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Q&A: Ken Eriksen

USF softball coach Ken Eriksen (center) led the 2012 Bulls to the College World Series.

Photo by DANIEL WALLACE I Times

USF softball coach Ken Eriksen (center) led the 2012 Bulls to the College World Series.

USF softball coach Ken Eriksen, whose 23rd-ranked team (per ESPN) opens the season Thursday against No. 3 Florida, spent a few minutes with reporters earlier this week. Here's a bit of what was tossed his way:

In terms of starters, which positions are still in question?
"At this time, a week before the season, I think we're just really trying to get our pitching staff in position right now to kind of have a rotation-type deal through the first weekend. And then it will all depend on the matchups we decide to go with. ... As far as positions open for question, I know (Kourtney) Salvarola's going to be at shortstop, (Stephanie) Medina's going to be at first, Ashli Goff's going to be in right, (Lee Ann) Spivey behind the plate. Other than that, it's who's going to be hot at the rest of the positions right now. So you've got some good options at this point."

Describe left-handed All-America pitcher Sara Nevins' approach entering this season, after all she has accomplished to this point.
"The great part about Sara is, she has no idea what she has accomplished. She's that type of
player that, every day is a different day, every approach is a different approach. She's kept
her head on straight. I don't think her teammates have allowed her to even think about Sara
the superstar or those type of things."

Could this be your fastest team?
"I think, top to bottom, this is probably the fastest team, probably the most in-shape team also that we've had. I'm looking forward to some pretty healthy abilities to run down to first base and hopefully run down from home to home. But it looks good, better than I've ever seen it before."

Talk about your early-season slate (USF faces three top-10 teams in the season's first 10 days).
"I've got to talk to the guy that makes the schedule because that guy right now is a little happy; we need to calm it down just a little bit. But I don't think there's anything better than playing the best competition early to get you ready for the postseason. If we see the best pitching early on, I think there's nothing we haven't seen later on. And I think that's been kind of the m.o. of this team for the last 15 or 16 years: You play the best you can and you play it as early as you can."

How important is the beginning of the season?
"Well, I think the beginning is real important for the fact of playing the game the right way. I've never told our team, 'You have to go out and win.' But we have to play the game the right way. There are certain things you're not going to be able to control sometimes. ... By and large, if we continue to play the game the right way, we're going to end up on the right spot, and that's all I've asked them to do. I really want them to focus on playing the game the right way in every situation."

Do you feel your pitching staff as a whole gets underrated because of Sara?
"I would think that if I'm going to write about the University of South Florida's pitching staff, it's going to be, 'Sara Nevins and who's the other people?' But you take a look at who the other people are, and you've got...Erica Nunn, who was an 18-under Gold championship pitcher; Sam Greiner, who was a runner-up national pitcher in the 18-under Gold; then (transfer) Karla Claudio, who was the Florida pitcher of the year in junior colleges and is on the Puerto Rican national team. ... You've got a pretty good pitching staff that can pitch with anybody in the country, so I'm not averse to using anybody in every situation, as you guys well know."

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Optimism ignited by Perry's fiery play

The ongoing evolution of Chris Perry (9.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg) is critical in maintaining USF's home-court advantage and postseason aspirations.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

The ongoing evolution of Chris Perry (9.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg) is critical in maintaining USF's home-court advantage and postseason aspirations.

He typically wears a smile as wide as his beefy upper torso. It rests there casually but consistently, like a favorite cap. He's not so much the gentle giant as a jocular one.

Such is what we've learned in the handful of months that Chris "Skippy" Perry has resided on USF's campus: He seems as comfortable in his skin as he does his surname.

"I'm kind of always upbeat unless something really bad goes on," said the Bulls' 6-foot-8 1/2, 256-pound freshman. "But other than that I'm pretty happy."

Alas, this gregarious behemoth comes equipped with figurative control knob, like a dimmer switch. Gradually, it transforms passivity into aggressiveness, frivolity into fire. To this day, the Bulls' staff continues adjusting it for maximum effect.

If Tuesday's upset of SMU is any sign, Coach Stan Heath has nearly found the ideal setting.

Flustered and mostly ineffective in his prior three contests, Perry responded with his best game of the season (18 points, eight rebounds) in USF's 78-71 triumph.  

A wide-screen model of centrifugal force, Perry got low in the block, exploded vertically, and employed his agility and girth to assert himself. A 50-percent free-throw shooter entering the game, he also converted six of seven from the stripe.

"He's got a switch and he's got a gear where he really gets riled up and you've seen it. He's gotten a technical foul in one game (at Temple) and he got upset a few other games," Heath said.

"It's kind of one of those things where you don't want him to snap all the way around. It's like the furnace in your house; you want it to heat up your house, but you don't want to burn the house down."

Bringing the house down is another matter.

Tuesday night's Sun Dome atmosphere, despite a modest crowd (3,407), was the season's liveliest. The ongoing evolution of Perry (9.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg) is critical in maintaining USF's home-court advantage and postseason aspirations.

Perhaps even more critical, in a way, than the offensive development of 6-10 classmate and
road-trip roommate John Egbunu.

"John (7.5 rebounds in conference play) gives you something defensively where you just kind
of know what you're getting," Heath said. "Every game, whether he gets three blocks or none,
he's still changing and affecting things around the rim."

Perry, to this point, hasn't been as steady since the new year dawned. Facing less formidable opposition in a bulk of non-conference play, Perry teased Bulls constituents, posting two double-doubles and coming within a rebound of two more.

"Chris had the ability just to kind of lay things up without exploding and jumping," Heath said.

Then, the opponents got stronger, sleeker, more savvy. In his three games prior to Tuesday, Perry had totaled 18 points.

But as his SMU effort revealed, USF's fortunes can alter dramatically if Perry can maintain his edge and continue acclimating to the speed and physical nature of Division I basketball. An inside offensive presence, after all, can widen outside opportunities.

"In high school, he probably didn't face many 6-8 guys that could jump and were as big as him," Heath said. "And now he's facing that every single game and guys are two or three years older, so that's an adjustment in itself."

Equally critical, coaches and teammates say, is ferocity accompanying the physicality. The former doesn't seem to come naturally to a kid whose full nickname is Skippy Walnuts, an old video-game chum's online ID that Perry embraced as his own.

"Sometimes he gets mad but he doesn't keep it for a while, because he's happy all the time,"
senior Victor Rudd said. "I mean, it's a good thing but you want him to have that kind of
mean streak in him."

Perry said he had it the moment he woke up Tuesday, shortly after 8 a.m. Inspired by a pep-talk phone call from his mom just before his 9 a.m. study hall, he embarked on the day bent on emerging from his mini-slump.

The resolve was simmering during pregame warmups, when Perry dunked everything.

"It transferred over to the game and he finished strong," Rudd said.

Now, the key going forward is for Heath to somehow bottle up that resolve, to keep the precise setting on that proverbial switch, to stoke Perry's inner fire without leaving burns on the team.

"He's had a little bit of ups and downs in the last couple of ball games, but sometimes when that happens, guys continue to go down the slide," Heath said. "I think he found a way to pick himself up and play at a high level again."

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Recruiting: Reagan still on board, for now

While we initially were 100-percent committed to providing some USF-centric recruiting notes in this space, we've flipped and have chosen to discuss the upcoming Strawberry Festival entertainment lineup instead. (Just kidding. We honor our commitments here):

* Sarasota Booker S/RB Marlon Mack, the Bulls' latest commitment, shapes up as the workhorse prototype for Willie Taggart's power run game.

A powerful back (6-foot, 195 pounds) originally from Miami, Mack ran for 1,597 yards last season, but was named his local newspaper's defensive player of the year for his work at strong safety (110 tackles, four interceptions).

"All you need to know is, he's a program changer and a very special player," Booker coach (and former USF safety) Johnnie Jones said.

* Clarksville (Tenn.) OG Bruno Reagan, who committed to USF last summer, could be poised for an 11th-hour change of heart. Vanderbilt, losing commitments daily since James Franklin's departure for Penn State, has offered the 288-pound dual-sport standout.

Clarksville is 45 minutes northwest of the Vandy campus.

"I am going to the visit as a USF commit," Reagan, an undefeated state wrestling champion as a 285-pounder last winter, told the Times. "But I will always do what is best for me."

* The Bulls reportedly are making a late push for 6-3 Ocala Vanguard QB Adam Robles, a 2,100-yard passer as a senior. One of his primary high school targets, TE Kano Dillon, already has committed to the Bulls. 

* According to Jesuit coach Matt Thompson, LB Vincent Jackson has completed his visits. USF and Virginia, which he has visited the last two weekends, appear to be the favorites for the three-star prospect.

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Milestone and more: A closer look at SMU-USF

A few additional notes and nuggets from USF's 78-71 triumph against SMU, the Bulls' biggest win -- by far -- this season: …

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Today at USF: Hardball, hoops and 'headhunters'

Because today's menu of USF sports items is more diverse than normal, I thought I'd serve it up beneath one sprawling proverbial heat lamp, smorgasbord-style.

First, this closer look at search firms, including the one employed by USF in its search for retiring athletic director Doug Woolard's replacement. Turns out, most Division I programs rely on such firms these days for their biggest hires.

For those wondering if freshman QB Mike White will use his velocity to throw curves as well as crossing routes this spring, here's your answer.

Finally (in case you missed it in today's paper), our preview capsule of tonight's SMU-USF men's hoops game, where the Bulls will try to snap a four-game skid.

Come back late tonight for the Mustangs-Bulls games story. As always, I'll have live updates on Twitter (@TBTimes_Bulls).

 

 

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Collins: I'm committed to staying at USF

Anthony Collins, whose team is 2-8 since he last played, said he was prompted to address his status because of "speculation and stuff" regarding his future.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Anthony Collins, whose team is 2-8 since he last played, said he was prompted to address his status because of "speculation and stuff" regarding his future.

He still can't walk without pain, much less cut or accelerate, but Anthony Collins' ailing left knee still is good for a few figurative exercises.

Such as stomping out scuttlebutt, which he did Monday afternoon.

Amid speculation that he has played his last game for USF, the junior point guard voluntarily approached reporters in the team's practice facility Monday to assure Bulls fans he's not going anywhere.

"I love it here in Tampa," said Collins, limited to eight games (none since Dec. 19) due to complications from summer surgery to remove an inflamed bursa sac.

"It's like home in Houston. I've met a lot of nice people from Coach (Stan) Heath to the coaching staff and I love being around the team, and I'm committed to being here."

Collins, whose team is 2-8 since he last played, said he was prompted to address his status because of "speculation and stuff" regarding his future. …

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Bulls struggling with the 3...on both ends

Apparently, USF's outside shot stayed behind in Tampa with Anthony Collins -- again. As Sunday's latest conference embarrassment reinforced, USF simply can't buy a 3 this winter.

But the Bulls can't seem to guard one either, and that may be a more crippling deficiency. …

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AD search will cost USF more than $100,000

USF has signed an agreement with a Texas-based executive recruiting firm to assist with its search for a new athletic director.

The firm's president is an acquaintance of a potential AD candidate favored by a huge segment of the Bulls fan base. …

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Dual threat? Mike White's baseball future unclear

Freshman QB Mike White may have joined USF's baseball team for its first formal preseason workout Friday afternoon, but for now, all his efforts will remain with trying to prevent pick-off plays instead of creating them.

USF spokesman Brian Siegrist said football coach Willie Taggart and baseball counterpart Lelo Prado have spoken about White -- a onetime big-league draft prospect -- possibly joining the baseball team at some point in 2014. 

But it won't happen until the end of spring football drills, which culminate with the March 29 intrasquad game at Raymond James Stadium.

"He'll be a football player through the end of spring practice at this point," Siegrist said.

On Friday afternoon, White's dad indicated via Twitter his son would forego baseball altogether.

"At this time Michael will not be playing baseball this season," the elder Mike White tweeted. "Football is the only priority. We have Football work to do!!"

White, a 6-foot-4 right-hander, was 9-2 with a 0.43 ERA as a junior at Fort Lauderdale University in 2012, earning Louisville Slugger All-America honors. He has competed at a number of Perfect Game showcases in the South, brandishing a mid-80s fastball. …

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Spring game set for March 29

USF's annual spring football game will be held March 29 at Raymond James Stadium, the school announced Thursday. Kickoff is at 4 p.m.

Admission and parking are free. Fans will be seated in the west (home) stands to take advantage of the late-afternoon shade. The game will be broadcast live on 98.7-FM, with a pregame show starting at 3:30.

The game will serve as the culmination of spring drills that begin Feb. 26, as well as the formal unveiling of at least a portion of Coach Willie Taggart's lauded 2014 recruiting class.

All six early enrollees, including former area prep stars Jamie Byrd (Pasco) and Devin Abraham (East Lake), will participate.

Additional information on the game will be announced by the school in coming weeks.

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Paul Griffin: 'No thought' of returning to USF

With USF in the initial phase of its search for a new athletic director, the man who held the job -- to mostly high acclaim -- for 15 years was back in the bay area Thursday.

Paul Griffin returned for family, not a formal interview.

"I came here to enjoy the gulf, which I didn't get to enjoy that much in 15 years of living here," said Griffin, in Clearwater to help celebrate his grandon's sixth birthday. "I didn't get over here very often."

For those curious, he indicated no plans to re-visit his old digs while in the area. Griffin, considered by many as the greatest AD in USF history, said the idea of seeking his old gig hasn't crossed his mind.

"I left Georgia Tech in June, created a consulting company and that's consuming my time, and I'm not currently pursuing any opportunities," Griffin, 67, told the Tampa Bay Times in a phone interview Thursday morning.

"I guess flattered is the right word for someone to suggest (returning to USF) would be a good idea, but I've given it no thought until you called. I don't know where it may go or may not go, I wish them well."

Griffin, hired from Jacksonville University in 1986, was the AD of record when USF launched football and segued to Conference USA. On his watch, the school captured 63 conference titles (Sun Belt, Metro, C-USA).

But his tenure came to an abrupt end in March 2001, when he was forced to resign by President Judy Genshaft amid allegations of racial discrimination within the women's basketball program.

He later spent six months as AD at Arkansas State before spending more than a decade as an athletics administrator at Georgia Tech, where he briefly served as interim AD.

While any notion that Genshaft would re-consider Griffin for his old job is far-fetched, his name has been tossed out on websites and even talk radio since USF announced a week ago that Doug Woolard is retiring.

When asked if he'd consider the job if pursued, Griffin said he doesn't "deal with hypotheticals." But he was far more outspoken when asked if USF could become nationally relevant again.

"There's no doubt South Florida can and will compete. There were a lot of doubters in '86, there were a lot of doubters in the '90s," he said.

"Great university, great community, great access to talent, great television market -- all those things haven't changed. So to suggest a return to success they enjoyed in the recent past might be out of reach I think is not fair, not valid."

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Women's hoops: Rugged December leads to resurgent January

For a team so talented, yet so young and discombobulated, Jose Fernandez knew exactly what to give it for the holidays.

No holiday at all.

In a sense, the recent winter break may have been the longest in the lives of USF's women players. For one nine-day stretch between games around Thanksgiving (Nov. 25-Dec. 3), and subsequent five- and six-day spans between contests in December, the Bulls' practice floor was as bustling as a Wal-Mart on Black Friday.

"We had Christmas break, we had a lot of time to practice," 6-foot-4 senior Akila McDonald said.

Practice they did. Fernandez held two-a-days, even three-a-days. Fundamentals were refined, defensive techniques reviewed. Teaching days supplanted shopping days; Fernandez explained in detail what he wanted in transition, in half-court sets.

"That break was huge, it was huge for us," Fernandez said.

January can attest.

Tuesday night's 57-48 victory against Cincinnati was USF's fifth in sixth games, moving the Bulls (10-8, 5-2) into momentary sole possession of third place in the American Athletic Conference. At last, USF is fulfilling the potential that prompted league coaches to rank it third in the American preseason poll.

"We've taken some (losses), but it's not like we weren't confident in ourselves," said McDonald, whose team dropped four in a row prior to their recent surge.

"Sometimes we weren't as efficient with closing games out as we are now, and we've worked on that. With coach over the break, we just really worked on ourselves and I think it's built more confidence."

For all the Bulls' early-season hype, one senses Fernandez knew his team really wouldn't evolve until it got those in-season stretches of practice. His roster features 11 freshmen and sophomores (not counting one third-year sophomore) who needed more than a conventional preseason to jell as a team.

"You're getting freshman kids that haven't been taught at the high school level, haven't been taught at the AAU level, because all they do is play games," Fernandez said.

"There's a small percentage of high school coaches that do a great job teaching. ... So when we get 'em, we have a short amount of time to work with them in the summer with that new (NCAA) rule, and there's so many different things for them to pick up." 

While maximizing his practice time, Fernandez also had to juggle his roster. Four guards have missed time due to various injuries, resulting in six different starting lineups in 18 games.

But the starters du jour -- and those who come off the bench -- now collectively seem to understand their roles and Fernandez's system more clearly.

Sophomore guard Courtney Williams (14.9 ppg) is evolving into a defensive stopper as well as an offensive catalyst. McDonald, foul-prone at times, had 10 points, six rebounds and no fouls in 31 minutes against Cincinnati. And the committee of point guards has totaled only five turnovers the last two games.

"One thing you can bank on our team, us playing hard every night," Fernandez said. "And this team has continued to work and develop, and I'm proud of them for that."

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Climb aboard Coach Taggart's...boat?

For now, it appears Coach Willie Taggart has switched up his preferred mode of transportation.

The bus has been replaced by a boat -- a massive one.

As 247Sports' Josh Newberg first reported in this post, Taggart is maximizing the local amenities at his disposal to try and land recruits. Among them: the Yacht StarShip, in which USF's recruits cruised and dined last weekend.

The itinerary also included a visit to Busch Gardens and meal at Hogan's Beach restaurant.

"Great visit," said Jesuit LB Vincent Jackson, who hasn't made a college decision.

"The cruise was awesome," said Madison (Ala.) ILB Nick Holman, who committed to USF late last year. "We all went on top of the boat and saw some really nice houses."

For those skeptical, none of the outings appear to violate any NCAA recruiting rules, which say any entertainment must be within a 30-mile radius of the campus. Additionally, recruits aren't permitted to receive cash (i.e. Busch Gardens spending money) for the entertainment.


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Ex-Mizzou commit Hudson picks USF

On the same night Coach Willie Taggart lost one SEC prospect, he snagged another.

Sickles OT Zach Hudson, who committed to Missouri last summer, confirmed this evening he has changed his mind and now plans to attend USF. Commitments are non-binding until national signing day Feb. 5.

His announcement via Twitter came less than two hours after Jefferson ATH Deiondre Porter -- a onetime USF commitment -- announced on local TV he instead plans to attend Florida.

"He wanted to be home, plain and simple," said Hudson's father, Rob. …

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Two more Bulls bound for Super Bowl

Add B.J. Daniels and Kayvon Webster to the modest but growing fraternity of Bulls to appear on sports' grandest stage.

Daniels and Webster will become the ninth and 10th USF football alumni to appear on a Super Bowl roster. Daniels is a practice-squad quarterback for the Seahawks; Webster a rookie cornerback for Denver.

Whether Daniels gets a Super Bowl ring (should Seattle win) as a practice-squad member is up to the team's discretion, though the odds are good considering he has been with the Seahawks more than two months.

Here's the complete list of Bulls to reach the big game:

2014: CB Kayvon Webster, Denver
2014: QB B.J. Daniels, Seattle*
2012: DE Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants
2012: LB Jacquian Williams, New York Giants
2011: C Sampson Genus, Green Bay*
2008: LB Kawika Mitchell, New York Giants
2005: S J.R. Reed, Philadelphia
2003: LS Ryan Benjamin, Tampa Bay
2002: OL Kenyatta Jones, New England
2002: WR Scott McCready, New England*
*-Member of practice squad

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