Bulls optimistic about returning talent in 2010
TORONTO -- Minutes after USF's 27-3 win against Northern Illinois, what stood out about the four Bulls players taking questions from the media -- quarterback B.J. Daniels, running back Mike Ford, receiver A.J. Love and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul -- was that none of them were seniors.
"It's very exciting to see where we are now and where we could potentially be," said Daniels, a redshirt freshman who stepped in for senior Matt Grothe and accounted for 23 touchdowns, one more than Grothe did last season. "We have a lot of young talent and a lot of guys coming back, and I really believe we can come back next year and be better."
There are key seniors graduating from this year's 8-5 team, including the top three tacklers in Saturday's win: linebacker Kion Wilson, safety Nate Allen and cornerback Jerome Murphy, all likely NFL Draft picks. Defensive end George Selvie, whose numbers were down from two All-America seasons, is a huge loss, and Pierre-Paul is contemplating skipping his senior year to enter the draft.
USF coach Jim Leavitt said before the season that his team was talented and young, and the Bulls showed both in the ups and downs of their season. USF is the only team in college football to open 5-0 in each of the past three seasons, but the Bulls have also established a reputation for second-half slides, as seen in losing five of seven games before Saturday's win. Much of that young talent will be back, and Leavitt's challenge is to translate that talent to more consistent success over the course of a season.
"It's not just talent that's going to win a championship," Leavitt said. "You've got to have a lot of focus, great discipline, and guys who realize you have to play so hard on every snap. You've got to come with great passion and battle. You have to have great leadership. We've got some great leadership coming back, and I think that's going to be critical."
Offensively, the Bulls lose very little, the key seniors being tight end Ben Busbee and receivers Jessie Hester and Theo Wilson. The offensive line returns intact, including seven players with at least five starts USF as a team threw 12 interceptions, its lowest total since joining the Big East in 2005, and the team's rushing average of 4.6 yards per carry was also the highest in five years. The Bulls potentially return all their running backs, if senior Mo Plancher is granted a sixth year by the NCAA, though Ford's 207-yard performance in Saturday's win doesn't assure him of being the primary ballcarrier.
"We'll see," said running backs coach Carl Franks. "Spring practice is a brand-new time of year. All new competition."
Leavitt's job is still in limbo because of a university investigation into allegations he grabbed a player by the throat and struck him twice in the face during halftime of a game in November, but the coach has strongly denied those allegations, and the player and his father have publicly said the reports were exaggerated.
USF's seniors won a record 34 games in the last four seasons, eight more than the previous four-year cycle, and fifth-year seniors like Selvie and Grothe saw the Bulls go to five bowls in five years, winning three. Leavitt understands that fans expect more with so much back in 2010.
"It's not a bad foundation," Leavitt said. "We all want to win the Big East as bad as anything. That's always going to be our No. 1 goal, and something we need to do. We need to find a way to do it. This is the best young group we've ever had. They are so talented. I think we're going to shoot high, I promise you. We're not going to settle. We're going to go after it."