USF preview: Joyce pushing starters at safety
Over the next week, we'll roll through the 2011 USF football team position by position, running through the likely starters and backups, the key storylines and questions as the Bulls go after a Big East title in Skip Holtz's second season in Tampa.
We open with the defensive backfield, which offers two different storylines -- depth concerns at cornerback, but perhaps the team's best depth at safety with four solid performers battling for two spots. There are two proven veterans in Jon Lejiste and Jerrell Young, and a pair of promising sophomores in Mark Joyce and JaQuez Jenkins, and we'll start with Rick Smith talking frankly about his safeties.
"This is something I have no problem with you printing. I'm completely honest with all my players. I've told them exactly what you're hearing, first in here by themselves then as a group: The best safety last spring was Mark Joyce," Smith said Friday in his office, preparing for the start of training camp next week. "Mark Joyce outplayed Jerrell Young and Jon Lejiste, and I told him that and I told them that. I told Mark, 'I want you to understand the reason you're not starting is because you beat two guys out that were hurt."
Smith said that neither Lejiste, a junior strong safety, nor Young, a senior free safety, were supposed to practice this spring, but "they begged the head coach and trainer" to go through drills with limited contact -- Lejiste had a bone bruise in his ankle, Young a stress fracture in his leg that he'd played with for much of the season. They're fully healthy now, and Joyce will push Young at free, with Jenkins pushing Lejiste at strong safety. Smith said Joyce has been mature in understanding his position as a challenger who could move into a larger role.
"I told him, 'After fall practice, if you're the best, by God I'll move you up,'" Smith said. "He said 'Coach, I understand. I want to beat them out when they're healthy.' Great attitude by him. All those guys get along so well. Mark knows he's going to play a lot, like he did last year."
Lejiste led the group with 43 tackles as a sophomore and tied for the team lead with four sacks, used effectively as a blitzer -- he tied for third on the team with 7.5 tackles for loss and matched Sam Barrington for the team lead with two forced fumbles. Young wasn't far behind with 41 tackles and led the team with three interceptions; Joyce had 33 tackles as a true freshman, returning his only pick for a touchdown in the opener. Jenkins, as a redshirt freshman, had 10 tackles, his biggest play a 48-yard interception return in the bowl win against Clemson (though he did step out at the 5 as seen at 2:45 on this clip).
Joyce will need to be more consistent -- when Young was injured early against Clemson, Joyce came in and "stinks it up," Smith said. "He played well in the fourth quarter, but third quarter, I said 'My God, do I have anybody else?'"
Fifth safety this fall? It could be senior Tyson Butler, who has been limited by injuries and also could wind up at cornerback, though it also could be true freshman Chris "C.J." Garye, who enrolled in late June and has already turned heads with his conditioning work.
"Chris has impressed the weightlifting staff this summer coming in," Smith said. "He came in a little heavier than I thought, came in at 205, but (Mike) Golden said he's torn it up at 205. If he's carrying the weight well, that's good. Personally, I would rather him redshirt, just like (cornerback Kenneth) Durden. I'd like to redshirt both if I can."