TAMPA — After USF's first football offseason without a bowl game in seven years, a month of spring practice starts today, and the lingering theme is the motivation to work now and avoid the close losses that typified a disappointing 2011 season.
"There's no doubt that being as close as we were definitely I think is a motivating factor for our team," coach Skip Holtz said. "To know you're that close, maybe it was that one extra rep, one extra step. It's just how close it is, and it's been a motivating factor for them to realize how close we are to being able to accomplish the goals we want to."
After opening 4-0 last season, the Bulls lost seven of their last eight, going a worst-ever 1-6 in the Big East and consistently losing leads late in close games. With West Virginia gone, the Big East is that much more up for grabs, and this spring is a chance for Holtz to set a new team's identity, helped by the largest senior class in his three seasons. With that, five goals for this spring:
1. Adjust to new defense
Mark Snyder's defenses were statistically solid, but couldn't protect leads late in close games. New coordinator Chris Cosh has a strong linebacker unit, led by DeDe Lattimore and Sam Barrington, but USF needs to establish depth in the secondary and on the defensive line. There are holes in the starting defensive lineup to address: Can Boca Ciega's Julius Forte step in opposite Ryne Giddins at defensive end? Can true sophomore Elkino Watson emerge as a starter at defensive tackle? Who will the third starting linebacker be? And can Holtz identify a cornerback who can start opposite Kayvon Webster?
2. Improve on special teams
Last year's unit was a consistent problem — in the season-ending loss to West Virginia, the Bulls gave up a blocked punt inside their 5 and had a kickoff returned 90 yards for a touchdown, leading to 10 points in a three-point loss. Justin Brockhaus-Kann will be challenged by backup Chris Veron, who didn't attempt a punt last year, and walk-on Mattias Ciabatti, who redshirted in the fall. Maikon Bonani's kicking job is solid, but the Bulls need a long-snapper after losing three-year starter Mike Walsh, and will work to improve the coverage units on punts and kickoffs.
3. Embrace revamped offensive staff
Holtz has four of his five offensive assistants in new positions, with coordinator Todd Fitch moving from RBs to QBs, Larry Scott moving from TEs to RBs and Peter Vaas from QBs to TEs. Holtz believes the new assignments can help the Bulls continue the offensive improvements made last year — improvements in yards, but not as much in touchdowns. Holtz also has a new WRs coach in former NFL receiver Jerome Pathon, so even with senior leaders in QB B.J. Daniels and RB Demetris Murray, there will be a get-acquainted feel to spring drills on offense.
4. Restock the lineup
USF needs to find new starting offensive linemen to replace departing center Chaz Hine and guard Jeremiah Warren; sophomore Austin Reiter will get the first crack at center, with redshirt freshman Brynjar Gudmundsson and January junior college transfer Lawrence Martin among the options at guard. Holtz needs a corner with Quenton Washington graduated, and two more January additions from junior college, Josh Brown and Fidel Montgomery, will get a long look this spring, as will redshirt freshman Kenneth Durden.
5. Find a backup QB
In one of the better battles in camp, junior Bobby Eveld, the backup for the past two seasons, will be challenged by redshirt freshman Matt Floyd. With Daniels a senior, it's the first competition toward the 2013 starting job, though the Bulls will add contenders in the next recruiting cycle. With three solid scholarship quarterbacks, USF shifted junior walk-on Ryan Eppes (Largo) to linebacker, where he'll be in better position to contribute on special teams.