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Bulls encouraged going for big names

Sooner or later, it was bound to happen.

The football program that started with so much fanfare _ more than $5-million in the bank and 49,212 in the stands for its first game _ no longer is the new kid on the block. South Florida's program is 4 years old. Florida Atlantic's program, guided by the legendary and outspoken Howard Schnellenberger, in some ways is seen as more fresh and intriguing, simply because it won't play a down until 2001.

USF still is held up nationwide as the model for schools, such as South Alabama, that plan to start football. But the Bulls also are entering an awkward stage.

They exited Division I-AA quietly in November after a 42-23 loss to Hofstra left them 7-4, ending their hopes of reaching the playoffs. Next season, USF will have 80 or so scholarship players, too many to be eligible for I-AA post-season play.

But the Bulls won't be full-fledged members of I-A until 2001 and won't join Conference USA until 2003. Though they have every intention of someday competing at the level of Florida, Florida State and Miami, for now they will settle for competing with those schools for recruits.

Even that has been slow growing. Signing day is Wednesday, and while USF is expected to sign its biggest class _ 20 to 25 players _ few top-rated prospects have seriously considered the Bulls. Several who did, like Miramar lineman Keron Koon (Georgia Tech) and Miami Northwestern tight end David Williams (Miami) will play elsewhere.

But coach Jim Leavitt said he is encouraged, not worried. He's prohibited by NCAA rules from discussing specific players, but he said the Bulls still are wooing a few big names. Landing even one of them would be cause for celebration.

"When you start to recruit higher-profile athletes, they're not going to make their decisions until close to Feb. 2," Leavitt said.

"And when you go after top players like that, you lose more of them. You have to take that gamble. Because those are the kind of players we're after."

As they have before, the Bulls have stolen a few recruits from major I-A teams. The most recent was over the weekend with New Orleans Lawless High quarterback Ronnie Banks, who picked the Bulls over Kansas State.

"It's the place to be, I think," Banks said of USF. "They want to win.

"That's where I want to be _ a place where they're really committed. The coaching staff has a great attitude. That's something I want to be a part of."

The Bulls also have commitments from Pensacola Escambia defensive back Kenny Robinson, who chose the Bulls over C-USA team Louisville; South Sumter running back Clenton Crossley, who picked USF over Central Florida; Hillsborough defensive back J.R. Reed, who also was considering Duke and Indiana State; and Clearwater Catholic tight end Mark Feldman, who was considering Duke and Wake Forest.

But last week the Bulls lost a few, too: Koon; receiver Nehemiah Glover of LaMarque (Texas) High, who committed to Texas Tech; Pace defensive back Seth Cumbie, who had been leaning toward USF but chose Southern Miss; and Pinellas Park receiver Jeremiah Chambliss, who chose Virginia over USF.

And while Leavitt wants to sign the best players in the Tampa Bay area, most of the top local prospects as rated by the Times are headed elsewhere, like Hillsborough's Shannon Snell to Florida, Leto's Michael Jenkins to Ohio State and Plant City's Chad Scott to Kentucky.

But Leavitt said he is happy with the players he thinks he will get.

"Honestly, this is one heck of a class," Leavitt said. "I think we're going to be very good. But until Wednesday we don't know. You never know until after a year, two years anyway.

"People are very, very interested in South Florida. They know now for sure we're going into Conference USA. It's not a guessing game anymore. They know we're going to be playing I-A football. We're in the hunt (with some top prospects), and it shows how things are going to be in the next couple of years."