. Walls also boosted his sack total from three in 2000 to 5.5 last season. Walls was a 285-pound nuisance for opposing offenses in 2001, making 67 tackles and 17 quarterback hurries as he became a permanent fixture in the offensive backfield.
The defensive bookends were even better as both Shurron Pierson and Chris Daley shattered the USF sack record. Daley progressed from a part-time contributor as a sophomore to a commanding force as a junior. The 2001 season was truly a career year for Daley as his sack total skyrocketed from one to 9 1/2 and his total tackles doubled. Daley shattered Shawn Hay’s old single-season record of eight sacks by the fifth game, but a sprained ankle limited his effectiveness down the stretch. But that merely allowed the light to shine on sophomore Pierson. A non-qualifier in 2000, Pierson shook off the rust of a season lost due to academics to become a driving force on the Bulls’ defense. In addition to his sacking prowess, Pierson recovered two fumbles, one of which he returned for a touchdown, and forced three more. Pierson then went out this offseason and destroyed the weight room the way he did opposing quarterbacks, registering 32 bench presses at 225 pounds, a 42 1/2-inch vertical leap and a 600-pound squat. If Pierson’s growth on the field can match his production off of it, the results could be scary.
Matt Groelinger and Cedric Battles move inside to give rest to Jurineack and Walls since the Bulls will again be without Lee Roy Selmon Jr., who tore his ACL.
Emerson Morris has beat a broken leg and a strenuous course load to regain his eligibility and give the Bulls some cushion at end. Terrence Royal enrolled at USF in January, and the coaches quickly converted the former linebacker into an end in order to get him on the field faster.
Linebacker has three players sporting experience at the position. Courtney Davenport is the lone new starter, replacing the departed Anthony Williams, who was in camp with Indianapolis. A converted running back, Davenport has the speed to chase down the position he used to play, and he picked up some experience a year ago when he played in all 11 games and started one.
Kawika Mitchell has been on the field since the first snap when he got to USF. A transfer from Georgia, Mitchell posted a new school record with 106 tackles in 2001. Seasoned at all three spots, Mitchell will man the middle of the Bulls’ defense as he once again goes out to show opposing running backs why he’s on the Butkus watch list. An off-season car accident has done little to slow down the 6-foot-2, 255-pound senior from Winter Springs, who should become USF’s all-time leading tackler this season.
Davenport will look to follow in the footsteps of Maurice Jones, who went from backup to standout in 2001. As a redshirt freshman, Jones played in all 11 games but tallied only 15 tackles. Jones’ sophomore campaign was a monumental improvement as he made 60 tackles, 11 for lost yardage. Jones also had four sacks and a 52-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
“Maurice Jones has developed as much as anyone both physically and mentally,” Leavitt said. “He was an incredible guy to watch, and he had a tremendous year last year.”
Mike Minus was brought along slowly, appearing in seven games in 2001. Sophomore Jason Allen appeared in all 11 games on the outside a year ago, but a pair of freshmen is pushing to take his minutes. Leavitt has had ample praise for true freshmen Devon Davis and Stephen Nicholas, both of whom are likely to travel with the squad.
Defensive backfield was the other unit on the team that took some hard hits with graduation. Gone are defensive anchor Joe Morgan at strong safety and cornerback Bernard Brown, a four-year starter.
But the player that really made Leavitt and Rick Kravitz smile in 2001 was J.R. Reed. A homegrown product, the former Hillsborough High School standout distinguished himself with a startling sophomore season. While Reed played in every game as a freshman, last season was the true coming-out party for the Tampa native. Reed was third on the team in tackles with 89 from his free safety spot and constantly found himself around the ball. His five interceptions tied Anthony Henry’s school record, and he also added three fumble recoveries, one a 63-yard touchdown.The other three spots are in a state of flux.
Maurice Tucker started 10 games in 2001, but his substandard performance in fall practice found the senior getting dropped on the depth chart. Junior Ron Hemingway made his only start in the 2001 season opener and figures again to be in the starting lineup when the Bulls open with Florida Atlantic. As a sophomore, Hemingway saw action in all 11 games and picked up his first interception against Liberty Oct. 27.
Redshirt freshman D’Juan Brown’s phenomenal work has gained Leavitt’s attention, and he’ll be the other starter at cornerback. A product of Belle Glades Central, where he went to four straight state title games, Brown did solid work during his redshirt season and continued to earn raves with his performance in the fall.
The Bulls’ top special teams player in 2001, junior Kevin Verpaele, seems poised to ease into Morgan’s role at strong safety. Verpaele has played in all 22 games since he came to USF, picking up 42 tackles last season.
John Miller is another experienced hand in the secondary who figures to push Verpaele at strong safety as well as being the Bulls’ nickel back in passing situations. Miller saw extensive action a year ago on passing downs, bagging his first career interception against Utah State, which he returned 24 yards for a touchdown. As a junior in 2001, Miller played in all 11 games, making 45 tackles and breaking up five passes.
Javan Camon was another player who shined on special teams a year ago. He’ll back up Reed.
While Leavitt indicated that Hemingway and Brown would start at corner, Tucker and sophomores Antonio Warren and Sidney Simpson would also get opportunities, especially against teams like Oklahoma, which will feature plenty of multiple receiver sets.
Special teams was practically a disaster for the Bulls last season. Santiago Gramatica couldn’t live up to his brothers’ billing while he probably nursed a torn ACL all season. Gramatica was just 3-for-11 on field goals and 44-of-52 on extra points last season, but Leavitt and the Bulls are still counting on him to handle the kicking duties. Justin Geisler was the man for kickoffs a year ago, and he could also help out with field goals and extra points if Gramatica starts off slowly again this year.
Devin Sanderson’s numbers dipped slightly a year ago, but his punting was still up to par for the Bulls.