TAMPA — In eight games this season, the USF football team already has used five different starting offensive lines, including five Bulls who have made their first career start.
And yet as the Bulls try to end the longest losing streak in their history, the offensive line has become one of the team's strengths. Even with its two most-experienced linemen watching from the sideline, USF piled up 369 rushing yards, 8 shy of the school record, in Saturday's loss to Syracuse.
The line likely to start Saturday against Connecticut will feature three sophomores and two redshirt freshmen, a starting five that will return intact in 2013, a potential strength on a squad that will be young and inexperienced at many positions. First, there are more pressing matters, like getting the Bulls the win that has eluded them since Sept. 8.
"As an offensive lineman, we're not the glitz and glamour guys. We don't get all the stats and whatnot," said redshirt freshman Thor Jozwiak, who made his first start Saturday, stepping in for injured senior Mark Popek at left guard. "But knowing that your running backs and your quarterback had … 369 rushing yards, that's a pat on our backs. (It) makes a pretty good statement that we played pretty good as a unit."
The Bulls might have a second new starting guard this week because senior Danous Estenor is doubtful with a sprained ankle. His likely successor is another redshirt freshman, Brynjar Gudmundsson, who filled in for Popek for about 70 plays in a loss at Louisville. Add sophomore tackles Darrell Williams and Quinterrius Eatmon, and sophomore center Austin Reiter, and it's a foundation to build around.
"A lot of new young guys, but they've really stepped up," quarterback B.J. Daniels said of the line that has allowed only 11 sacks in eight games. "Even back during summer, I remember Danous Estenor helping out the young guys, showing them the ropes. They're having an opportunity to play, and it's showing some very promising things for us."
That offensive line will have its hands full against a UConn team that leads the Big East in total defense, ranks first in pass defense, second in rush defense, second in sacks and first on third downs. Defensive end Trevardo Williams leads the league with 7½ sacks, and linebacker Yawin Smallwood leads the league with 13 tackles for loss, with linebacker Sio Moore tied for third.
USF's breakout rushing game Saturday came against a Syracuse defense that had allowed just 35 yards per game in three previous conference games; the Bulls finished with 10 times that, improving their rushing total for the third game in a row.
"I'm very confident in all of our guys. … We all bonded together at camp," Jozwiak said. "I feel like no matter who's in there, we're going to cope with injury, which is what we're doing. Whoever is playing next to me, they're my brother and we're going to play as a unit. … It builds a bond. That chemistry we're building is only going to make us better with the years to come."
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.