The strength of USF is a core of senior leaders, veterans and proven performers that includes quarterback Matt Grothe and defensive end George Selvie.
But if the Bulls can go from a good team to something more this season, it might be because of a core of freshmen who have made a splash during preseason practice.
They are the green of the green and gold. But that hasn't taken away from the excitement surrounding them.
In running back Lindsey Lamar, cornerback Kayvon Webster, receiver Sterling Griffin and linebacker Sam Barrington, the Bulls have a quartet of precocious playmakers. They form the heart of a recruiting class Scout.com ranked 25th in the nation.
The past two seasons, USF started strong, reaching No. 2 and No. 10, respectively, in the Associated Press poll, only to finish unranked.
Fresh legs could help prevent another dropoff.
"We'll probably have more depth throughout the team than we've had in a while, but it's young," coach Jim Leavitt said. "They're very young, and they're making young mistakes.
"It's kind of fun because you've got guys who are wide-eyed, running around all over the place. I think this team will improve more than any team we've had because they're so young."
USF doesn't allow newcomers to speak to the media until they've played a game. That likely will happen Saturday in the season opener against Wofford. The depth chart released Sunday lists Webster and Griffin as starters. The last freshman to start a season opener was receiver S.J. Green in 2003.
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On the first day of practice, Grothe said Lamar, who starred at Hillsborough High, "has the quickest feet I've ever seen in my life. He is ridiculously fast."
Lamar is among the smallest Bulls at 5 feet 9, 160 pounds, but coaches saw track-star speed and hope for the same impact Florida got last season from tiny but quick backs Jeff Demps (5-8, 183) and Chris Rainey (5-9, 175).
"I'd like to have about 20 more pounds of muscle on (Lamar), but … I don't know that I've coached a guy as fast as he is," said running backs coach Carl Franks, who spent nine seasons on Steve Spurrier's staff at Florida.
"Fred Taylor came close, but Fred was a lot bigger. Lindsey's going to be better and better the longer he's here."
Some of USF's biggest recruits came on board late.
Griffin, from Miami Monsignor Pace, chose the Bulls the day before signing day over Purdue, where his father played. After missing a week with a hamstring injury, he has challenged for a starting job even though the Bulls return four receivers who had at least 25 catches each last season.
"They're quite mature for their age, with real leadership qualities," offensive coordinator Mike Canales said of the top freshmen.
"They're … beyond their years."
Webster, Griffin's teammate on Pace's state track champion 400 relay team, was a Miami commitment who switched to USF on the last night. He's expected to open as the starting nickel defensive back. USF will use its nickel extensively as it faces many spread offenses, and Webster's speed will be critical.
Barrington also chose the Bulls over Miami, a rare instance of the Bulls going head to head with the state's big three and getting a prized signature. (The same goes for Armwood's Ryne Giddins, a defensive end who committed to USF over Florida.)
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How quickly the freshmen contribute could determine the Bulls' fate in a wide-open Big East.
"I'm excited about all those kids. That's a fast group," co-defensive coordinator David Blackwell said.
"Those young guys are electric. They're fun to watch. They're dynamic playmakers."
Defensive coordinator Joe Tresey ran the defense at Cincinnati last season, when the Bearcats were improbable league champions.
In the freshmen, he sees the passion the Bearcats had.
"(Lamar) is so engaging. He's always smiling, just loves to be out there playing," Tresey said. "If there's one constant in championship teams, it's having kids who love to play like that."
USF BULLS PREVIEW
College football 2009 The St. Petersburg Times previews the college football season this week
TODAY: USF Bulls
TUESDAY: Florida State Seminoles
WEDNESDAY: UCF Knights and Miami Hurricanes
THURSDAY: The Times' national Top 25
Follow the action all season in the Times and online at sports.tampabay.com.