TORONTO — Minutes after USF's 27-3 win against Northern Illinois on Saturday, what stood out about the four Bulls players taking questions from the media — quarterback B.J. Daniels, running back Mike Ford, receiver A.J. Love and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul — was that none were seniors.
"It's very exciting to see where we are now and where we could potentially be," said Daniels, a redshirt freshman who stepped in for senior Matt Grothe and accounted for 23 touchdowns, one more than Grothe had in 2008. "We have a lot of young talent and a lot of guys coming back, and I really believe we can come back next year and be better."
There are key seniors graduating from this season's 8-5 team, including the top three tacklers Saturday: linebacker Kion Wilson, safety Nate Allen and cornerback Jerome Murphy, all likely NFL draft picks. Defensive end George Selvie, whose numbers were down from two All-America seasons, is a huge loss, and Pierre-Paul is contemplating skipping his senior year to enter the draft.
Still, much of the young talent will be back, and coach Jim Leavitt's challenge is to translate that talent to more consistent success during a season.
"It's not just talent that's going to win a championship," Leavitt said. "You've got to have a lot of focus, great discipline, and guys who realize you have to play so hard on every snap. You've got to come with great passion and battle. You have to have great leadership. We've got some great leadership coming back, and I think that's going to be critical."
Offensively, the Bulls lose little, the key seniors being tight end Ben Busbee and receivers Jessie Hester and Theo Wilson. The offensive line returns intact. The Bulls would return their running backs if senior Mo Plancher is granted a sixth year by the NCAA, though Ford's 207-yard performance in Saturday's win doesn't assure him of being the primary ballcarrier.
"We'll see," running backs coach Carl Franks said. "Spring practice is a brand-new time of year. All new competition."
Leavitt's job is still in limbo because of a university investigation into allegations he grabbed a player by the throat and struck him twice in the face during halftime of a game in November, which the coach denies.
USF's seniors won a record 34 games the past four seasons, eight more than the previous four-year cycle.
"It's not a bad foundation," Leavitt said. "We all want to win the Big East as bad as anything. That's always going to be our No. 1 goal, and something we need to do. We need to find a way to do it."