TAMPA — As an offensive tackle at USF, Jake Sims has had his share of long practices in recent years, regularly lining up against an All-American in George Selvie or a first-round NFL draft pick in Jason Pierre-Paul.
And while the Bulls don't have any single defensive end to match the talent of either starter last season, Sims has instead found himself up against a veritable throng of pass rushers, with seemingly a different hand in the dirt in front of him each time he takes his stance.
"We have five or six ends that can really contribute. You're not getting a play off, let's put it that way," Sims said after practice Thursday. "Out here at practice, it's full-go like you're going up against a (starter) every play."
Much of the talk surrounding USF's defense is the challenge in replacing five starters who are in NFL camps now — Pierre-Paul, Selvie, linebacker Kion Wilson, cornerback Jerome Murphy and safety Nate Allen. And as is the case at end, the initial response from USF will be to replace one great player with a rotation of good ones, placing a value on fresh legs until a worthy successor can establish himself as the next standout on defense.
"The good thing is those guys all bring something different to the table," said first-year defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, who was the linebackers coach on Ohio State's national championship team in 2002. "You look at a 12-game season, we're going to play different kinds of teams. That's why I'm excited about this group."
Take cornerback, where coach Skip Holtz's depth chart has co-starters listed at both positions — senior Mistral Raymond is battling junior Quenton Washington on one side, and sophomores Kayvon Webster and George Baker are too close to call on the other end. That allows for more substitutions without exposing the kind of liabilities that often come with backups taking the field.
"I'll be honest with you, if they have their (No.) 1 corners or their 2 corners in, I don't notice a lot of difference," offensive coordinator Todd Fitch said. "Usually, you see a dropoff. 'Oh, we're going against the (No.) 2 defense today. We can go pick on this corner, wear him out.' That kind of thing. You don't notice a major dropoff, which is a good thing. What sticks out the most is that they all come at you fresh. They're all racing to the ball, and it's hard to break a big play, because they have the makeup speed to correct itself, even when they make a mistake."
For all the talent on USF's defense last season, the high number of plays by the starters could have resulted in fatigue. In seven Big East games, the Bulls allowed more than twice as many points in the second quarter (77) as in the first (38). And forget about making it to the fourth quarter — that was barely relevant for the Bulls (see chart), as the outcome after three quarters in all 13 games matched the final outcome. The only game in which the Bulls saw a lead change in the fourth quarter was a loss at Connecticut, when the defense, staked to a lead with 40 seconds to play after a comeback, let the Huskies to go 31 yards for the winning field goal as time expired.
Holtz is well aware that the lack of established returning stars on defense is a concern. The team's top returning tackler is senior linebacker Sabbath Joseph, who had 48 last season, the lowest total for a top returning tackler in USF's 13-year history.
"Bobby Bowden used to say 'I've got three tailbacks. That just means I don't have one great one.' He used to say that all the time," Holtz said. "To say we have three or four, we don't have the Pierre-Paul. We don't have that guy who's going to play 80 snaps and be a first-round draft pick. We may have to do it by committee"
Talent remains. Senior end Craig Marshall had more sacks than Selvie last season, and there are promising members of USF's 2009 recruiting class all over, starting with sophomores Webster and Sam Barrington, who could both start, to redshirt freshmen like ends Ryne Giddins (Armwood) and Julius Forte (Boca Ciega), linebacker DeDe Lattimore and safety JaQuez Jenkins (Lakewood). But the secondary will miss Allen and Murphy, who each had four interceptions last season — in contrast, all the returning players on defense have combined for five in their USF careers.
"I do like our depth on defense," Holtz said. "I don't think we're there. … I think they'll continue to get better."