VERO BEACH — As much as USF sophomore Julius Forte seems poised to break out this season as a powerful outside pass rusher, the Boca Ciega High graduate insists it's the defensive line as a unit that has taken a major step forward.
"I don't think it's anything I'm doing special. We're all working hard and getting better," Forte said after a practice this week at the Vero Beach Sports Village, where USF is training for 12 days. "The whole D line, we got a lot better over the summer; bigger, stronger, faster."
That's good news for a defense that has three linemen from last season in NFL training camps, including ends Craig Marshall and David Bedford. The year before, the Bulls' starting ends, George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul, were drafted.
So after two seasons training behind a quartet of NFL talents, Forte is poised to show younger players such as himself and fellow sophomore Ryne Giddins can start and keep the position at a high level.
"The people in front of me are making it very hard. They're working hard every day, and I'm trying to put a fire under their butt," said Forte, listed as the top backup to Giddins and senior Patrick Hampton.
Forte — known as "Ju-Ju" around the team — has added bulk to his frame without sacrificing quickness. When he signed in 2009, he weighed 235 pounds, and he played sparingly last season at 250-255. Now he's a thick 265 and physically imposing thanks to working with new strength coach Mike Golden.
"With the thing Coach Golden put together over the summer, I don't feel like anybody lost a step," said Forte, who earned USF's Strength and Conditioning Overachiever Award in his first year on campus, earning a reputation before he got on the field.
Forte had 10 tackles and one sack as a redshirt freshman. He'll likely surpass those numbers in the first month of the season as the Bulls gear up for the Big East opener Sept. 29 against Pittsburgh, the team against which he got the sack.
"I've been very pleased with Julius. That's the maturation process you want to happen," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "He's going to be in the rotation; and just the way he's carrying himself. His confidence is up. He's being more vocal."
Forte's position coach, Vernon Hargreaves, said he thinks of Forte as a starter, so he doesn't expect any drop-off when Giddins or Hampton come off the field.
"I've told those guys that I feel like we have three starters," Hargreaves said. "(Forte) has improved since the spring, had a great summer. His confidence level is so much higher, and that's allowing him to play to his potential athletically.
"He's always had the athletic ability. Now he has confidence in what he's supposed to do, where he's supposed to be, all those types of things. He understands it a little bit, so he's playing faster."
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.