Bulls still seeking answers on young offensive line
TAMPA -- On a team loaded with seniors and multi-year starters, USF football may be best positioned for the future at offensive line, where three sophomores are part of the starting five. The negative with such youth at a key position is the present, as was seen in Thursday's loss to Rutgers, which saw two Bulls -- center Austin Reiter and left tackle Darrell Williams -- making their first Big East starts.
"There was an awful lot of pressure on (quarterback) B.J. (Daniels), pressure that should not have been there," Skip Holtz said. "I think there were some concerns brought up in that game. Is everybody ready for this level? Is everybody for the full-speed actions of the game, especially when you have guys like Mark Popek and (backup) Damien Edwards, two guys that are both seniors and have played a little football for you. We've got to look at what is the right mix right now."
USF took a gamble in preseason, moving Popek, a returning starter at left tackle, inside to left guard to give Williams the left tackle job; Williams missed the opener with an ankle injury, so Thursday was his second career start. Offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler said Tuesday a little competition in practice this week won't hurt the line, though he's been pleased with how his players have responded since the loss.
"The first thing we have to do is keep our composure," Shankweiler said. "We have to play within the system, and not chase ghosts. I had a couple of young guys out there and things went fast. I didn't do a very good job of helping them. I can do better as a coach. We saw it on film, we know what we need to fix, and we'll get it done."
The ghost-chasing Shankweiler mentioned comes from Rutgers' pre-snap misdirection, something USF had addressed before the game -- the line was forewarned but ultimately still not prepared for what they faced in stunts and twists; "it's not really something you can simulate in practice," he said. USF didn't give up a sack, but the pressure at the line of scrimmage took away the Bulls' running game and left quarterback B.J. Daniels with few snaps where he wasn't on the move to avoid sacks. Holtz said one thing coaches can't know about young players is how they'll handle in-game adversities the first time they face them on a big stage.
"How are they going to respond when the lights go on and things go against them and they get hit in the mouth? How do you compete then as an 18-year-old young man?" Holtz said. "You don't ever know how they're going to respond to it. It wasn't probably the turnout we wanted, but we have to take where we are and go from here. We learned a lot about our football team Thursday."
Holtz said Saturday's opponent, Ball State, looked a lot like Rutgers defensively in the second half of its win against Indiana, which means the Bulls could be facing more of the same on Saturday in Muncie.
"Whatever you don't handle, offensively or defensively, if there was a pass play they ran five times and they were 5-for-5, you'd better get it corrected, 'cause you're going to see it next week," Holtz said. "Whether they have it in or not, they're about to put it in. I don't think it's a bad thing. What Rutgers did, Ball State runs a lot of the same things, so I'm sure we'll see a lot of that. If you step up, pick it up and protect it, and hit the open receiver, it'll go away and you won't see it again. If you don't, it's going to keep coming."