In the finale of a two-part series, The Oracle takes a closer look at the defense after a conversation with head coach Skip Holtz.
In recent years USF has been known as a defensive football team, but losing five of last year’s 11 defensive starters poses a unique challenge for head coach Skip Holtz’s next season.
However, Holtz said he believes the depth is there to replace those starters effectively.
“I think defensively, we have a chance to be a pretty good defensive football team,” Holtz said. “That’s saying a lot, talking about losing Mistral (Raymond), Jacquian Williams, Terrell McClain, (David) Bedford and (Craig) Marshall, I mean you’re losing five starters, more or less, off that defense.”
Replacing Bedford and Marshall is no small task, but Holtz said he believes he’s found his starting defensive ends in redshirt sophomore Ryne Giddins and fifth-year senior Patrick Hampton. When you add redshirt sophomore Julius Forte and the super-athletic Claude Davis into the mix, the two-deep depth chart is set.
“I think Ryne Giddins really has a chance to be a special player,” Holtz said. “I think with our two starters, we will be as good or better, productivity-wise, as we were a year ago.
“Claude Davis is kind of the X-factor as defensive end because he’s a talent. He wreaks havoc when he’s in there. He can make a lot of things happen, we’ve just got to get him to play in the system and not play sandlot ball.”
While Holtz is happy with the depth he has at defensive end, he said he recognizes that the depth behind tackles Keith McCaskill and Cory Grissom is somewhat thin.
“McCaskill and Cory Grissom are doing a really nice job inside … and then behind them, that’s probably the one position on defense (that we’re thin),” Holtz said.
Demi Thompson, Luke Sager and Todd Chandler are all current players that have a chance to win a spot on the two-deep.
“They all three have strengths, but they all three have weaknesses,” Holtz said.
Highly-rated incoming freshman Elkino Watson from Miami also has a good chance to make an impact right way.
If Holtz was forced to pick his best three linebackers to put out on the field, they would be junior Sam Barrington as strong-side, redshirt junior Michael Lanaris at middle and redshirt sophomore DeDe Lattimore at weak-side. But in order to help create depth, he has moved Barrington to middle linebacker to allow redshirt freshman Reshard Cliett and senior Curtis Weatherspoon to get some reps in hopes that they will be able to win the job at strong-side.
Ideally, Holtz would like to have two players in constant rotation at each position – Cliett and Weatherspoon at strong-side, Lanaris and Barrington at middle, and Lattimore and junior Mike Jeune at weak-side.
“At the linebacker position, staying healthy is going to be important to us,” Holtz said. “Lanaris, Barrington and DeDe Lattimore give you a lot of flexibility and a lot of strength. You know that in a worst-case scenario you can throw Sam back out to (strong-side) and those will be your three starters.”
“In the secondary, you can’t have any more stability than we do with all four safeties returning,” Holtz said.
With Jon Lejiste, Jerrell Young, Mark Joyce and JaQuez Jenkins all back for the 2011 season, safety should be a position of relative comfort for USF.
Add in starting cornerbacks junior Kayvon Webster and fifth-year senior Quenton Washington and the secondary is a unit that should require little maintenance in the offseason. Junior college transfer Ernie Tabuteau has caught the coaching staff’s attention, earning a spot as backup right cornerback.
With USF becoming a trendy pick to win, or at least contend for, the Big East championship, Holtz acknowledges that the recognition is well deserved.
However, he has even loftier ambitions. He said he believes that the program should aim to not only win a Big East title, but also a national championship.
“That’s where we want to compete,” Holtz said. “I think it’s impossible to get there if you don’t set your sights for it. Are we good enough to win it? I don’t know. That’s going to be determined in what we do this summer, what we do in the classroom, what we do in preparation … We’re not going to get there sitting here dreaming about it. We’re going to get there because of the decisions we make between now and then.”
Keeping Notre Dame hype in check
A lot of buzz has already been created about USF’s season-opening game against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. Notre Dame is Holtz’s alma mater, and his father, Lou, won a national championship while coaching the Fighting Irish.
“Having Notre Dame as the first game of the year is a nice little nugget to fight for,” Holtz said.
Yet he is also careful to keep the game in proportion.
“The Notre Dame game is big from a public image perception of how people are going to perceive us and whether or not we’re ready to compete on that national stage,” he said. “I’m more concerned about how we respond to that game than I am about that game itself. That game is not our season. If we lose to Notre Dame and win the rest of them, losing to Notre Dame could be the best thing to happen to us. If we beat Notre Dame and lose the rest of them, then that could be the worst thing to ever happen to us.”
Return to Vero?
Holtz and USF administrators are in the process of working out a deal to send the team to Vero Beach again in August for at least a portion of preseason camp. He said the “camp atmosphere” created in Vero cannot be replicated on campus.
“I want to go to Vero,” Holtz said. “I want about a two-week period where we can build this team with zero distractions, without cars and girlfriends and the social life and everything that goes on outside of football.”