VERO BEACH — For all the confidence USF has in being able to bounce back from a difficult, disappointing 2011 season, there are lingering concerns in preseason camp.
The secondary remains one.
"They understand that to be a great defense, you can't give up big plays in the secondary," defensive backs coach Rick Smith said last month. "That's something they've worked on extremely hard."
The problem wasn't as simple as 80-yard bombs. USF allowed only one pass play longer than 40 yards, a 58-yard touchdown by Syracuse late in a game in which USF had a commanding lead. Instead, it was injuries to key players combined with an inability to get off the field, allowing 35.5 percent of third-down conversions, fifth in the Big East.
"Our goal is consistency," senior cornerback Kayvon Webster said. "I've become more of a student of the game — more film, staying after and catching more balls. I dropped a lot of interceptions last year. So that's been my focus and helping the young guys get ready."
One young guy will have to fill the biggest hole in the secondary, at cornerback opposite Webster. The Bulls have plenty of options: senior George Baker, junior college transfer Fidel Montgomery and promising redshirt freshman Kenneth Durden.
"I'm still a little bit concerned about … who's going to hold that spot down," coach Skip Holtz said Tuesday, after the team's first scrimmage in Vero Beach. "We have some guys playing really well. We have more talent than we've ever had there to choose from. At this point, I don't feel like anybody's really stepped up and taken it over."
If the Bulls have one fewer starting cornerback than they'd like, they arguably have one more starting safety than required, including veterans Mark Joyce, JaQuez Jenkins and Jon Lejiste.
"We'll probably be in nickel (defense) most of the time. (New defensive coordinator Chris) Cosh loves nickel anyway," Smith said.
Cosh came to USF from Kansas State and the quarterback-loaded Big 12. Last season, he faced six of the top 13 passing offenses in Division I-A, beating four. He won't have nearly the same challenge in the Big East, though the Bulls made their opponents into record-breaking passers in losing seven of their final eight games in 2011.
The Bulls defense set school records in passing yards (2,928), completions (270), passing first downs (138) and completion percentage (61.2). And it allowed an average 244 yards a game, up 52 from Holtz's first season.
The pass defense will be tested in the second game, Sept. 8 at Nevada. The Wolf Pack ranked sixth in I-A in total offense last season at 506 yards per game. And that was before it brought in Nick Rolovich, the offensive coordinator for the past four seasons at Hawaii, which threw for 308 yards per game last fall.
"He'll throw it every snap," Smith said.
Monday's first scrimmage offered hope for the defense with three interceptions off deflected passes, including one by Webster.
The Bulls tied for the Big East low with five interceptions in conference games last season, contributing to the league's worst turnover margin. But that, too, is something the Bulls expect to change in 2012.
"The coaches are emphasizing turnovers," Webster said. "We do a lot of turnover (drills) before practice starts, and we're starting to see improvements."
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @GregAuman.