TAMPA — Even now, months before preseason camp starts, there is an urgency around the USF football program, one that might not have been there in past springs.
As the Bulls seek to put the disappointment of last season's 5-7 record behind them, a group of senior leaders has coach Skip Holtz encouraged about the focus of his team, even for something as informal as tonight's spring game at Raymond James Stadium.
"The fire, the attitude, the energy and passion they've taken into every practice this spring, I think it's been a great motivating factor," Holtz said Wednesday after his final regular practice of the spring. "Not just the close losses or how close we were (last year), but the result of the season. The seniors have really rallied behind it: This is not how we're going to do it. That's not how we're going out as seniors."
Holtz likes that he hasn't had to motivate his team much this spring, having seen a daily drive from the players, especially an experienced core of leaders including quarterback B.J. Daniels (33 career starts) and linebacker Sam Barrington (25), two of seven players with at least 20 career starts.
"I feel like that's going to take us a lot of places this fall and this summer in offseason workouts," Barrington said. "That's part of what this senior class is: We're unselfish, we're dedicated, we're hard-working.
"We want to be USF's first 10-win team. We want to get to a Big East championship. I know that's something all the teams here in the past have preached about, but we want to be the team that goes out and does it."
Holtz simplifies the progression of a college football player's goals, saying freshmen and sophomores want to play, juniors want to start and seniors just want to win. With seniors at nearly every position, Holtz has a veteran presence he didn't have in those close losses last season.
"This is what you wait for … when you look at the leadership we have at quarterback, at running back, at tight end, on the offensive line, at linebacker and D-line," Holtz said.
"We have a lot of seniors that have played a lot of football, and this is their last go-around. This is their last opportunity. … That sense of urgency is what makes seniors so fun to coach."
Daniels, entering his fourth year as a starter, always has evaluated his success based on his ability to lead his team to victory, and that's an area with room for a big step forward, having improved himself statistically a year ago, reducing his turnovers from previous seasons.
A year ago he was the first non-senior co-captain Holtz has had as a head coach, and that role will increase this season.
"You have to lead by example first before you can open your mouth, because you won't be credible if you're just out there talking," Daniels said.
"All of us have been a part of great things in the history of the program. It's always been high on our list to win, but now, for the seniors, our backs are up against the wall. There is no next year. There's no 'We can rebuild.' This is it."
For all that urgency, there's still a sense of fun heading into today's scrimmage. A week ago, the offense piled up 10 touchdowns in a scrimmage at Corbett Soccer Stadium while losing only one turnover, so Daniels has been hearing all week from a defense determined and ready to step up today. He's confident enough to return fire with swagger of his own.
"Beat up on the defense. Point blank. Period," Daniels said when asked about his goals for the offense tonight. "You can tell them I said it. Ten (touchdowns) is a minimum."