It seemed as if South Florida coach Jim Leavitt built a wall around the state of Florida when he pulled off what many have called the best recruiting class in school history.
By the time Leavitt reached a press conference at the Athletics Facility Wednesday, 28 recruits had signed letters of intent during National Signing Day.
The 2009 class, which has 26 players that are originally from Florida, is ranked in the nation’s top 25 by a number of recruiting Web sites.
It’s a sign that the program is growing.
“I don’t think there’s any question to how excited we are about this group,” Leavitt said. “There’s so much talent. We may not know how good they are for another two or three years because we have to see how coachable they can be, but we’re excited.”
Those “two or three years” may be the biggest in the football program’s history, as USF will see a significant increase in non-conference competition — especially against the Sunshine State’s “Big Three.”
USF will play the defending national champion Florida Gators in 2010, as well as Miami and Florida State next fall.
Leavitt said it was on his mind during the recruiting process.
“Playing that strong of a schedule, against Florida State and Miami was a part of this,” he said. “There’s no question we need to recruit well because we are now playing against good teams. And you won’t beat teams unless you recruit extremely well.”
Not only did USF recruit players from inside the state, but ones being pursued by future opponents.
Ryne Giddins, a four-star defensive end according to rivals.com, chose USF over Florida. The Armwood senior joins a class of defensive linemen that includes five-star junior college transfer, Jason Pierre-Paul.
“To see (Giddins) stand up and then be asked why he chose South Florida, and he said: ‘Why not?'” Leavitt said. “That is so powerful. That’s the way I feel as a head football coach. For Ryne to say that, it makes me want to hug him. I want to hang out with that guy. I want to eat pizza with him.”
With junior George Selvie opting not to go into the NFL draft, Leavitt said the defensive line will be the Bulls’ strength next year.
“We know that our defensive front four is going to be exciting,” he said. “I’ve always felt that unless we have a group that is staggering then it’s hard to win championships. I think we have a chance to have a staggering group.”
Boca Ciega defensive end Julius Forte will be one of those fighting for a spot on the defensive line.
“I think there is going to be a lot of competition there but that always brings the best out of me, and I’m excited to begin,” Forte said.
Florida, Florida State and Miami have top-ranked classes, as well. Rivals.com ranks the Seminoles No. 6, while Florida sits at No. 10 and Miami is No. 11.
Hallandale cornerback Ricardo Dixon chose USF despite getting an offer from FSU.
“USF had something the other programs didn’t,” Dixon said. It felt like I fit in with all the guys. We got to talk and they answered all my questions.”
One of the Bulls’ last signings on Wednesday came as a surprise. Monsignor Pace safety Kayvon Webster decided to choose USF over Miami late in the day.
They were literally the first words Leavitt spoke after getting on the podium.
“Kayvon Webster,” Leavitt said. “I told Kayvon those would be the first two words out of my mouth if he came to the University of South Florida. So, I’m doing that because I’m a man of my word.”
Leavitt said keeping your word to high school recruits is one thing that has changed the talent coming to USF.
“I think the biggest thing is trust,” he said. “We’ve had great stability here and you have coaches being fired or leaving all the time. You have guys telling kids that his place is the best, or that place is the best. What are they supposed to believe? Sometimes I think these guys get tired of it all.”
Westwood quarterback Isaac Virgin said watching USF grow into the national spotlight didn’t hurt either. The Bulls have been ranked in the top 15 in the past two seasons.
“I first really noticed USF when they cracked the top-five my junior season,” he said. “I did some research on the program and found out they were a good program. So, I’m looking forward to winning a Big East title and possibly a National Championship.”
If the program is going to continue to grow, Leavitt said it would come from competing within the state.
“I’ve said it from the beginning that I was going to do everything I could to recruit (in Florida),” he said. “Even here in the Tampa Bay area is critical. If we can land everyone we want to land here, we can be atop the Big East every year.”