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In the beginning, things were humble for the South Florida Bulls. Eight years ago, the football coaches worked from trailers behind left field of the school's baseball stadium, sometimes getting startled by the thump of a home run ball.
Fast forward to the present. With unprecedented growth, South Florida has graduated from Division I-AA, to Division I-A independent, to Conference USA to its new home, the Big East Conference.
That's right: South Florida is in a BCS conference with an opportunity -- theoretically, at least -- to win a national championship.
The pace may seem dizzying. But South Florida, located in fertile recruiting territory that is frequented by coaches from every major conference, can potentially attract a lineup of All-America types on a few tanks of gas. The Big East was convinced of South Florida's potential.
"We understand that the expectations are high," coach Jim Leavitt said. "My job is to get us up in the hunt right away."
Leavitt knows the Bulls must improve after coming off their first losing season (4-7) since 1997's debut. Tenacious defense had been one of the program's foundation, but the unit struggled to a No. 77 national ranking last year.
Quarterback Pat Julmiste, a two-year starter, has a grasp of the Bulls' wide-open offense, but his inconsistency might open the door for Auburn transfer Courtney Denson. With a premium placed on athleticism and quick decision-making in South Florida's no-huddle, multiple-receiver attack, Denson seems well-suited to become the new offensive leader.
But the unquestioned focus of South Florida's offense is senior running back Andre Hall, who set a school record last season with 1,357 yards and 11 touchdowns. Down the stretch, he had four consecutive 100-yard games (averaging 181), highlighted by a 275-yard, two-touchdown career night in a 45-20 win at UAB.
Although the Bulls do not possess an obvious go-to receiver, there are high hopes for sophomore Johnny Peyton, a deep threat who tied for the team lead in receptions with 22. S.J. Green, a possession receiver, also had 22.
The Bulls lost three starters on the offensive line, but Leavitt thinks the group's depth could be even better. Center John Miller, a platoon starter in the past, is the team's strongest player, while there's stability at guard with returning starters Frank Davis and Chris Carothers.
South Florida needs to improve its pass rush. Last season's line was undersized and, too many times, severely overmatched. The Bulls have defensive end Terrence Royal, an athletic, emotional player who had a team-leading 14 tackles for a loss. A major plus is the return of senior Tim Jones, who redshirted last season. He started all 11 games in 2003 and can play any position on the line.
Linebackers are the defensive strong suit. Junior Stephen Nicholas often was the lone bright spot in a porous defense, which ranked 77th nationally.
Patrick St. Louis is a standout in the middle, and outside linebacker Ben Moffitt will benefit from a season's worth of experience. Junior college All-American Gene Coleman lends considerable strength to the group.
Last season, South Florida had only four interceptions, while allowing opposing quarterbacks to throw for 20 touchdowns and a 248-yard average. The secondary welcomes back strong safety Johnnie Jones and cornerback D'Juan Brown, both returning from injuries. Jones' presence allows Danny Verpaele to return to his natural position of free safety.
The Bulls are expected to rely on freshman placekicker Mike Benzer, who was considered the top kicking prospect in Florida by some scouting services. Senior punter Brandon Baker returns after averaging 41.8 yards.
The Bulls are running with the big boys now, so their play must hit a higher level. The most important factors are improvement on defense and the continued dominance of Hall, who is looking to have a mammoth senior campaign.