TAMPA, Fla. – No matter how much South Florida coach Jim Leavitt insists nothing has changed in his approach toward his team since he established the program in 1995, there are indications otherwise.
When Leavitt gathered his players for a recent post-practice huddle, only a few words were audible from the sideline. But three letters from Leavitt's speech were clear.
USF's approach may not have changed, but the final goals - even as early as spring practice - clearly are different than at any time in the 11-year-old program's history.
"We're talking national championship game, and why shouldn't we?" said wide receivers coach Mike Canales, a member of Leavitt's original USF staff who left for six seasons before returning in 2007.
One week last season changed the entire trajectory of the program. USF spent a week ranked No. 2 in the nation, thanks to wins over No. 17 Auburn on the road and No. 5 West Virginia at home.
How USF ended up at No. 2 on Oct. 15 is irrelevant this spring, though. That the Bulls got there and what happened after is what's remembered in Tampa. The good news was that pollsters considered USF a legitimate national player. The bad news was the Bulls lost their next three games.
"We never thought we'd do it (reach the top five) that fast," All-America defensive end George Selvie said. "We're not just playing to win games; we're playing to win every game. We're playing to play in championship games."
If USF is put in a similar scenario in 2008, the Bulls hope they will handle it better than they did last season.
A week after USF defeated West Virginia, Rutgers beat the Bulls 30-27 with help from a fake field goal and a fake punt. Against Connecticut, USF missed two field goals and was stopped at the goal line late in a 22-15 loss. A week later, the Bulls turned the ball over eight times in a 38-33 loss to Cincinnati.
"Everyone is out to get you when you're in the top 10," Canales said. "People want to knock you out. We played some good teams and lost tough games. We didn't lay down. We've got to learn to play at that level. It's a learning process to play at that level every week."
The process is one Leavitt has seen up close. As an assistant at Kansas State from 1990-95, Leavitt helped Bill Snyder make the Wildcats nationally relevant. K-State was ranked in the final polls in Leavitt's last three years there, including No. 7 in 1995.
USF hasn't been in a season-ending poll and hasn't reached those heights, but some of the blueprint from Snyder's reclamation project remains intact at USF. Leavitt's credo may as well be if it's not broken, don't fix it.
"We don't change anything at all," Leavitt said. "We've prepared hoping for all that. Nothing changes."
Some change is inevitable, though.
USF's record and notable achievements since becoming full-fledged members of Division I-A. "RV" means receiving votes.
at No. 17 Auburn 26-23
at No. 7 W. Virginia 24-19
No. 9 Louisville 45-14
at UAB 45-20
Bowling Green 29-7
Six assistants have left USF in the past two seasons. Leavitt tried to keep continuity by bringing in old faces. Two of the replacements were members of Leavitt's original staff; two others were promoted from positions as graduate assistants.
A member of Leavitt's first staff as offensive coordinator from 1996-2000, Canales returned as receivers coach and passing game coordinator in 2007. Kevin Patrick, who coached at USF from 1996-98 as an unpaid assistant, returned as a full-salaried defensive ends coach this year. This spring, Leavitt added defensive line coach John Hendrick, who spent two seasons with Leavitt at Kansas State. Leavitt hopes to extend USF's reach in recruiting with Hendrick, a Pittsburgh alum who will recruit New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The coaches' immediate concern, though, is filling some holes on defense. USF loses cornerbacks Trae Williams and Mike Jenkins, a projected first-round pick in the NFL Draft. Former backups Jerome Murphy and Tyller Roberts, both upperclassmen, are likely to move into those spots.
A bigger concern is at middle linebacker, where Ben Moffitt was among USF's most decorated players and the team leader. Senior outside linebackers Tyrone McKenzie and Brouce Mompremier are taking turns playing inside this spring.
"I'm really concerned about the middle linebacker position," Leavitt said. "It's going to take someone special."
As far as leadership, the Bulls may look to Selvie. The junior has the on-field credentials with 31.5 sacks. He finished second nationally with 14.5 sacks last season. He may have the demeanor, too.
When Patrick arrived, one of the first people he sought out was Selvie. However, it was Selvie who sounded like a coach. "George told me that what happened last year is completely last year," Patrick said.
It was a sign USF's star learned a tough lesson in 2007: Staying at the top is much more difficult than getting there.
"The good thing that happened last year is we got that out of the way," Selvie said. "Now we learn from our mistakes and go after it this year."