South Florida Bulls (2000: 7-4, I-AA)
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Coach and programIn 10 or 20 years, long after South Florida has established itself as a force in Conference USA and as a possible Top 25 program, researchers will look back and point to April 22, 2001 as the day the Bulls arrived.
Still more than four months away from opening its first season as a Division I-A independent, South Florida burst onto the national scene on the second day of the NFL draft as USF players were selected with the first three picks of the fourth round.
Count Jim Leavitt, the only coach in South Florida history, among those surprised by the draft developments. He was talking on the phone and watching the draft at home, but couldn’t contain himself after kicker Bill Gramatica’s name was called at No. 98.
“I dropped the phone and just started running,” Leavitt said.
He didn’t slow down much in the following days. Leavitt was a popular guest on several sports radio and television shows, generating gobs of invaluable attention for a young program that has never shied away from pursuing athletes being courted by in-state powerhouses Florida State, Florida and Miami. The Bulls are scheduled to begin play in Conference USA in the 2003 season.
The Bulls compiled a 27-17 record their first four seasons and will stick with the same schemes. The offense will primarily use a one-back set behind multi-talented junior quarterback Marquel Blackwell and spread the ball to several receivers.
The strength of the defense will be at linebacker, where Kawika Mitchell and Anthony Williams return. There are questions on the line and in the secondary, both of which were hit hard by graduation.
While many of the components for success are in place, the South Florida program is still in its infancy and there will be growing pains. Leavitt hasn’t been able to stockpile scholarship athletes like more established programs and he doesn’t have an overrun of talent at many positions.
But the Bulls do have hope. Hope that by continuing to do the right things and recruit the right players, the program will continue to grow at its current rate. Just don’t expect too much too fast.
Offense“We want Marquel to be South Florida’s Shaun King.”
Those were the words of former South Florida offensive coordinator Mike Canales, now the quarterbacks coach at N.C. State, describing Blackwell in last year’s media guide.
Even more (a Donovan McNabb-type season, perhaps) will be expected of Blackwell (6-1, 205), who begins his third season as the starter. The Bulls’ top returning rusher (566 yards last season), he has a strong, accurate arm and made good decisions (13 touchdowns, four interceptions) in 2000.
The graduation of Rafael Williams (704 yards, four touchdowns), the school’s career rushing leader, left the tailback position wide open heading into spring. Derrick Rackard (5-1, 210), a natural fullback, made the most of the opportunity and enters the fall as the clear No. 1.
Losing last season’s top three receivers probably sounds worse than it is. That’s no knock on those who have moved on, rather a testament to the new group of Bulls. Developing the unit will be a priority because, as Leavitt matter-of-factly says, “we’ll play as many as we can trust.”
Junior DeAndrew Rubin (6-0, 180) has that trust. He was well on his way to a solid season before being limited by a severe ankle sprain the second half of the season. He still finished with 17 catches for 189 yards and two scores.
Defense and special teamsSophomores Cedric Battles (6-4, 255) and Shurron Pierson (6-3, 240), two wildcards from Wildwood, Fla., could go a long way toward determining the defensive line's level of success. Neither qualified academically for the 2000 season, but the pair dominated from opposite sides of the line in high school and could make significant contributions right away.
Junior Greg Walls (6-2, 285) and junior Lee Roy Selmon Jr. (5-11, 275), son of the college and pro football Hall of Famer, provide an effective tandem at nose tackle. Walls (6-2, 285) led the team with 11 tackles for losses last year.
Returning starters Kawika Mitchell and Anthony Williams make linebacker the strength of the defense.
The Bulls lose four starters, and the potential loss of another three-year starter dampens the outlook in the defensive backfield.
Senior cornerback Bernard Brown (5-10, 180) started 27 games from 1997-99 and redshirted last season to give the team more experience this year. But he suffered a broken leg in the offseason and missed spring practice. Brown’s availability for the fall remains in question.
Santiago Gramatica, the third in the line of kicking brothers recruited by Leavitt, is Bill’s likely successor with the Bulls.
“I don’t know if he’s as far along as the other two were, but he’s got more upside,” said Leavitt, who recruited oldest brother Martin, an All-Pro with the Buccaneers, to Kansas State.
Bottom lineAlthough there are a lot of pieces in place, South Florida figures to struggle a bit in its first few seasons of Division I-A.
Blackwell will make plays for the offense, but the Bulls still figure to struggle a bit without a proven running back, a bunch of new faces at wide receiver and a retooled offensive line. The defense has plenty of potential, but is generally young and inexperienced.
The schedule consists of eight Division I-A teams but isn’t brutal. Pittsburgh is certainly in a different class, but the Bulls should be able to stay in most games. The support from the community and administration has been outstanding, but the expectation some have for immediate success may be off.