VERO BEACH — For four years, Damien Edwards has waited for an opportunity to make an impact for USF football, so the starting left guard job is not something he's going to let go of easily this fall.
"This is my last go-round," the 6-foot-5, 325-pound lineman said last week during the Bulls' 11 days of camp at Vero Beach Sports Village. "It's that much more important to me, as far as holding that spot. I try to be a leader, and do what I need to do to not only keep my spot, but to help along the other guys, to be that kind of example."
Last year's starter, Jeremiah Warren, is in NFL preseason camp with the Patriots. USF's coaches had options this spring in promising newcomers such as junior college transfer Lawrence Martin or redshirt freshman Brynjar Gudmundsson. Edwards had been a backup at tackle, but coaches moved him inside, and he took well to the move, leaving spring drills as the projected starter.
"Damien Edwards is a great story of perseverance, of a guy who's just hung in there and kept battling," coach Skip Holtz said. "He's been a backup since he's been here. …
"When the hole opened when we lost a couple guys to graduation, we looked at it and said we could put a redshirt freshman in there, we could put a junior college player, but we had a fifth-year senior there as a backup tackle. He said, 'Coach, I'll do it. If that's what I have to do to get on the field and play and help this team, I'm more than happy to move.' I really feel like he's solidifying that position at the left guard spot. He's a senior, he's a leader and he's embraced the role."
Edwards has never played more than five games in a season, mostly on special teams and at the end of lopsided games. In 2010 he got in against Florida, but false-start penalties on back-to-back plays sent him back to the bench. Offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler said the key to Edwards' emergence has been finding the same confidence in himself that the coaches had in him.
"He's matured. He's taking football more seriously," Shankweiler said. "In the past, he worked hard, but I'm not sure he believed the same things I believe, as far as him being a really good player, that he had the confidence level you need to have to be a star at the BCS level. He has worked his tail off, reshaped his body. He's come into camp with a great deal of confidence, and I'm looking forward to seeing him develop the rest of camp."
Much of USF's roster is from Florida or the Southeast. He came to the Bulls from Chandler, Ariz., though he has strong roots in Tampa. His father, Earl, graduated from Blake High in 1964 and spent 11 years in the NFL as a defensive tackle; he's now a member of the Tampa Sports Hall of Fame. Edwards' brother, Gavin, played college basketball at Connecticut.
Edwards needs a different mentality as a guard, where there's less room and more direct physical battles with the heavier interior linemen working across from him.
"A guard's mentality is almost a bulldog's mentality: You don't back up," said Edwards, who earned a degree in communications this spring and is now working on a second degree in sociology. "You don't give anything. You have to stay there and be solid."
If Edwards can hold his starting position, the Bulls will have three fifth-year seniors on the line, with left tackle Mark Popek and right guard Danous Estenor, along with sophomores Austin Reiter at center and Quinterrius Eatmon at right tackle. Edwards likes the cohesiveness and chemistry of the unit, something he hopes will only improve before USF's season opener Sept. 1 against I-AA Chattanooga.
"We just jell so well together," he said. "This group is as together as I've seen, even down to the younger guys. We eat with them, this and that. I feel like we're a tight group. It's all about developing everybody, getting everybody better."