TAMPA — If there was an area where USF football showed the awkwardness of a transition year under a new coaching staff last season, it was on offense, where the Bulls ranked near the bottom of the Big East in almost every offensive category.
With quarterback B.J. Daniels learning his third offense in as many years and reined in from scrambling by coaches who didn't initially see a viable backup on the roster, the Bulls struggled not just to score but to simply move the ball. They ranked 105th nationally in total offense and 113th in third-down conversions. In four Big East losses, the offense scored a total of two touchdowns.
But if the offense was where USF showed a steep learning curve, it's also the area where coach Skip Holtz's team is poised for major improvements, with the confidence that comes with familiarity, leadership from Daniels, and a potential game-changer at running back in transfer Darrell Scott.
"The attitude and approach of this season is completely different from any of the years I've been here," said Daniels, who will be able to showcase his running ability more, as he did in rushing for 772 yards as a freshman. "We're looking forward to being together, being on the same page."
There's an influx of talent, especially at receiver, where the Bulls were decimated by injuries and early departures last year. With more playmakers in the backfield and running routes downfield, there's an optimism that the offense can become as dependable as the defense was in 2010.
"We have depth at every position. We have depth everywhere, speed everywhere, power everywhere," said junior running back Demetris Murray, listed as a co-starter with Scott for Saturday's opener at No. 16 Notre Dame. "Coach always says 'Knowledge is power.' If you know what you're doing and you kind of have an idea what your opponent is doing, it helps you play faster."
How much did USF lean on its defense last season? The Bulls had four Big East games in which they held their opponents to 20 points or fewer and lost. The other seven Big East teams combined to do that just five times. That doesn't count an overtime win at Miami where USF had 10 points with three minutes to play, or an overtime win at Louisville where the Bulls trailed 14-13 in the fourth quarter.
Still, the defense has seen a change on the other side of the ball in practice, a change in attitude as much as talent. Senior safety Jerrell Young, one of four team captains, said he saw a difference in summer voluntary workouts, where Daniels emerged as a more vocal leader.
"Everyone seemed like they were out to prove something," Young said. "I noticed B.J. being a leader, telling everybody to run harder, work that much harder. Everyone got working. There's a lot of talent over there. We had talent last year, but it wasn't like it is now. We're deeper a lot of places, especially at receiver. I see receivers going up and catching one-hand balls, and that makes us feel that much more confident."
The biggest offseason concern on offense was the line, where three starters graduated, but that has shaped up in the last month, with senior Chaz Hine shifting from guard to center and the starting five building a chemistry, even with new starters at both tackle spots.
"I'm not going to say they're better than last year, but I'm going to say that at this point in the year, they're further along in knowing what to do and how to do it," offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler said. "I think as the season goes, if we stay healthy, this group of kids will surprise a lot of people."
Fitch sees improvement at every position, enough talent for balance between the run and the pass, and envisions an offensive efficiency like in the team's 31-23 bowl win against Clemson, which saw 9-of-14 conversions on third down and 20-of-27 passing from Daniels.
"It starts with quarterback play. You're really only as good as your line and your quarterback in any offense. That's historically proven," Fitch said. "We have experience back at quarterback, so that gives you hope that there's going to be growth at that position."
Receivers A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin are back as starters after missing 2010 with injuries, and new stars such as freshmen Andre Davis and Ruben Gonzalez could emerge at the position.
"We have more playmakers on the outside," Fitch said, "and I think if Darrell Scott plays like he's practiced, he brings a potential big-play ability to our offense. You see the overall speed, playmaking and the maturity of being in the system as a quarterback."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346.