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USF seniors seek to finish journey from basement to bowl eligibility

The Bulls can snap a four-year bowl drought with a win Saturday at home against Charlotte.
 
USF defensive back Daquan Evans celebrates after a sack of Alabama quarterback Ty Simpson during the teams' Sept. 16 matchup. Evans, who experienced only eight total wins his first four years in the program, can help the 2023 Bulls (5-6) earn bowl eligibility Saturday night against Charlotte.
USF defensive back Daquan Evans celebrates after a sack of Alabama quarterback Ty Simpson during the teams' Sept. 16 matchup. Evans, who experienced only eight total wins his first four years in the program, can help the 2023 Bulls (5-6) earn bowl eligibility Saturday night against Charlotte. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Nov. 22, 2023

TAMPA — He made a point to infuse some brimstone into his final pregame news conference of the regular season. In a setting where coach-speak typically roosts, Alex Golesh delivered candor.

His exhortation Tuesday bore all the subtlety of a chop block: USF’s first-year coach wants — needs — a full congregation Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium, where his 5-6 team will attempt to become bowl eligible for the first time in a half-decade.

“I don’t want to make it any bigger than it is or any smaller than it is, but gosh darn it, it’s Thanksgiving weekend,” Golesh said. “Ain’t nobody working. Get your butt to RayJay Saturday night. Students, fans, if you’re a Tampa sports fan, get your butt there.”

Most Bulls fans to whom Golesh directed his plea are well-versed in the stakes and significance of Saturday’s contest against Charlotte (3-8). A bowl berth not only represents a reward, but connotes relevance. It also permits roughly a dozen extra practices, a priceless perk for a program in transition such as USF. Moreover, Golesh said “a bunch” of recruits will attend as part of their official visit.

But perhaps even more than impressing incoming prospects, Golesh wants to elevate his outgoing veterans.

The ones who endured the longest drought in program history. The ones who have been disparaged and disillusioned. The ones who could have joined the offseason exodus from Fowler Avenue but chose to hear Golesh lay out his plans and ultimately trusted his process.

“It’s those guys (that stayed) that you’re like, ‘Man, I just want them to sense some sort of gratitude,’ ” Golesh said. “I don’t know if gratitude is the word. Reward, maybe, for their work.”

USF senior offensive lineman Donovan Jennings (73) consoles linebacker DJ Gordon IV (8) after a Florida Atlantic touchdown during the teams' Oct. 14 matchup. Jennings is the only player on the current Bulls roster who appeared in USF's last bowl game, against Marshall in the 2018 Gasparilla Bowl.
USF senior offensive lineman Donovan Jennings (73) consoles linebacker DJ Gordon IV (8) after a Florida Atlantic touchdown during the teams' Oct. 14 matchup. Jennings is the only player on the current Bulls roster who appeared in USF's last bowl game, against Marshall in the 2018 Gasparilla Bowl. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Officially, 15 Bulls seniors will be honored prior to Saturday’s game. Several are transfers completing their second or third season at USF. But three — left tackle Donovan Jennings, nickel back Daquan Evans and linebacker Brian Norris — have been around at least five seasons.

Jennings, a Gaither High alumnus, is a sixth-year senior and the only current Bull to play in the program’s last bowl game: a 38-20 loss to Marshall in the 2018 Gasparilla Bowl.

“I didn’t take it all in like I should have,” he said.

Collectively, they have borne the full brunt of the adversity that besieged this program, lowlighted by eight total wins from 2019 to 2022. They have played for three different head coaches and — in Jennings’ case — five different coordinators. They persisted amid the promises of upgraded facilities, staying the course when an indoor facility existed only on blueprints.

And in the past four seasons, they have not played past Thanksgiving weekend.

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“You’ve got to go back home (for the holidays),” said Evans, raised in a hardscrabble section of Orlando.

“A lot of us come from different backgrounds, so for me, you’ve got to go back home to some places you don’t want to go, and you could’ve been here in the postseason, probably safer, around your teammates ... changing the culture still. It got to a point where I was getting used to it.”

These are the guys — along with their fellow seniors — at the crux of Golesh’s call for a mass gathering Saturday night. While he appreciates the significance of bowl eligibility for the maligned program he inherited, it’s not his end goal. In time, he intends for the multi-faceted process he has installed at USF to yield the program’s first conference title.

But he understands how a bowl game would represent a breakthrough for his longsuffering upperclassmen. As a coach, he has felt it first-hand.

USF coach Alex Golesh wants a large, raucous crowd at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday, if for no other reason than to honor the long-suffering seniors who finally have a shot at bowl eligibility.
USF coach Alex Golesh wants a large, raucous crowd at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday, if for no other reason than to honor the long-suffering seniors who finally have a shot at bowl eligibility. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

As a Toledo assistant more than a decade ago, he was part of a staff that inherited a 3-9 program and led it to a bowl game two seasons later. As recruiting coordinator at Illinois, he watched the Illini win only two games his first season (2012) before finishing 6-6 and earning a Heart of Dallas Bowl berth two seasons later.

And as tight ends coach/recruiting coordinator at Iowa State, the Cyclones improved from 3-9 his first year (2016) to 8-5 the following autumn.

On Saturday, Golesh wants his most grizzled of veterans to finally feel the exuberance that accompanies such a reversal of fortune.

If they can share that feeling with a raucous crowd, even better.

“That group of seniors, I want them to feel that feeling that I’ve had of what it feels like to flip (a program),” Golesh said. “I think it’s so different than walking into a place that’s won and you’re just trying to maintain it, which is also really hard.

“But I think the flip of that is what you want them to feel. ... And I think it’s a reward for them to understand, man, this is just this feeling that I get when my process was right when I poured a bunch into it.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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