TAMPA — Zach Hermann knows what you're thinking about USF's offensive line. Yes, the one that had four senior starters last season. Yes, the one whose returning players combine for 29 career starts with the Bulls, which is fewer than senior quarterback Matt Grothe has by himself.
The offensive line is a question mark, to be sure.
"We hear it all the time," said Hermann, a junior from East Lake entering his third year as the starting right guard. "I think we're going to be fine."
Hermann and junior center Jake Sims, a former walk-on who was a starter most of last season, are veterans on an otherwise novice line. Coach Jim Leavitt has said he's confident in the talent there, but the key will be finding chemistry.
Want proof of the need for solid coaching on the line this fall? Leavitt shifted his offensive staff this spring, making tight ends coach Larry Scott a co-offensive line coach with Mike Simmonds.
"The continuity is the key. I don't care if you've got returners or you're plugging in four guys. It doesn't matter," said Scott, a former USF offensive lineman in his fourth season on staff. "When you're trying to get ready to play, to win and win at a high level, the continuity is important across the board."
How important is experience in the trenches? No less than the Wall Street Journal ran a study in April, declaring that returning offensive line experience was "one of the telltale predictors of success in college football." Eight of the 10 teams in the final Associated Press Top 10 last season started their season with at least 65 career starts on the offensive line. Meanwhile, Georgia, Clemson and Missouri, three preseason Top 10 teams who struggled, all had fewer than 40 career starts from their offensive linemen.
USF hopes to go against that model. There's new talent, such as junior college transfer Jamar Bass, a 6-foot-3, 280-pound left tackle who is in line to protect Grothe's blind side while upgrading USF's run blocking. Also in line for starting roles are right tackle Mark Popek, a 6-7 redshirt freshman from Plant City, and junior Sampson Genus, who switched to defensive tackle last fall but is now back at his original position.
Last year's line was experienced, but not necessarily a strength for USF. The Bulls gave up 29 sacks, three short of the most in the Big East, and the team's 4.2 yards per carry ranked fifth in the conference as the Bulls were limited by injuries to key running backs.
USF has lost five offensive linemen expected to be on scholarship this fall. Signees Carlos Savala and Kamran Joyer didn't make it academically, and three reserves — Danny Tolley, Joe Herzhauser and Mike McGowan — suffered career-ending injuries.
Hermann has been pleased by the progress this summer, by the sheer time commitment shown by younger players who will be thrust into major roles.
"We've put in a lot of extra work to try to get the chemistry right," Hermann said. "Pretty much every day, we're out there going through calls."
USF's first three games — against Wofford, at Western Kentucky and against Charleston Southern — will give the Bulls extended game action to bond as a cohesive line. Then they'll have to flip a switch quickly, as USF's fourth game is Sept. 26 at Florida State. The Seminoles tied for fourth nationally in sacks last season, piling up 39 in 13 games.
The Bulls have enough returning talent everywhere else to have reasonable expectations of contending for their first Big East championship. Shoring up a young offensive line before conference play begins Oct. 3 at Syracuse could be a first step toward that kind of success.
"You want to see the guys come together as a group," Scott said. "We can have four guys on the same page, but the one guy that's not can screw the whole thing up. We're talking about five heartbeats being one."
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.