With a fertile home recruiting territory and an approach that has concentrated on giant leaps instead of baby steps, South Florida could threaten C-USA's upper echelon in their final season in the conference.
Coach Jim Leavitt, who has long touted the benefits of conference membership for his program, played an aggressive role in earning USF an invitation into the Big East starting in 2005. He believes the upgrade in competition and exposure will allow the Bulls, who only began playing football in '97, to become more of a familiar name around the nation.
Before looking to the future, though, he has an immediate priority -- earning South Florida's first bowl bid and challenging for its first (and last) C-USA title.
OffenseIn a search for stability at quarterback, Leavitt handed the reins of the Bulls' no-huddle, shotgun, four- and five-receiver offense to sophomore Pat Julmiste. He beat out senior Ronnie Banks, who started eight games last year. Julmiste started twice last year as a redshirt freshman but never grasped the offense after running the Wing-T in high school. USF is betting Julmiste, who has the arm strength of Banks and more mobility, will flourish in his second season.
Look for the Bulls to put a bigger emphasis on their running game in '04. Leavitt signed five running backs, including junior college All-American Andre Hall. Projected starter Billy Henderson tore an ACL in March and will miss the season, while bruiser Clenton Crossley, who rushed for 441 yards last season, will move to fullback when USF goes to a two-back alignment.
Leavitt aims to get the ball into the hands of elusive senior receiver Brian Fisher, last year's offensive MVP who had 28 receptions.
The offensive line should be South Florida's area of strength with five returning starters, including senior left tackle Derrick Sarosi and senior center Alex Herron. USF's linemen have a combined 111 starts.
DefenseThe Bulls were bolstered by the return of defensive tackle Lee Roy Selmon Jr., who has rebounded from two knee injuries and was awarded a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. There's a stable of athletic, hard-hitting linebackers, including Stephen Nicholas, a freshman All-American. Junior Devon Davis returns at middle linebacker, while sophomore Patrick St. Louis plays on the weak side.
In the secondary, the Bulls must replace three starters, including all-league safeties J.R. Reed and Kevin Verpaele. Javan Camon, a special teams terror, takes over at free safety, while experienced Kenny Robinson is at strong safety. Mike Jenkins, one of the school's touted recruits in 2003, and junior D'Juan Brown are the cornerbacks. Undersized Sidney Simpson, the nickel back, will see plenty of action.
SpecialistsSenior placekicker Santiago Gramatica, the youngest in a family of kicking specialists, could be among the nation's best this fall. Gramatica beat Louisville on a 26-yard field goal in the second overtime and preserved a double-overtime victory against East Carolina by converting a 40-yarder in the first extra session. Junior punter Brandon Baker has an excellent leg and became adept at pinning opponents inside the 20-yard line.
C.J. Lewis, one of the team's fastest players, is expected to succeed Reed as the primary kickoff returner. Fisher will once again handle punts, where he utilizes side-to-side quickness.
Final AnalysisSouth Florida has been on the precipice of its first postseason bid, including being denied after a 9-2 record in 2002 because it wasn't yet a member of Conference USA. With a solid offensive line and key playmakers on defense, the ingredients are there to take the next step.
South Florida's spread offense has produced plenty of points and put the program on the map, but sometimes works to the Bulls' detriment. The Bulls need to better manage tight games with an improved running attack. Until Julmiste proves he's a solid quarterback, South Florida must rely more on its defense and kicking game.