TAMPA — Two years ago, USF's Fan Appreciation Day drew little more than a few hundred fans to the practice fields on campus for a chance to watch a half-hour of practice and get autographs from coach Jim Leavitt and the players.
On Sunday, the Fan Fest event proved a good measure of USF's rise in popularity, with school officials estimating a crowd of 3,500 braving the heat at Raymond James Stadium, up from about 2,000 last year.
With a line of fans stretching to midfield in midday sun, Leavitt signed autographs for more than two hours, even after stadium security had asked lingering fans to move away from his tent in the south end zone. Junior quarterback Matt Grothe drew nearly as long a line, and fans left with more than just signatures: 110 new season tickets were sold, up from 75 at last year's fan day.
"It was a fantastic event. We're fortunate to have a head coach who loves and appreciates our fans like Jim Leavitt does, and players who genuinely want to be there," executive associate athletic director Bill McGillis said. "Players and fans alike had a blast."
The Bulls have about 2,900 seats unclaimed in the stadum's lower bowl, with record season ticket sales approaching 26,000. USF had the largest attendance increase in college football last year, gaining an average of more than 22,000 fans for home games.
A lot has changed since this time last year, when defensive end George Selvie was still anonymous enough to be able to mill about the field at Fan Fest with teammates. On Sunday, after a sophomore season in which he led the nation with 311/2 tackles for loss and earned first-team All-America honors, he had a line to rival Grothe's, autographing everything from a real bull skull to a young girl's hand.
Grothe, not to be outdone, said the nontraditional items he autographed included three legs … all belonging to female fans.
SUDDEN IMPACT: In speaking to the media before the event, Leavitt mentioned another freshman who could contribute immediately, saying he "will probably play" receiver Daniel Bryant of Tallahassee.
"He's having an outstanding camp," Leavitt said. "He can fly."
Leavitt had previously said he would not redshirt highly touted freshman quarterback B.J. Daniels, who is third on the depth chart behind Grothe and senior Grant Gregory. But Sunday, while praising Daniels as having a "cannon" arm, he said a redshirt was possible.
"Are we going to redshirt B.J. or not? I have no idea how it's going to play out," Leavitt said. "We're getting him ready to play this year."
MORE PRAISE: Looking for a breakout star in the receiving corps? The common answer is sophomore A.J. Love, a 6-foot-2 receiver from Bradenton who caught eight passes for 111 yards last season.
"Love's probably been our best receiver all preseason and during the spring," offensive coordinator Greg Gregory said. "He's really come on."
THIS AND THAT: Sophomore walk-on Lucas Darr, a regular on special teams, said his ankle injury is only a sprain that could sideline him as little as a week. … Tight end Andrew Ketchel dislocated a finger on his right hand but continues to practice, competing with junior Ben Busbee and sophomore Trent Pupello to be the No. 2 tight end, behind senior Cedric Hill. … USF has sold out its allotment of tickets for the Sept. 6 game at UCF, assistant athletic director Jim Louk said.
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf.