TAMPA — Three months ago, offensive line was perhaps the biggest question mark on USF's football team. Three starters were gone, the depth was uncertain, the center had never snapped in a game and the right tackle had yet to play in college.
Now, as the Bulls look to close out their final three games with momentum, the line has been a consistent, reliable strength, one of the best in the Big East and arguably the best in USF's short history.
"Those guys have been unbelievable so far this season," coach Skip Holtz said. "We've been able to stay healthy up front and those guys have really played well together as a group. I'm really proud of what they've done as a unit."
At halftime Friday in USF's win at Syracuse, as the Bulls worked to end a four-game skid, the offensive line went to Holtz and his staff with a confident, emphatic request: Put the game on our backs. Run the ball behind us to victory. The Bulls did just that in the second half.
"They've never lacked confidence this year, in standing up and wanting to take it on," line coach Steve Shankweiler said. "As a coach, that's what you hope they grow to. They have developed that confidence in themselves that they can stand up and say, 'It's showtime. Let me take over.' "
Entering the year, the line had anchors in seniors Chaz Hine and Jeremiah Warren, who had started two years each at guard, but Hine was moving to center, having never snapped in his life. Left tackle Mark Popek had started seven games in two years but had never had a full-time role; right guard Danous Estenor had even less experience, and right tackle Quinterrius Eatmon was just a redshirt freshman.
"They're all very coachable," said Shankweiler, who has been working with offensive lines in college since 1980. "They don't get stale. Each week's a new challenge to them."
In all the statistics that measure the effectiveness of an offensive line, the Bulls are leading the conference and on pace for school records. USF is averaging 203.8 rushing yards per game, a yard better than the high set in 2005. The team average of 4.9 yards per carry is the program's best since moving to Division I-A in 2001.
Protecting quarterback B.J. Daniels? The line has allowed 12 sacks in nine games, way down from 26 last year and 38 in 2009.
"We're still continuing to get better, but we're starting to become even more of a unit as the year goes on," said Warren, whose 35 career starts are a team high. "The young guys are playing great, filling in, because they had quite big shoes to fill, but I think they're doing a great job."
Warren said the line built its bond over the summer in voluntary workouts, but the chemistry has come away from football. This weekend, a group of linemen saw Immortals ("Pretty good movie," Warren said); other nights it might be playing Call of Duty or, of course, eating together.
Thanks to that chemistry, despite losing three senior starters from last season, Warren says the Bulls' line this year is "even better." Shankweiler likes the way a group of five distinct players can become one single, unified entity.
"They're all unique in their own way. So many different backgrounds and personalities, but when they come together, it's like they leave all that behind them," Shankweiler said. "It doesn't matter if you're an honor student like Chaz, or someone who's not quite as good a student; someone that's a young guy like Q, just getting to play for the first time, or a fifth-year senior like Jeremiah. Once they come into that meeting room, they all think alike and act alike. There's a glue there that's grown over the course of the year. That trust is huge."