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Return to USF helps Sitton mourn brother's death

Saturday's Times previews USF's football opener against Chattanooga by featuring a player who might not even suit up this season for the Bulls -- walk-on Jonny Sitton, whose brother Matt was killed in Afghanistan a month ago while serving as a U.S. Army Ranger.

Sitton played for USF in 2010 but spent last season at Shorter University, an NAIA school in northwest Georgia, but decided to return this summer, a move that had him home with his family when they learned the tragic news at their Largo home. Sitton talks about his brother's motivating role in his life, and how being back at USF has helped him deal with such a personal loss.

"This is where my home is," he said. "Not only home with my family, but with my brothers on the team. This is where I feel like I belong."

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Mocs, like Bulls, know pain of close losses well

As much as USF suffered through hard losses last season, taking three on the final play and a fourth with 12 seconds left, the Bulls' opening opponent, Chattanooga, might have actually had a tougher 2011.

The Mocs lost five I-AA games by a combined 12 points, including three by the exact same score, 28-27. Late heartbreaks? Chattanooga lost 14-12 to Appalachian State on a missed two-point conversion in the fourth quarter, lost 28-27 to Georgia Southern on a missed two-point conversion with 1:44 left, and led by 13 points with nine minutes to play against the Citadel and Wofford, only to lose late. Wofford won on a touchdown with 37 seconds left, and Furman was down 7-6 until they scored a touchdown with 2:06 to play.

So just as the Bulls went 5-7, Chattanooga went 5-6 in 2011, their only loss by more than a touchdown coming in the season opener, a 40-7 loss at Nebraska. …

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Reminder: Chat with Greg Auman, noon

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Bulls could add 6-11 IMG center in December

Working to find much-needed post depth after losing center Waverly Austin to academic issues, USF coach Stan Heath is close to landing Dan Robinson, a 6-foot-11 center at IMG Academy in Bradenton who could join the Bulls in December.

According to his high school coach, there's a "very strong possibility" that the Bulls get Robinson, who was a full academic qualifier this year but opted to enroll at IMG for a year of prep school to improve his college offers. USF wasn't able to get Robinson enrolled in time for the fall semester, but he can enroll this spring and would be eligible as soon as USF's fall semester ends on Dec. 15, missing only the Bulls' first eight games.

"He's a very impressive kid. Team captain, just a team player, wants to win, wants to get better, works very hard to be successful," said Walt Webb, his coach at Atlantic Shores Christian in Chesapeake, Va., the last two years. Webb said Robinson was recruited by schools like VCU, Temple and Drexel last season. …

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Walk-ons Kloss, Breit, Cavalieri earn scholarships

USF coach Skip Holtz takes great pride in the tradition of promoting walk-ons to scholarship players, and at the end of Wednesday's practice, he announced to the team that three more Bulls had earned scholarships this fall: sophomore Marvin Kloss, who is expected to handle kickoffs for the second year in a row, and senior fullbacks Chris Breit and Spencer Cavalieri.

Kloss, from Naples Barron Collier, has held off senior Maikon Bonani for the kickoff job and would be Bonani's backup for field goals and extra points, putting him in place to contend for a larger role in 2013. Breit, a Plant graduate, was USF's primary fullback last season after starting his walk-on career as a linebacker; he had three tackles in 2010. And Cavalieri, an offensive lineman from Gaither who started his football career at Marist, is now the top backup at fullback. …

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Pathon: Receiver position battles still in flux

First-year USF receivers coach Jerome Pathon works with one of the Bulls' deepest positions heading into the 2012 season, and he said the constant shuffling on the depth chart illustrates the competition that takes place daily within his unit.

"The way Coach (Skip) Holtz has talked to our team in general, guys who are out there performing on a consistent basis on a daily basis are going to be the guys who are going to play," Pathon said Tuesday. "I think that's why the depth chart is changing."

Consider the depth chart released by the team Monday in anticipation of Saturday's opener against Chattanooga -- it had Andre Davis, Terrence Mitchell and Derrick Hopkins listed as starters, impressive because those three have combined for four college starts. Behind them were more established receivers in Sterling Griffin (17 career starts), Deonte Welch (four), Victor Marc (six) and a relative newcomer in Florida transfer Chris Dunkley. Promising freshman D'Vario Montgomery wasn't even among the top seven, though he's expected to play this fall. …

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Video: Holtz, coordinators talk about USF opener

Here's the first batch of video clips from Tuesday's news conference to preview USF's season opener Saturday against Chattanooga. First is head coach Skip Holtz, who remembers Chattanooga coach Russ Huesman from back when UConn faced William & Mary in 1997, beating the Huskies 38-17 on a rare night game at Memorial Stadium.

Next up is offensive coordinator Todd Fitch, who talks about the Bulls' improved depth at the skill positions and how that could lend itself to more downfield passing this season.

Finally, here's first-year defensive coordinator Chris Cosh, who talks about his experienced linebackers, impact freshmen and other storylines heading into the opener. Later he said he'll be up in the press box this season (with Fitch) instead of on the sidelines.

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Expect more starters contributing on special teams

TAMPA -- Special teams might be the area where USF can make its biggest improvements this fall, and knowing that, a group of key seniors went to coaches to remind them that even though they're playing key roles on offense and defense, they want to play special teams as well.

"That kind of being a weak point for us last year, we went to (special teams coach Vernon Hargreaves) and were like 'Hey, I want to be on everything,'" said senior Michael Lanaris, a starter at middle linebacker also slated to start on three of the four key special-teams units. "I think it's something we need to take a great sense of pride in. A lot of starters are. It's a huge facet of the game and we think we can improve on that."

Asking key starters to add a special-teams role is a risky move, given that last year's Bulls lost several games in the fourth quarter, when fatigue can set in without enough substitutions. But USF's depth is greatly improved this fall, and the hope is that by going to the bench more on offense and defense, that frees up starters to make contributions on special teams as well. …

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Vertical leap: Bulls seek more downfield passing

Here's Tuesday's practice notes from new Times correspondent Joe Polito, a USF senior who will be part of our Bulls coverage this fall:

TAMPA -- Newfound depth at receiver has given the USF offense some much-needed versatility – specifically in the vertical passing game.

“You certainly have more options,” offensive coordinator Todd Fitch said. “You have different body types. I think we can throw the ball maybe vertically a little bit better than we have been in the past. We have maybe more than one guy that can go down the field and get it. So we certainly want to try and do that and grow as an offense.”

Last season QB B.J. Daniels tied for 74th nationally in completions of more than 40 yards, totaling just five. The senior said the offense hopes to open things up downfield with help from players like 5-foot-5 junior WR Derrick Hopkins.

“He’s our little secret weapon — and when I say little, I mean that,” he said. “We always joke that he’s the fastest man in the Big East … we’re just hoping he gets out there and shows what he’s been doing and how hard he’s been working.” …

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Thursday: Chat with Greg Auman, noon

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Links: 18 Big East picks from ESPN, none take USF

Busy day today, with USF's first game-week news conference -- Skip Holtz's comments will go out live on 98.7 FM at 1:03 p.m., and we have interviews with players and assistants before that, so lots of notes coming here on the blog.

-- ESPN offered up predictions from a panel of 18 analysts and broadcasters on Monday and none -- zero -- picked the Bulls to win the league. Louisville got 13 of the 18 picks, but four other schools were picked, including Joey Galloway taking ... Syracuse. Kirk Herbstreit likes Pitt

-- And from the Stuff We Can't Make Up Dept., former Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger talked to USA Today and still has high expectations for the Owls and their future. Despite averaging less than 18,000 fans in their new stadium last fall and being pass over by Conference USA in its expansion efforts, Schnellenberger sees a future with a 65,000-seat stadium and the Owls playing in the Big East.

-- Here's the USF season preview from the Big East's official site, including video clips from back in Newport at the start of the month.

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Q&A with new Big East commissioner Mike Aresco

New Big East commissioner Mike Aresco, formerly a vice president of programming at CBS Sports, has been active in radio appearances and interviews since being named as the conference's new leader. He took time to speak with the Times' Greg Auman on a number of issues, like the league's future and upcoming TV negotiations and the impact a new deal could have on the conference:

Q: You're new to being a commissioner, but you've sat on the other side of the table from many college administrators in your career. Are there any in particular you would pattern yourself after as a conference leader?

A: "It's kind of risky when you single out people, because there's so many able commissioners I've dealt with who are terrific people. Obviously, the people in our core group, I know (SEC commissioner) Mike Slive and (Big Ten's) Jim Delany extremely well. They are very close friends. Our families are close. (Big 12's) Bob Bowlsby, (Pac-12's) Larry Scott, (ACC's) John Swofford's been a friend for a long time. This group, I certainly am going to reach out, talk to them, seek their counsel. A lot of people have a lot to offer. Clearly, they would be the people I would talk to. …

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Holtz: Eatmon, Lang will both play at RT vs. Mocs

TAMPA -- USF's first game-week depth chart was released Monday, and redshirt freshman Max Lang is listed as the Bulls' starting right tackle, with returning starter Quinterrius Eatmon missing most of last week with concussion symptoms. Coach Skip Holtz said both are practicing and likely to play in Saturday's opener against I-AA Chattanooga.

"(Eatmon) is back now, but he hasn't played. He's cleared all the tests," Holtz said. "But right now, Max is playing really well, and he's doing a nice job there. If Q will come back (to full strength), we'll have a heck of a competition going through. I would imagine they'll both play if they're both healthy for Saturday."

Lang, who redshirted last season, could start in his college debut, though Holtz said he'll wait to see how quickly Eatmon can return to form in practice this week.

"Right now, I'm being told (Eatmon) is completely cleared, but until I see him put on shoulder pads and go out there and play, I've got to go with the guy that's been there for the last week, and  that's Max Lang." …

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Bravo-Brown, Duval rejoin Bulls as classes start

Monday marked the start of the fall semester at USF, allowing the Bulls' football roster to expand from its initial limit of 105 players, and among the additions are junior receiver Stephen Bravo-Brown and sophomore walk-on receiver Jordan Duval.

Bravo-Brown, a former walk-on who was placed on scholarship last fall, did not participate in the first three weeks of practice with the Bulls, but remains on scholarship, coach Skip Holtz said. He has been limited by a knee injury and has a redshirt year available, so he might sit out the 2012 season.

Duval was suspended from the team last month after he was arrested on campus on a felony grand theft charge, accused of stealing an iPhone from a student at USF's rec center basketball courts. Though the arrest report indicated he had admitted his involvement in the theft to police, court records now show that prosecutors declined to press charges and the case was closed last week. Holtz was not allowing Duval to return to the team unless he was found not guilty or charges were dropped. Duval is likely to stay in the scout-team role he played last season. …

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Minor tweaks as Bulls update depth chart

USF football has released its first game-week depth chart of 2012, with only minor tweaks for the Bulls' opener against Chattanooga from the two-deep released two weeks ago in Vero Beach.

Biggest news? USF looks to be sticking with the offensive line shift that has sophomore Darrell Williams at left tackle and senior Mark Popek at left guard, but the Bulls shifted back to their original linebacker alignment, with senior Sam Barrington as the starting strongside linebacker and senior Mike Lanaris in the middle. Coaches had looked at sophomore Reshard Cliett as the starter outside, but he's listed as Barrington's backup.

There's a position battle at right tackle, where redshirt freshman Max Lang is listed as the starter ahead of sophomore Quinterrius Eatmon, who started every game there last season. Eatmon was limited by headache symptoms last week but is expected to be healthy for Saturday. …

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