VERO BEACH — To understand that USF coach Skip Holtz is looking high and low for help at receiver, you need only take a look at T.J. Knowles and Derrick Hopkins.
Knowles is a 6-foot-6 sophomore transfer from a California junior college, and Hopkins, known affectionately as "Flea" to teammates, is a 5-foot-5 track star hoping to showcase his speed as a redshirt freshman. In the 13 inches between their heights, you can find an assortment of other players imported from other positions as the Bulls try to replace all the talent lost since the end of last season.
"Holy smokes, I get excited when I look out there at that big (6-6) frame," Holtz said about Knowles. "We were down on the goal line, and I turned to Coach (offensive coordinator Todd) Fitch: 'Are you kidding me? Throw it up to him. He's (6-6) with a 38-inch vertical or whatever it is. Just throw it up like a hand grenade up there and let him go catch it.' "
Holtz won't allow newcomers such as Knowles or true freshman Deonte Welch of Williston, who is making a case to play in the fall, to speak to the media until after the Sept. 4 opener against Stony Brook. But promising young players such as Hopkins, who redshirted last season, already see a higher level of energy at the position because of the opportunity for playing time.
"It's a good, competitive state with all of us," said Hopkins, a high school teammate of receiver Sterling Griffin and cornerback Kayvon Webster at Miami Monsignor Pace. All three ran on the 2009 Class 2A state champion 4x100-meter relay. "Every day is a competition, and you can't get complacent out here."
At the end of last season, receiver looked to be a position of strength for USF, but junior Carlton Mitchell left for the NFL draft, and starters A.J. Love (knee) and Griffin (ankle) suffered significant injuries that will likely sideline them into October. Three returning scholarship players opted not to return; signee Jamaal Montague didn't qualify academically; Donald Bowens, a senior transfer from N.C. State, wasn't accepted into graduate school; and senior Colby Erskin, hoping to return for a sixth year, suffered a fourth torn ACL in his knee Saturday in practice. That's nine receivers who aren't available as the season opens.
That leaves senior Dontavia Bogan, who tied for the team lead with four touchdown catches last season after establishing himself as a school-record kick returner. Bogan is a potential draft pick, and Love and Griffin should eventually return healthy, but the question for now: Who will start alongside him?
Three of the top options have been moved to receiver from other positions. Sophomore Evan Landi, who spent much of last season as B.J. Daniels' top backup at quarterback, caught five passes in limited action at receiver. Next is another sophomore, converted running back Lindsey Lamar, 5-8, 164 pounds and one of the fastest players in the state coming out of Hillsborough High. On the opposite end of the spectrum is 6-4, 249-pound Isaac Virgin, who came to USF as a quarterback and got previous looks at tight end and fullback.
For now, the biggest praise has gone to Knowles, who went to high school in Las Vegas and made a name for himself at Saddleback College in California, catching 49 passes for 924 yards and seven touchdowns in his only season there.
"T.J. is a very serious individual — hard on himself, wants to be good. He's in that meeting room, in that playbook," Holtz said. "… He's swimming right now mentally and doesn't know what he's doing, but every day you see his confidence really starting to grow, and the confidence the team has in him."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.