TAMPA — USF football's prolonged search for its next victory goes way back to Sept. 8, but the Bulls' dogged pursuit of an interception goes back clear to December as the only team in I-A not to pick off a pass this season.
"It's remarkable. I'm shocked," defensive backs coach Rick Smith said Tuesday of the lack of interceptions.
"It's mind-boggling. It's embarrassing. I know some of it has to be coaching. I'm not doing something right."
Smith went over tape from USF's first six games, and he didn't see Bulls dropping potential interceptions — they weren't close enough. They weren't seeing them, weren't anticipating, weren't moving to them. He saw two first-year starters at safety in Mark Joyce and JaQuez Jenkins and didn't see the instinctive jump to the ball as soon as they see it's in the air.
"The reason we don't have interceptions is our safeties do a terrible job of seeing the quarterback throw the football," said Smith, who said he expects a defensive back to cover one-third of the distance of a pass once it has been thrown. "I took about six plays from (drills) Sunday night and I said, 'Habits are what we become.' Six plays where I had two or three people not breaking on the ball. That is a habit I've allowed to develop. That's on me. That's coaching. Not looking at the quarterback is coaching.
"I have to take responsibility for that. I'm trying to get that corrected."
Toward that end, Smith implemented another old practice rule this week: If his defense doesn't come up with three turnovers in the course of a practice, the entire unit has to run gassers across the field and back after the offense has been dismissed. The Bulls had one interception Tuesday and dropped another four, so they ran, and senior CB George Baker told Smith he thinks it's a smart incentive — demanding interceptions in drills could be a precursor to getting them in games.
And though the effectiveness of the incentive may be questioned, you can't argue with how much that first interception will mean to Smith, who has already told his players what's coming to whoever reels in that elusive pick: A kiss, on the mouth.
SORRY, THIS IS WHO?: It's a good time to be Stan Heath, as USF men's basketball has enjoyed its first week of practice while working on a return to the NCAA Tournament. Today is the Big East media day in New York, where he'll be with PG Anthony Collins and Fs Victor Rudd and Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, and USF might be picked in the top half of the Big East for the first time.
Heath made a point this week to pick up the phone and cold-call some season-ticket holders from last season who hadn't yet renewed. As the Bulls return to a renovated Sun Dome after a year away, ticket sales are strong enough that the arena's lower bowl is nearly sold out.
"An all-time high since I've been here," Heath said. "We're trying to reach out and grow our fan base."
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THIS AND THAT: USF women's soccer, buoyed by a six-game unbeaten streak, has locked up the No. 2 seed in its division, assuring the Bulls of a home match in the Big East tournament on Oct. 28. … USF women's tennis is home this weekend to host the USTA/ITA Regionals. The Bulls are ranked No. 43 nationally, with top player Ecaterina Vasenina, who is from Moldova, ranked 44th. … Volleyball already has matched last year's win total with a 12-9 mark. The Bulls (4-4 in Big East) are eighth in the standings, and only the top eight make the league tournament, but five of USF's remaining seven matches are against teams with lesser Big East records.
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.