Questions and, yes, even answers
I've been asking about suspensions to no avail since the first week of preseason practice, and Monday brought a significant step, with USF acknowledging that three players -- running back Ricky Ponton, receiver Jackie Chambers and defensive end Josh Julmiste -- were on "indefinite suspension" for an unspecified violation of team rules. The Bulls aren't confirming any specifics beyond that, so we don't know exactly when they'll be allowed to play again, but we know they won't be there for the Central Florida game on Saturday.
Since they've already missed two games, "indefinite" could mean just about anything, but if the suspensions are related to USF's since-amended substance abuse policy, it could mean another four games out for three key players. Under this year's policy, a second violation of the policy -- either a second positive drug test, or failure to comply with counseling requirements after a first positive -- results in suspension for 20 percent of the season. The fact that those three are still suspended after three games would seem to indicate USF is sticking with last year's penalty of a half-season, or six games, that is, if the suspensions are related to the substance abuse policy.
Sticking with the harsher punishment makes sense to me: USF is already getting flak for lowering its second-offense penalty from 50 to 20 percent, which associate AD Barry Clements explained in detail in Wednesday's paper. If they were to lessen the penalties on these three to this year's standard, it looks as if the penalty was lessened with an eye toward these suspensions, something Clements firmly denied.
If the three players are to miss six games, that would include USF's first two Big East games, key home contests against a hot Rutgers team and Connecticut. My next question is whether the Bulls would give Chambers a redshirt, since the junior has a year for the taking and his position is the deepest of the three impacted by these suspensions. Before fall drills, I'd asked Jim Leavitt about Chambers' recovery from the knee surgery he required after spring football, and he'd mentioned the possibility of a redshirt then. By comparison, running back and defensive end could use Ponton and Julmiste, and sooner than Oct. 14 against North Carolina for certain.
Another piece of news from Monday: sophomore receiver Jessie Hester, listed as a second-string receiver on the preseason depth chart, will take a redshirt this season, according to his father, former NFL receiver Jessie Hester. Hester hasn't dressed for USF's first two games, without explanation from the Bulls, but the elder Hester said Monday that his son has decided to redshirt so he can fully recover from lingering shoulder and knee injuries that have limited him. He dislocated his shoulder in spring and has been slowed by knee problems. "He just needs time to recuperate,” his father said Monday. “The receiving corps is pretty strong, so he won’t be missed as much and will be back healthy next year.” Hester's father said USF coaches were initially "kind of baffled" by the decision, but have accepted it. So with no Hester and likely another month without Chambers, I'm impressed that the Bulls haven't even dressed any of their talented freshmen, led by Carlton Mitchell.
If you're wondering why Saturday's game was officiated by a crew of Sun Belt officials, so was Leavitt. Turns out that the 2-for-1 deal USF signed with FIU includes not only a game at FIU, but one game (this past one) using Sun Belt officials; the remaining two will have a Big East crew. I asked Leavitt whether the similar 2-for-1 deal signed with Florida Atlantic would work the same way, and he said he'd asked about it after Saturday's games, and yes, one of those three will have Sun Belt officials.
The call Saturday that Leavitt took greatest issue with came when an FIU player took his helmet off at midfield, an action that results in a 15-yard penalty regardless of why a player does it. Since USF's Mike Jenkins had been flagged for that very miscue in Saturday's game, Leavitt walked over and pointed it out to the official, who then told the FIU player to put his helmet back on and didn't throw a flag, Leavitt said. The official said he didn't know why the FIU player took his helmet off, Leavitt said, but by the books, it doesn't matter why the helmet is off. Without questioning the officiating -- hey, that could mean a fine -- Leavitt said he'll insist on nothing but Big East crews in future 2-for-1 contracts. Not that he's involved in the scheduling process or anything like that ...
Leavitt gave a show of support for kicker Mike Benzer, who missed another field goal Saturday to fall to 0-for-5 in his short USF career. Leavitt said he'll be the Bulls' kicker Saturday -- in his hometown of Orlando, no less -- and said he wants to give him a fair shot to keep the job. If he continues to struggle, Leavitt said his next option would be freshman Delbert Alvarado, who's already the starting punter. Leavitt said he's pulled that double duty before, with Tony Umholtz and Santiago Gramatica, and would be comfortable doing it again if he had to.
Walk-on update: Running back Colby Erskin, who nearly scored a touchdown in the opener against McNeese, is now working primarily at receiver. Erskin's best asset is his speed, and receiver allows him to get the ball in the open field a little easier than running back.
Tuesday brings the big weekly press conferences at USF and UCF -- curious to see if there's fighting words out of either camp, or if both play nice until Saturday. One thing I will mention about Saturday's game -- the early indications are that ticket sales aren't near the 45,000-plus that USF drew last year for the largest ever to see the Bulls at Raymond James Stadium. UCF drew 29,398 for its home opener against Villanova, but new UCF assistant athletic director Joe Hornstein -- who got his start in USF's sports information department and worked for AD Keith Tribble at the Orange Bowl -- said the 'Nova crowd was actually more like 32,000. Asked where ticket sales were for the USF game, Hornstein would only say that he expected more than the 32,000 or so in attendance for Villanova. Asked if the crowd could challenge last year's attendance or even the 40,000 mark, Hornstein said he didn't want to speculate. Curious, in that UCF has been much more in favor of this game than their western counterparts, so I'd be surprised if it didn't draw a stronger crowd than slightly more than 32,000 fans this Saturday.