Leavitt Verbatim: FSWA comments, finally ...
When USF coach Jim Leavitt spoke Thursday morning at the Florida Sports Writers Association's College Football Media Days, we focused initially on the real news of the day, with injury updates, Leavitt getting a vote in the coaches' poll and the coach lobbying for the Gators to come play USF in Tampa. Of course, some of you want to know everything Leavitt says, so I'm taking the time to transcribe his comments. Here goes, and if you'd rather listen than read, here's the video from USF's official site. ...
JL: (opening comments) We started Monday, and my staff was real happy I went to the ESPYs so I was gone for two days. They didn't have me to mess with them. But we got back in this morning early. Just flew back so I'm all over the place. Urban (Florida coach Urban Meyer), I was really disappointed. He was sitting in front of me, and put his seat back the whole time. I told him "I don't want any of that anymore." (Were those the big seats?) "We were fortunately in the big seats, but right after the plane went up, his seat went back. No, I was teasing him about that."
"It's great to be here. All the years, 13 years, I remember my first year. I'd never been a head coach. Coming to this, you have no idea how excited I was to be a part. FIU wasn't here, FAU wasn't. Florida, Florida State, Miami, Central Florida, everybody. It was real exciting for me, and it still is that way. I was looking forward to this, maybe just because I know football and our season is right around the corner when I come to this event.
"I'm excited about our program, as much as I ever have been. I'm anxiously waiting. We'll have meetings for a number of weeks here. August 3 our players come in, and they've been training. It's real different from what it was a number of years ago, because everybody comes in the summer and trains now. Even the high school players you sign, they're in summer school and training with the older guys. You don't have the newcomers then the veterans, everybody just comes in together. Our guys have trained so hard. Ronnie McKeefery has done an exceptional job with our players. The strength and conditioning coaches need to be given so much credit for what they do, because summer workouts are becoming as big as winter conditioning or spring football. They really are.
"We have a talented football team this fall. We have a lot of guys that haven't played a lot of football that are going to be counted on to do very well. But we do have a lot of players back as well, so we've got a mixture. How good we're going to be this year, I don't know, we'll have to see. You don't know about the chemistry, you don't know about the leadership, you don't know how they're going to deal with adversity, those things. We'll have to just wait and see."
Q: In rising to No. 2 last season, then losing three games after, looking back now, was your team not ready for that? How do you explain that?
JL: "I don't think that was the case. I hear people say that all the time, and I just say 'Probably, whatever.' Our guys played ... Rutgers is a good football team. We went in there, had the ball twice inside the 50 with a chance to win the game. They made some great plays. You can look at it two ways: we should have maybe stopped a play here or there, but these are good football teams. We just didn't protect the football in those games. The thing I was most impressed by was the way our team came back in those last three games. Going up to Syracuse, winning that game, then beating Louisville down here, beating Pittsburgh at their place to finish out the regular season. I was very impressed by that. You don't do that ... to lose three of the most gut-wrenching losses, to rise back up and win like we did, you don't do that if you don't have great character and you don't have guys who have great leadership and all those things. If your program isn't built on solid ground. I thought those guys did an extraordinary job and I'm real proud of the football team.
"The lights were on us before that game. When we beat Auburn, people were aware of us. Then you have two weeks til you play West Virginia, then you beat West Virginia. We weren't hidden under some rock after winning those two games. It amazes me that I don't hear much about North Carolina. It shows how young our program is: we had never beaten another BCS school, other than the Big East conference we're in, in Raymond James Stadium, ever. It shows teams haven't come in there. To win that game by 30, (against) a team that went down and beat Miami pretty good, at Miami. After we had beaten Auburn and beaten West Virginia. And then we have to go and still play FAU, who ended up winning their conference championship. I think we were No. 6 in the country at that time, and then to beat Central Florida, they won their conference championship. There's a lot of things that happened, I don't know. I thought our guys had the lights on them and played well. We got banged up a little bit, turned the ball over a little bit, too much. That was the problem there.
Q: If 12-13 years ago, you were happy to be mentioned in the breath of the traditional programs like Florida, Florida State, Miami. Obviously times have changed. Do you think it's time to retire the term "Big Three"?
JL: "I wouldn't be the one to be asked about that. People do ask me quite often, because the last few years, we've won nine games. I get asked about Florida State and Miami a little bit more. Florida won a national championship a year ago and won nine also this past year. But I tell people I grew up here, and it was never really the Big Three. It was Florida. In the 70s, they didn't have a real strong team. I think 1973, I was a senior in high school. Miami and Florida State were not real strong. It was only Florida, and then all the sudden, Florida, Florida State and Miami started winning and it became, through those 20 years, the Big Three, I guess. Now they're three very powerful programs. I've always told people you have to beat them. ... People can be sitting around, drinking coffee, and it's a nice discussion, how does South Florida compare with some of the schools. I think tradition, time, those schools have all won national championships and done some great things. I think you've got to beat them. You have to have the opportunity to do that, so that's going to be there starting next year."
Q: On the heels of your success last year, how has this off-season been for you and the perception of the program?
JL: "Busy. Getting up to No. 2, across the nation, we're on TV more and those things happen. The pace has been really like it was my first year. First year we didn't have football, so everybody wanted you everywhere to talk to different groups, see different people. It was exciting starting football, and I talked to so many groups that opening year. Everybody's wondering what South Florida's going to do this year. Because here, this team got up to No. 2, lost some games, won a bunch of games, then got beat bad in the bowl game. What kind of team is this going to be this year? Are they going to be like that team in the first six games or like the team that finished in the bowl game? That's what it seems like everyone's wondering. We'll see. The pace has been strong. It's been different. More eyes are on you, probably, than ever, which is expected. We've been winning for a few years now, we've gone to three bowls. We're starting to climb a little bit. We certainly haven't won a Big East championship or any of those things, so we're not there, that's for sure. But we're a competitive team, a team that, when we're playing good football, we can be pretty good."
Q: How did last season change things as your recruiting has gone this year?
CL: "It helps. Certainly a lot more players are looking at the University of South Florida as a place to go. They understand a BCS conference. I think getting to No. 2 shows there's a chance. There's a chance you could play in a national championship game. Doesn't mean you will or you won't, it just means you've got a shot. We broke through that. Players see that, see there are a lot of exciting things happening. Recruiting's tough. It's always tough, but we're getting a lot more players, certainly in the state of Florida and throughout, that we're involved with that we probably have never been with before. (Has your recruiting elevated to a level where you can compete with Florida, FSU and Miami?) Yes. Florida, Florida State and Miami get most of the guys they go after, most of the guys they target. We're really staying with those players a lot longer than we ever have. And we have gotten a player from all of them. The percentage is not real high, but it's happening, where before it wasn't ever happening. It wasn't even a discussion. Now it is. It's still tough, because of tradition, but guys that want to be part of history, we're on TV probably more than anybody else in the Big East this year. I could point out all the recruiting aspects to you, but it's made it more interesting.
Q: Do you still see a role for scheduling FAU, UCF and other schools of that part as well?
JL: "I didn't talk about scheduling those three. We have Miami on the schedule next year. Florida won't come in here to Tampa and we haven't been able to get that done. Before, I could understand why, because we were averaging probably 32, 34,000. Now we're selling out Raymond James. You know, we were the No. 1 school in the country last year in increased attendance, which shows this area. Florida State, that hasn't gotten done. But Miami is one of the three .. we have five games with them and three of those five are in Tampa. That's something to look at closely. It gives us an opportunity. We have to beat Miami to get ourselves in that position, and Miami's a great program, through the years certainly.
"What happens is, I don't know how many Florida teams I really want to play. We've played everybody, pretty near. In my 13 years, I don't think anybody can just say we've not played teams in the state of Florida. We have. I don't know how many times we want to play a bunch of them, because the emotion is so high in this state. You all recruit the same players, you get on that field. No matter who, we're playing Central Florida, FAU, FIU, it's tough. So that's the hard part. We played everybody. We've got FIU, we've played FAU a few times now. We've played Central Florida three times. In fact, we've played Central Florida more than anybody else. We've got Florida on our schedule a couple of times. I wish they'd come ... the Swamp, I'm sure that's an exciting place to play. I haven't been there. I'd love to see that happen in Tampa too though. I don't foresee that happening."
Q: We continue to see headlines with athletes and guns. Do you have a policy on your athletes and guns, knowing these are kids who are so visible as ambassadors for the school?
JL: "I don't know if I have a player with a gun, I don't think they're on our team. I don't want that, if that's what you're asking. I guess I don't understand it. I haven't ever been asked that question. I'm just assuming our guys don't, maybe I'm real naive. If I hear about a player having a gun ... I guess we do have hunting. That happens. We have some players on the team who probably do go out and hunt, maybe have a rifle or something like that. I've never really faced that in 13 years. I think our guys understand me. I don't tolerate a whole lot, quite honestly. If you hear about something at South Florida, it's not going to be for very long. I hope our guys don't mess with it."
Q: Can you talk about your three players from the Naples, and also Anthony Mains (who had committed to USF early on but signed with Wisconsin)?
JL: "I'll talk about the three guys we have. We lose a lot of guys to different schools, but the three guys we have are doing a great job. They really are. They're very good football players, they're good people and will play a lot of football for us. We're very fortunate to have those three."
Q: Can you talk about the linebackers and how you'll replace Ben Moffitt in the middle?
JL: "Well, Ben Moffitt was a great player. I think we all know that. Ben started for us for a number of years. About four years ago, we had a losing season, and one of the reasons was we had three young linebackers playing: Stephen Nicholas, Pat St. Louis and Ben Moffitt. When we finally got those three going, they were three of the best linebackers we've had. We lost Stephen to the Atlanta Falcons. Pat St. Louis went up to the Falcons and got released and is coaching with us right now. Ben Moffitt's the third one. We had a special group there.
"Tyrone McKenzie is an awfully good football player. We really feel like we've got to have great play out of there or we're probably not going to be real strong defensively. We think we've got a couple of guys who can play at a pretty high level. Tyrone McKenzie is one. Brouce Mompremier could move over to the middle too, but we'd like to keep him at Will linebacker, where he was last year. We've got Kion Wilson, who was hurt this spring. He's from Pearl River. He's got a lot of ability, but we don't know what he can do yet, because he didn't practice much this spring. We'll be training hard in the fall, but going into the season, Tyrone will be one and Kion will be in there battling. ... Tyrone's from this area. He played middle at Iowa State, and we'll have to see how he does with our scheme."
Q: Cape Coral's Nate Allen and Taurus Johnson have stepped up into big roles. Can they be players that help you take the program to the next level?
JL: "I think Nate Allen's one of the best free safeties in the country. I wouldn't trade him for anybody. And Taurus, the three games we lost, Taurus didn't play in any of those three games. The last two years, he's been our Offensive Playmaker of the Year. He hurt his ankle. Intresting story: We were playing Syracuse, and Taurus still couldn't play, his ankle was bad. I went and saw him in the training room Tuesday, said 'Taurus, we really need you out there. If you can even play at 70 percent, play a few snaps. That's what he did. He's such a competitor. We taped his ankle up and he was out there, probably playing at 70-80 percent. He caught a touchdown pass, caught a third-down 17-yard gain. We could put people in the right position. He didn't play in those three games. Those guys, they're training to be better. I promise you those guys work hard. They're good football players and they could play anywhere in the country. I don't think there's any question about that.
Q: With Tyrone McKenzie moving to middle, how do things look at strongside linebacker?
JL: "Well, if Kion's real strong, we can put Tyrone back at Sam. We've got Sabbath Joseph, who's as good an athlete as we've ever had at linebacker. He's really getting older, getting more discipline, those kinds of things. He has speed that Stephen Nicholas had. He can run under 4.6. He's 230, 6 foot, and he can play. We've got Chris Robinson, who has a lot of talent. He's 6-4, 240, runs well. If he decides that he wants to be a great player, he will be. He'll be as good as there is out there. We've got those two guys who really are both starters. Sabbath can play Will. He's played some middle, some strongside. That's really where we're at. We've got (Alonzo) McQueen, who can play all three spots as well. He was a big recruit for us, came down to us and South Carolina. He's a neat guy. Those are the guys we're counting on. The guys coming in, the freshmen, probably will have a hard time getting in there.
Q: With Matt Grothe in his third year as a starter, how can he get better? Where does he go from here?
JL: "He's got to protect the football. He makes so many plays when he's scrambling and he releases the ball at the end. He's always got his eyes downfield. I don't want to take that away from him. He's got to know how to protect the football and still be aggressive and still move the chains. How does he do that? Well, he understands that we don't want the other team to have the ball. He runs it so much, and he'll continue to run the ball. I'm not going to sit here and say Matt's not going to run the ball, he's going to hand the ball off to somebody else more. Matt's going to run the ball. He'll do it and he'll hand off. He's got to hang on. When you have the ball in your hands that many times, things happen. He understands what he needs to do. We continue to try to put him in situations in practice to let him make decisions, and certainly through the games, he's got to be better.
Q: You lost two NFL draft picks at cornerback in Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams. How does that position look with two new starters coming in?
JL: I think Jerome Murphy and Tyller Roberts are outstanding corners. They've played a lot of football. They were the backups, but Tyller Roberts started part of the Penn State game three years ago and got an interception in the end zone to stop one of their drives as a true freshman. Tyller can play, and Murphy can play. I'm not concerned with those guys. They'll do well, I believe. My concern is the backups behind them. We've got Tyson Butler and Quenton Washington right now, Theo Wilson will be in there. They haven't played as much, so they're going to have to come along. When those guys come out, that will be the key, how well those guys respond. They're both good athletes, they both can run. We're going to have to get them into situations early to see what they can do. They're going to play a lot of football. That will be the real key on the depth at corner.
Q: You've been trying to find someone to pick up the load at running back --- Ben Williams had a big game against FAU, Mike Ford closed the season strong. Do you see one of those guys, or even Jamar Taylor, stepping up to establish themselves as an everydown back?
JL: "Those three. You just named the three guys, honestly. As much as Ben's too slow, too small, too good, you can't get Ben out of there. He is a football player. He blocks as good as anybody we have. He protects the football. He had 180-some yards against FAU, a very good football team. Mike Ford is a tremendous back. And Taylor can play. We've got (Richard) Kelly, that I think is outstanding. We've got (Moise) Plancher, coming back from injury. We've got some backs here. Will one of those guys be the guy? I don't know, I don't think so. I think it'll be two or three of those guys who will do it for the most part. You've got to watch Kelly. I think he's going to be an outstanding running back for us. He's 240, 6 foot, great guy, works so hard, can block and carry the ball, catch the ball. I think you'll see a little bit more of him this year, too."
Q: In terms of strength and football knowledge, where does Mike Ford stand after one year?
JL: "Tremendous. He's a true freshman last year. By all rights, how many true freshmen come in and do what he did? I thought he did a great job. It's so hard to learn the protection for anybody coming into a program. All the blitz protections, where to go, the pass game, it's a real challenge, and I thought he did an extraordinary job. The games where everybody kept saying we didn't use Mike in the middle of the season, he had broken ribs. It wasn't like I wanted to tell everybody he had broken ribs. It's interesting: "Why don't you play Mike?" Well, I would, but his ribs were sore. I thought he did a great job. I was really proud of Mike, and I think Taylor did a great job. He was a freshman for us. That's why we really only took one running back (in recruiting), next year will be a lot bigger for us, and we'll take some running backs. I thought those guys did a real good job, and Ben's always there."
Q: Tampa has become more of a recruiting hotbed recently. Is it tougher to recruit in town now?
JL: "I think wherever you have a great player, it's going to be tough, because everybody wants him, no matter where it is. There's great players coming out of Tampa. There's certainly great players coming out of St. Pete. I don't want to ... Zephyrhills, Clearwater, Bradenton, Sarasota. If there's a great player, you're going to have to battle to get him. Everybody wants him. I don't know if it's just Tampa, just where the great players are."
OK, that's just the 28 minutes -- and 3,800 words -- where he was taking questions at the main table. He went about as long with a circle of reporters afterwards, and I'll get that up later, either tonight or Monday. Questions? Thoughts? If anybody needs a stenographer, shoot me an e-mail ...