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Leaving a lasting impression

When the clock runs down in the Brut Sun Bowl on New Year’s Eve, it will mark the end of more than just the most memorable season in USF history.

As the Bulls celebrate their third bowl appearance in as many years, they will also say farewell to one of the most memorable groups of seniors to ever wear green and gold.

And for that group of seniors, it will be a long way from where they started.

When cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams joined a 2004 Bulls team that posted a 4-6 record – the worst in school history – they could never have known that in a few years they would be playing for a team that had been ranked No. 2 in the nation.

When linebacker and defensive captain Ben Moffitt returned to the locker room after a devastating 43-14 loss to Pittsburgh to close out that 2004 season, there’s no way he could have known that just three years and 27 days later he would be playing in the 74th annual Sun Bowl, the nation’s second-oldest bowl game.

Yes, South Florida’s class of 2008 has certainly come a long way. And, for players this talented, their careers have only just begun.

Jenkins will enter the 2008 NFL draft as the highest-rated senior cornerback on the board, according to draft guru Mel Kiper Jr.

The 6-foot, 200-pound defensive back is being projected as a middle first-round pick. If he is taken in the first round, Jenkins will surpass former Bulls’ linebacker Stephen Nicholas as the Bulls’ all-time highest drafted player.

While Jenkins’ name may be called first on draft day, his counterpart shouldn’t have to wait long to hear his own.

Playing across the field from Jenkins, Williams has shown he possesses the skill to play on Sundays as well. The 5-foot-10-inch, 185-pound defensive back has 13 interceptions over the last two seasons, the most of any NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision player, and Kiper has projected the senior as a second-round pick in the 2008 draft.

With Jenkins and Williams hoping to show that Dallas Cowboy and USF alumnus Anthony Henry isn’t the only Bull who can cover NFL receivers, Moffitt hopes to join Stephen Nicholas and Kawika Mitchell as South Florida linebackers laying hits in the NFL.

The Bulls defensive captain has 100 tackles and four interceptions this season and is the third-best senior inside linebacker prospect in the nation, according to Kiper. Moffitt also produced one of the most memorable performances of the season when he had nine tackles, two interceptions and one touchdown in the Bulls’ 21-13 upset of No. 5 West Virginia.

With both Moffitt and Jenkins earning invitations to this year’s Senior Bowl on Jan. 26 and Williams earning a trip to the East-West Shrine Game on Jan. 19, NFL scouts and coaches are sure to get a firsthand glimpse of what these South Florida Bulls have to offer at the next level.

While the outstanding play from South Florida’s defense this season might have overshadowed the team’s offensive production, the leadership of several seniors on offense helped create a squad that produced more than 5,000 yards of total offense, the highest total in school history.

Two of primary leaders on the offense were seniors Walt Walker and Amarri Jackson.

Before missing the Connecticut, Cincinnati and Syracuse games due to injury, Walker had been a fixture on the offensive line, starting 29 of 32 games from 2005-2007.

Jackson has also missed games this season because of injuries but is a vocal leader on the offense and will always be remembered by fans for his outstanding performance in South Florida’s Big East Conference debut against Louisville in 2005.

Jackson, a sophomore at the time, had two rushing touchdowns and threw for another score in the Bulls’ 45-14 rout of the Cardinals.

What makes Jackson’s performance even more memorable is that it was that game against the No. 9 Cardinals that first put the Bulls on a national stage.

As Bulls fans celebrate a possible 10-win season and the school’s first-ever postseason ranking, they should take a moment to appreciate the seniors who helped get the team to where it is today.

Years from now, when the Bulls are contending for Big East titles and BCS Bowl games with the regularity of some of the nation’s most storied programs, fans of the 2007 squad will look back and realize what they witnessed: Not just the emergence of a national power, but also the group of talented and determined leaders who paved the way.