The University of South Florida football team went into the 2003 season with the question of who would step up and fill the hole left behind by former quarterback Marquel Blackwell. And after the 2003 season ended with what USF coach Jim Leavitt said was one the of biggest wins in the program’s seven-year history, a 25-16 road victory against Memphis, the Bulls are faced with yet another question heading into the offseason after their inaugural campaign in Conference USA.
Who will step up and fill the void left by Blackwell?
Despite a 7-4 record, USF’s sixth consecutive season with at least seven wins, and a No. 3 finish in its first year of conference play, the Bulls were plagued by inefficiency at quarterback virtually the entire season.
And going into the offseason, it appears an open race as to who will start the 2004 season opener against Tennessee Tech, as Leavitt was noncommittal.
“I can’t really say that right now,” Leavitt said. “I don’t know if anybody has really taken that position and says ‘My gosh, I’m definitely the guy and everybody can see that I’m pretty good.’
“I’ll visit with Pat (Julmiste) and Ronnie (Banks) and those guys, and David Mullins wants an opportunity. But it’s pretty wide open there. Obviously we’ve got to get better there; we’ve got to do something there.”
Banks began the season as the starting quarterback until a poor performance against TCU, when he passed for just 68 yards and was sacked 10 times. The loss snapped USF’s 21-game home winning streak, and also began a quarterback shuffle that, due in part to both inconsistency and injury, continued for the remainder of the season.
Junior Brian Fisher, who replaced Banks against TCU, started the next game against Charleston Southern, and redshirt freshman Julmiste ended the season by starting against Memphis. In between, those two, along with Banks, each spent some time under center.
But there were some great accomplishments from the Bulls despite all the problems on offense, most notably on the other side of the ball.
Led by seniors J.R. Reed, Maurice Jones, Courtney Davenport, Kevin Verpaele and Lee Roy Selmon Jr., the defense finished second in C-USA in total defense, allowing just 315 yards per game.
That performance helped USF finish third in the conference in its inaugural year, which Leavitt said was a huge accomplishment, despite the Bulls missing out on a bowl bid.
“What our guys accomplished I thought was tremendous, and it doesn’t put a bad spin (on the season because of no bowl game), not in my mind,” Leavitt said.
In the off-season, the Bulls must find replacements for all the departing starters on defense, as well as several key players on offense, most notably wide receivers Huey Whittaker, Chris Iskra, Elgin Hicks and running backs DeJuan Green, Vince Brewer and Quinton Callum.
But the biggest question mark remains at quarterback, the same problem the team had entering the season.