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Spring football: Trio still contending at center

While most eyes naturally will gravitate toward the performances behind center at Saturday's USF spring game, the guys playing center might also spark conversation.

No fewer than three Bulls -- redshirt sophomore Cameron Ruff, redshirt freshman Michael Galati and senior Brynjar Gudmundsson -- have made snaps this season as the Bulls seek a replacement for three-year starter Austin Reiter.

Ruff, a Jesuit High alumnus, has taken the most to this point and will play on the White team with Gudmundsson, but the position battle may not be finished.

"I wouldn't necessarily say (there's) a front-runner," Taggart said.

"I've been impressed with Cam and how he's progressed over the spring. ... We've been blessed to have a guy there (Reiter) for a while, and now we're trying to find the right match for us, especially up front, to get the right guys in there to have a really good offensive line."

Making arguably the biggest strides among the linemen has been sophomore Jeremi Hall, a 6-foot-5, 335-pounder from Atlanta who was one of two "free agents" chosen by the Green team before the Bulls' spring intrasquad draft.

Hall was the only offensive lineman taken in free agency.

"I think it speaks highly of his development over spring and what everybody's seen from him," Taggart said. "Even throughout our winter conditioning, he lost a lot of weight and it's paying off for him now. When you watch him up front, he's again, one of the most consistent guys we have up there now and playing physical like we like for 'em to."

NEVER DULL: Spectators at Saturday's spring intrasquad game likely are to observe extensive celebration -- in lieu of the excessive kind -- on both sides. Taggart, unlike many of his counterparts, encourages it if done properly.

"We don't abide by that rule, 'Act like you've been there before,'" he said.

"It's hard to get there, and every time we make a big play we want to celebrate with our teammates and enjoy it on both sides of the ball, and you should. I tell our guys all the time, 'It's okay to express your love for the game (if) you make sure you're doing it the right way.'"

AUDIBLE 1: "We have...the defensive coordinator (Tom Allen) who installed the defense. ... And we have a couple of deep threats: Evan (Wilson), who has been doing pretty good for us; Chase Whitehead, Mr. Consistent; and Stanley (Clerveaux), he's been doing pretty good. So we have a pretty solid team, and the defense on the back end, we're pretty solid." -- S Jamie Byrd, when asked why the Green team will win Saturday's spring game

AUDIBLE 2: "We've got speed, that's all I've got to say. The Green team, they don't have nothing on our side. Me and Ryeshene (Bronson) on the outside, me playing slot as well, I mean, we're just gonna get behind 'em." -- WR Rodney Adams, when asked why the White will win

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NFL dreams gain steam at USF pro day

Of the roughly two-dozen former Bulls who did lifts, leaps, 40s and field goals for NFL scouts Thursday, none appear on any prominent mock drafts.

For a handful, the NFL odds are remote. For others, off the board. With more than 20 NFL teams represented, there were dreams to gain and absolutely nothing to lose Thursday. At the end of the warm afternoon, the general hope was that a head might have been turned, a face or 40 time embedded into a scout's cerebrum.

In that regard, a few Bulls might -- just might -- have strengthened the pulse of their pro aspirations.

"It was a really good day," said USF career receptions leader Andre Davis, among those expected to snag a camp invitation. "What I expected, to come out here and ball out with my boys for one last time. It was a great experience all the way around."

With relatives observing with the NFL types, former Bulls OLB Reshard Cliett had arguably the most prosperous afternoon.

Cliett, who had a team-best six sacks last season, elicited the day's heartiest audience reaction with a vertical leap of 38 1/2 inches -- a half-inch better than his previous best. He said his 40 time was clocked between 4.39 and 4.5 seconds, and he managed 21 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.

"I felt like people didn't really know what I could do," said Cliett, measured and weighed at 6-foot-2, 222 pounds. "And I think I put up a good show for 'em out here."

Davis, who has been training locally with former Buccaneers receivers Reidel Anthony and Yo Murphy at Tampa's Performance Compound, said he notched a 4.5-second 40. For a player whose speed has been questioned -- fairly or unfairly -- since high school, it represented a victory of sorts.

"My hips have gotten better, a lot looser," said Davis, who also played in the East-West Shrine Game at Tropicana Field in January.

"That's what I've been working on, a lot of flexibility; and the speed work. I feel like everything else is there, but I need to key on those things and keep getting better at those things and I'll be fine."

Also possibly gaining attention Thursday was former TE Mike McFarland, if for no other reason than his physical upside.

McFarland, whose stature (6-6, 252) seems NFL-ready right now, notched a 36-inch vertical, ran a 4.66 40 and did 18 reps of 225 on the bench. A second-team All-American Athletic Conference pick (per Phil Steele) last season, the Blake High alumnus had a career-best 27 catches in '14.

"I was surprising myself by how many times I did 225," McFarland said. "This has always been a childhood dream for me, just to be able to perform in front of these teams."

Pro day particulars
While we couldn't collect the pro-day performance of every USF participant Thursday, here are the results we did gather:

DT Todd Chandler
225-pound bench (# reps): 29

LB/S Reshard Cliett
Ht/wt: 6-2/222
40 time: 4.39-4.5
225-pound bench (# reps): 21
Vertical: 38.5"

WR Andre Davis
40 time: 4.5

TE Mike McFarland
Ht/wt: 6-6/252
40 time: 4.66
225-pound bench (# reps): 18
Vertical: 36"

OL Austin Reiter
Wt: 301
Vertical: 34"
225-pound bench (# reps): 32*

DL Elkino Watson
Ht/wt: 6-2 1/2, 290
40 time: 4.86
225-pound bench (# reps): 21

*-Did bench press at NFL Super Regional in Arizona

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Bulls confirm arrival of Shawn Smith

A day after confirming the departure of point guard Anthony Collins and low-post reserve Dre Clayton, USF announced well-traveled shooting guard Shawn Smith has transferred into the program.

A Jacksonville native, Smith (6-foot-4, 205 pounds) spent the 2013-14 season at Texas A&M before transferring to Lee College, averaging 15.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists for the junior college program on Houston's outskirts. He can play right away for the Bulls, and will have two years' eligibility remaining.

"Shawn is a physical guard who can play both the point and shooting guard positions," Bulls coach Orlando Antigua said in a USF news release. “He will give us a quick and athletic body with a lot of experience.”

Smith's vagabond prep career included a stop at Brandon's Faith Baptist Academy. Deemed a four-star prospect by ESPN, he made non-binding commitments to UCF and Missouri before signing with Texas A&M.

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Bulls men land another commitment

Due to some prior engagements involving women's basketball, we're a few days late on the most recent men's recruiting news.

Seems the Bulls have picked up another commitment, this one with major Division I experience.

Several news outlets have reported USF received a commitment from 6-foot-4 SG Shawn Smith, who had a cup of coffee at Texas A&M two seasons ago. If he signs -- the NCAA's spring signing period for basketball starts April 15 -- USF would be Smith's third college in four seasons.

A Jacksonville native whose vagabond prep career included a local stop at Faith Baptist, Smith was deemed a three-star recruit by three major services and was recruited by Cincinnati, Missouri and UCF.  He committed to the Knights in January 2011, but later de-committed.

Following a brief commitment to Missouri, Smith was ruled a partial qualifier upon signing with Texas A&M and had to sit out the 2012-13 season. He posted solid numbers the following year (5.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.3 assists) for the 18-16 Aggies before leaving the program. …

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USF's Anthony Collins, Dre Clayton to transfer

USF's Dre Clayton (0) and Anthony Collins (11) are transferring.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

USF's Dre Clayton (0) and Anthony Collins (11) are transferring.

While the USF men's basketball team isn't expected to overhaul its roster a second consecutive year, more noticeable turnover is expected this spring.

Case in point: Rising senior PG Anthony Collins and rising redshirt sophomore PF Dre Clayton, both Stan Heath recruits, ,are transferring. ESPN's Jeff Goodman first reported the departures Monday evening.

Their future destinations are unclear. Clayton is from Orlando, Collins from Houston. The lone holdover from the Bulls' 2012 NCAA Tournament team, Collins can play immediately at another Division I school if he graduates in the next couple of months as expected. Clayton probably must sit out a season, unless he opts for a smaller (Division II) program.

Collins played all 32 games this past season after a series of knee problems limited him to eight games (and a medical hardship waiver) in 2013-14. He averaged a team-best 5.2 assists and 33.9 minutes, but was expected to be pushed next season by Maryland transfer Roddy Peters, believed to be a better fit for Coach Orlando Antigua's high-tempo philosophy.

Clayton totaled 26 points in 28 games, averaging 7.7 minutes.

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Could '16 be even better for Bulls women?

Six-foot freshman Maria Jespersen is among 14 USF players expected to return for the 2015-16 season.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Six-foot freshman Maria Jespersen is among 14 USF players expected to return for the 2015-16 season.

Absorb the energy. Breathe in the sounds, scenery and stakes as March Madness gradually climbs toward its crescendo. Digest the intriguing plausibilities of bracketology, the players' raw ebullience, the tension of each possession.

Then leave room for seconds.

For USF's women, another mesmerizing March could be only 12 months away.

"I think they already have (built something)," said Louisville coach Jeff Walz, whose No. 3-seeded team faces the No. 6 Bulls in an NCAA Tournament second-rounder tonight. "I don't think it's a question of whether they can, I think they have."

For all the Bulls' depth (11 players average at least nine minutes), defensive stinginess (fourth nationally in defensive rebounds) and dangerous perimeter scorers (i.e. Courtney Williams, Laura Ferreira, Tamara Taylor), this program still might be a year away.

When this landmark season concludes, the career of only one significant contributor -- Taylor, a senior -- will end with it. Of the 15 players set to suit up against Louisville, 14 are expected back.

"This is still a very young group," Coach Jose Fernandez said in the immediate wake of Saturday's 73-64 first-round triumph against LSU.

"But they play with so much energy and so much excitement and there’s so much love in that locker room. When you have that, and when you’re winning in the locker room, the stuff on the basketball court takes care of itself."

If Fernandez can preserve that chemistry, and enhance it with another component or two (word is, more European reinforcements could be coming), the Bulls will be a lock to receive the program's first Associated Press preseason top-25 ranking next fall.

Williams, the American Athletic Conference's leading scorer this season (20.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 3.3 assists), will be a bona fide All-America candidate from the season's first wind sprint. Fellow senior Alisia Jenkins (13.0 ppg, 11.5 rpg) won't be far behind.

At point guard, regulars Laura Marcos Canedo and Shalethia Stringfield, with 2014-15 freshman Bre Brooks, could give USF its best depth ever at the position. Ferreira, on the heels of a sparkling rookie season (7.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg), could evolve into a matchup nightmare at a forward spot. Another European, 6-foot Denmark native Maria Jespersen (11 points, six rebounds Saturday), will fortify the low post with 6-5 center Katelyn Weber.

That's before the first freshman has set foot in a registration line.

"We've got to have a great offseason," Fernandez said, "and we still have the opportunity to add a little bit more to this puzzle in recruiting."

The April signing period starts in three weeks.

With or without it, another historic March looms for the Bulls.

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Fernandez earns bonuses for Bulls' NCAA run

USF women's basketball coach Jose Fernandez already has earned $25,000 in bonus pay for leading the Bulls into the NCAA Tournament's second round.

AP Photo

USF women's basketball coach Jose Fernandez already has earned $25,000 in bonus pay for leading the Bulls into the NCAA Tournament's second round.

The USF women's basketball team's extended season will result in some hearty overtime pay for Coach Jose Fernandez.

Under the terms of the five-year contract he signed two springs ago, Fernandez earned a $15,000 bonus for the Bulls' at-large NCAA Tournament invitation; and another $10,000 for Saturday's 73-64 first-round triumph against LSU.

He earns an additional $10,000 for each ensuing tournament triumph. If the Bulls qualify for next month's Final Four at Amalie Arena, he gets a $75,000 bonus.

His staff also is being rewarded. Fernandez's contract calls for USF to provide an assistant coaches' incentives pool of $25,000 for an NCAA tourney appearance.

Fernandez, in his 15th season, earns a base salary of $175,000 annually, plus an additional $125,000 for radio, TV and other public appearances. A win Monday night against Louisville would be the Bulls' 28th, setting a program single-season record.

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Know the foe: Louisville

A look at third-seeded Louisville, which faces USF in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Monday

Nickname: Cardinals

Record: 26-6

Coach: Jeff Walz (eighth season, 207-76)

How they advanced: defeated BYU, 86-53, in Saturday's opening round

Top players: F Mariya Moore, Fr. (13.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.7 assists); F Sara Hammond, Sr. (10.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.0 assists); F Myisha Hines-Allen, Fr. (11.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg)*

Common opponents with USF: Kentucky. The Cardinals lost by nine at home to the Wildcats in early December; USF fell to UK by four in the Virgin Islands in late November.

Record vs. NCAA Tournament field: 10-5 (including Saturday's win)

Need to know: This matchup rekindles an old conference rivalry for the Bulls, who have been in four different leagues with the Cardinals (Metro, Conference USA, Big East, American Athletic) over the years. Louisville is 26-4 all-time in the series and has won the last three meetings. ... With three starters 6-foot-2 or taller, the Cardinals will feature one of the more imposing lineups USF will face. Two of them -- Moore and Hines-Allen -- are freshmen, making Louisville the only AP top-20 team with two rookies as its scoring leaders. ... Complementing the Cardinals' length in the post is their larceny on the perimeter. They ranked third in the ACC in steals in the regular season (314) and had a season-high 24 Saturday against BYU.

*-Statistics entering the NCAA Tournament

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Walk-on WR Chase Whitehead still impressing

He has whizzed past fluke and sped past aberration. Now, he's bearing down on bona-fide status.

Three weeks into USF's spring camp, diminutive walk-on Chase Whitehead's campaign to enter the receiving rotation is gaining steam.

"He's gonna be a sleeper pick this fall," junior Rodney Adams, essentially the elder statesman of the receiving corps, said Friday.

"Just full of good things," sophomore Ryeshene Bronson added. "So many tricks up his sleeve."

A 5-foot-9 redshirt freshman built from the Wes Welker mode, Whitehead played at Fort Walton Beach's Choctawhatchee High. Though his USF bio is pretty barren, his Hudl profile indicates he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.62 seconds in high school. …

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Credit TECO with first NCAA tourney assist

One of the most raucous crowds in in recent Sun Dome memory is expected for the opening round of Saturday's NCAA Women's Tournament, and sixth-seeded USF can thank TECO for a bulk of the decibels.

Of the 8,000 tickets distributed for Saturday's two games, more than half (4,600) were scooped up by TECO for area disbursement, USF confirmed Friday afternoon.

Tampa Bay Sports Commission executive director Rob Higgins said TECO underwrote the tickets for the purpose of distributing them to area groups such as Hillsborough County teachers and various charity organizations.

Higgins' group helped facilitate the gesture, which he called "incredible."

"This is intended to help local high school students be able to see athletics at a higher level than maybe they've experienced in the past," TECO spokesperson Cherie Jacobs said. "And it's also in part to help Tampa look good on a national stage."

USF faces No. 11 LSU in the second game. If all -- or even most -- of the distributed tickets are used, and a robust walk-up crowd emerges, the audience will easily be the largest of the season for a Bulls men's or women's game. …

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USF walk-ons experience Madness, if not minutes

Former Tampa high school standouts Micah Kroll (left) and Neena Pacholke are living every aspect of March Madness -- minus the game minutes -- as USF walk-ons.

JOEY KNIGHT | Times

Former Tampa high school standouts Micah Kroll (left) and Neena Pacholke are living every aspect of March Madness -- minus the game minutes -- as USF walk-ons.

Chances are, they'll remain wallflowers for this big dance. The only air time they're likely to garner during March Madness is if the ESPN cameras home in on the end of the Bulls' bench.

Mop-up duty? Longshot, and that's fine with them. Neither Neena Pacholke nor Micah Kroll would trade their seats or status -- walk-ons for an NCAA Tournament team -- for anything.

"People would die to be in our shoes," Pacholke said.

Plunge a few fathoms down USF's depth chart, and you find a pair of former local prep standouts -- the "Tampa Two" -- who sacrificed getting minutes at a smaller school for Madness at a larger one. …

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Spring football: Flowers the front-runner?

For those tracking USF's latest quarterback derby, the spring pattern has been impossible to miss. In recent practices including Saturday's scrimmage, sophomore Quinton Flowers has taken the first snaps, followed by upperclassmen Steven Bench and Mike White.

Coincidence? Not according to Coach Willie Taggart. When asked Wednesday if Bulls fans should read anything into the QB sequence, Taggart said, "The guys who play the best are gonna be there."

"There's not a certain depth chart, it's an organizational depth chart. The guys that practice well and grade out well, that's where they end up at," Taggart said. "I think that's the way it's been the last couple of days, and I tell you what, that's been going great."

Exactly when a starter will be named remains unclear. Flowers started Saturday's extended scrimmage and directed a 10-play, 65-yard TD drive on the day's first possession -- by far the most impressive offensive series of the day.

"I enjoyed watching practice on Monday, watching those guys compete," Taggart said. "Quinton goes and makes a big-time throw, then Steven comes in and makes a big-time throw, then Mike comes in and makes a big-time throw. So this is what we're talking about; we need the competition like that. ... It was great to see."

LOVE OUT: DE Mike Love, a Countryside High alumnus enjoying a breakthrough spring, will miss the remainder of camp with a fractured right foot. Love, who appeared to have at least one sack Saturday, was on crutches Wednesday.

"He was having a really good spring. But Mike's one of those guys who's gonna come back," Taggart said. "He heals differently. He'll attack rehab just like he does on the football field."

D-LINE TAKING SHAPE: Despite an infusion of youth, the Bulls' reconfigured four-man front is starting to solidify, position coach Eric Mathies indicated.

Sophomore Deadrin Senat (6-foot-1, 300 pounds) appears to have one of the tackle spots secure, while 2014 starter Eric Lee appears solid at an end spot. Junior Derrick Calloway has been "very consistent" lately, while fellow T James Hamilton has had a "very solid spring," according to Mathies.

Arguably the most intriguing competition remains among those converting from outside linebacker in last year's 3-4 scheme to end in new coordinator Tom Allen's 4-2-5 look.

Three local 2014 signees -- Juwuan Brown (Jefferson), Josh Black (Sickles) and Vincent Jackson (Jesuit) -- are vying for rotation spots, with Black perhaps having an edge at this point. Joining the mix is seldom-used senior Zack Bullock, whom Mathies said is "starting to find his niche." Taggart said to keep an eye on redshirt freshman Kevin Bronson, who was "a force" on USF's scout team last fall.

"Those (converted 'backers) are used to being off the ball, and they're not used to the physical nature down after down of having your hand down and being close to the line of scrimmage," Mathies said.

"So the bad part about that is just getting those guys to understand you have to be physical, and you have to throw your hands and you have to play with leverage. The fun part is, those guys are super athletic."

ODDS AND ENDS: The Bulls practice Friday morning on campus, then stage an 11 a.m. public workout Saturday at Lakeland's Bryant Stadium. ... Taggart said freshman LB Danny Thomas, an early enrollee, has made noticeable progress during camp. "The first couple of days he was kind of all over the place," he said. "Now as he gets more comfortable with things, he's starting to make a lot more plays." ... RB D'Ernest Johnson (sprained MCL) suited up Wednesday but wore a knee brace and appeared limited.

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Know the foe: LSU

A look at 11th-seeded LSU, which faces USF in Saturday's opening round of the NCAA Tournament

Nickname: Tigers

Record: 17-13, 10-6 Southeastern Conference

Coach: Nikki Caldwell (fourth season at LSU, 83-49; seventh season overall, 155-75)

How they advanced: At-large bid

Top players: G Danielle Ballard, Jr. (14.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.9 assists); G Raigyne Moncrief, So. (11.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.0 steals), G DaShawn Harden (10.9 ppg, 38.8 percent from 3-point range).

Record vs. NCAA Tournament field: 4-10 …

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USF women 25th in final AP poll

The USF women's basketball team's 2014-15 milestone collection grew Monday afternoon, hours before another anticipated expansion Monday night.

For the first time ever, the Bulls, expected to receive the program's third NCAA Tournament bid during Monday evening's selection show, finished the regular season ranked in the Associated Press' top 25.

The Bulls (26-7), who made a poll cameo earlier in the season before dropping out, likely impressed voters with their 84-70 loss to top-ranked UConn in the American Athletic Conference tournament final. USF, which never previously had reached a league tournament title game, outscored the Huskies 47-38 in the second half.

It was one of two halves in which the Bulls outscored UConn this season. In their other 30 triumphs, the Huskies won every half.

USF will enter the NCAA Tournament with a 26-7 record, one victory shy of the program's single-season record.

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Post-scrimmage Q&A: Bulls QBs

Immediately after USF's two-hour, turnover-prone scrimmage Saturday, all three scholarship quarterbacks spoke to reporters. The collective offensive effort, in terms of Saturday and the whole spring to date, were addressed. Here are some excerpts.

What were your thoughts on the collective offensive effort in the scrimmage (the defense had at least four interceptions)?
Mike White: "Collectively it's a new offense and obviously we're going through our growing pains, but I thought our effort was there, I thought our fight was there and I thought our will to get better was there. Obviously it's not what you want, but then again, that's why this is spring practice No. 7 or 8."

Steven Bench: "Not very good. Obviously we turned the ball over too much, maybe trying to go too fast. We've got to be quick but not in a hurry, and we were just kind of off and on. Not very consistent and that's on us as players and we've got to get that corrected. And that's on me as a quarterback to get everybody lined up to where they're supposed to be and run the offense. ... We're gonna get it right."

On the day's very first possession, the offense went 65 yards in 10 plays. What was the key?
Quinton Flowers: "First thing on my mind was like Coach (Willie Taggart) said, not always the big plays, just the best plays. Checking down to your guys that you've got in the backfield: Marlon Mack, (Darius) Tice...D'Ernest Johnson. Those are some good guys coming out of the backfield, so it's not always about the big plays, just getting it down to the guys down there."

How has the adjustment been for the quarterbacks in this new (spread, no-huddle) offense?
MW: "Obviously there's new stuff to learn but it's fun. It's kind of like we get to take on a whole new identity like, 'This is our offense.' We get to run with it, we get to start together from Square One and we go out there, we fight, we practice, we learn every day, we succeed every day. ... I think it has been a real good growing thing for us and it's kind of helping us come together as a team."

SB: "We're not doing a lot of new stuff, we're just not huddling. That helps a lot. ... I know I've been here for two seasons, Mike's been here for two seasons, Quinton's been here for one. So we've seen the plays before. Obviously we've got a new defense now and we're going fast, but it's been a good transition simply because the thing we're doing different is the tempo, not the plays."

What are some keys to success for a quarterback in this offense?
MW: "We have a lot of quick-hitting screens, and if you're able to get the ball in our playmakers' hands, we do have a lot of those. If you can get the ball to Rodney Adams and A.J. Legree and Stanley Clerveaux and our stampede of backs back there...it might be a 1-yard throw but in the stats they break for 15 and it looks good for you, so it kind of goes both ways."

QF: "As a quarterback, you've got to be able to pre-snap read. You can't just go out there and think you've got it when you don't, so you always have to pre-snap read. And you have to know that you and your guys are on the same page because in the spread offense, you could probably have some guys running the bubble and the other guy running the read, so you have to have everybody on the same page."

Because of the heightened tempo, is there more of a learning curve for the offensive line?
MW: "Yeah, it is. They're kind of getting a feel for each other. We're switching positions around here and there. You've got Brynjar (Gudmundsson) who's coming back (from ankle surgery), and then we have Thor (Jozwiak) also who's out (shoulder surgery), so we really don't have a feel for what our starting line is, but people like Clavion Nelson, Jeremi Hall, Dominique Threatt, Mak Djulbegovic, all are coming along great and it's good to see."

Quinton, your mobility and field awareness never have been questioned, but people have asked whether you have the arm to play at the major Division I level. What do you say to that?
QF: "Yes, I have the arm; I know I have the arm. It's not always about making the big plays. Those small plays can be the big plays for you, so just to hear people saying my arm's not big, hey, I can't do nothing about that but do the plays my coach assigns and just keep playing."

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