Coach:Jim Leavitt (87-52 in 12 seasons). | Staff In 2008: 8-5 overall, 2-5 in Big East (sixth in the league). Beat Memphis in the St. Petersburg Bowl.
Returning starters: Offense: 3. Defense: 6. Special teams: 2. | Depth Chart Final 2008 Rivals.com ranking: 36th. | Complete Final 2008 Rankings Past four Rivals.com national recruiting rankings: 29th in 2009, 54th in '08, 58th in '07, 59th in '06.
THE SCHEME: The Bulls run a spread attack. The new coordinator is Mike Canales, who is in his second go-round at USF. He was the Bulls' passing game coordinator last season, then was promoted when Greg Gregory was let go. Canales' first job is to make the rushing attack more consistent.
STAR POWER: This is the final go-round for QB Matt Grothe, who has been at USF for, what, 10 years? He can make plays with his arm and feet. Grothe is one of eight returning quarterbacks who led his team in rushing and passing last season. He has 8,157 career passing yards and 2,085 rushing yards. But while he has thrown 47 TD passes, he also has thrown 42 interceptions and must take better care of the ball. He frequently has been asked to do too much; Canales should help in that regard with better play-calling.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Coaches hope T Carlos Savala, a junior college transfer, can nail down a starting spot. Tackle is a questionable position for the Bulls, with the other starting spot likely to go to redshirt freshman Mark Popek. Savala is considered further along as a pass blocker than run-blocker, but he has the bulk (he's a 300-pounder) to be able to push people around in the running game.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Junior Mike Ford was one of the nation's most highly hyped running backs as a high school senior in 2004, when he averaged 236 yards per game at Sarasota (Fla.) High. He signed with Alabama, but academic issues forced him to Chatham (Va.) Hargrave Military Academy. He eventually signed with USF – about 90 minutes from Sarasota – but hasn't come close to living up to the hype. Forget consistency from week to week; Ford has had trouble maintaining it from series to series. He has the physical tools to be a bruising between-the-tackles runner and also has the quickness to get outside. By all accounts, he has had a good offseason, and given the new coordinator and the crying need for a feature back, this could be the season Ford lives up to the high school hype.
STRONGEST AREA: The receiving corps has the potential to be the best in the Big East. There is a lot of physical talent on hand, but consistency has been lacking. There is no true go-to receiver, and that can be problematic at times. But there are candidates to be that go-to guy; Dontavia Bogan, A.J. Love and Carlton Mitchell have 60-catch potential. Mitchell probably is the speediest receiver, and Bogan might have the best hands. Senior Jessie Hester is a steady possession guy. Backup Theo Wilson also should be an important member of the rotation.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The line is the biggest question. There will be four new starters, including both tackles. Jake Sims is the only returning starter, and he played mostly guard – and a little tackle last season, though G Zach Hermann started the first 16 games of his career before he suffered a foot injury early last season. Coaches would prefer Sims play center, but if the new tackles struggle, he could move outside. Hermann has a guard spot locked up. Depth is iffy, but if the new tackles come through, the line will be fine.
THE SCHEME: The Bulls run a 4-3 set, and coach Jim Leavitt prefers an aggressive unit. There's a new coordinator – former Cincinnati DC Joe Tresey – after longtime USF assistant Wally Burnham left for Iowa State. Tresey takes over a unit with a lot of speed.
STAR POWER: Senior E George Selvie was great as a sophomore but just so-so as a junior. Still, Selvie's speed off the edge makes opponents account for him on every play, frequently with two blockers. Selvie, who was a high school center, has 25.5 sacks and 61.5 tackles for loss in his career. FS Nate Allen is a potential all-league guy. He can run, has good ball skills and packs a punch.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman NT Cory Grissom should stand out this season – and not just because he wears jersey No. 46 in the middle of the line. Grissom possesses quick feet and big-time athletic ability for a lineman. There are some issues in the defensive interior, but Grissom's play should ease those concerns as the season progresses. There also are two ends who could make an immediate splash – junior college transfer Jason Pierre-Paul and true freshman Ryne Giddins. Giddins, a Tampa, Fla., native, might be the most highly touted recruit in USF history, and he possesses a big-time burst off the edge. He and Pierre-Paul aren't expected to start, but at least one should make an impact.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Junior T Terrell McClain – nicknamed "Dancing Bear" – is the guy to watch. McClain started 10 games at nose tackle last season but needs to work on his consistency. He has a ton of physical tools but hasn't put it all together yet.
STRONGEST AREA: The secondary has a chance to be special. The Bulls have numerous athletes in the unit, and Tresey's defenses at Cincinnati were known for forcing turnovers. His aggressive schemes could mean a lot of big plays by USF's defensive backs. Allen is the leader and could have a monster season. SS Jerrell Young grabbed the vacant starting spot at the position in spring drills, and coaches are high on his ability. While the corners can run, the Bulls had some problems in coverage last season. Jerome Murphy has a ton of speed, but he has lacked consistency and too often goes for the big hit rather than playing the ball. Tresey, though, said he thinks Murphy has the skills to be a big-timer. Quenton Washington will be a first-time starter at the other corner, and there is good depth at the position, including some touted freshmen.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: There is no standout at linebacker. Senior Kion Wilson should be steady in the middle, but both outside 'backers will be first-time starters. Junior Sabbath Joseph and senior Chris Robinson head into fall camp as the first-stringers. Joseph has good speed and is proficient in pass coverage, but he needs to get tougher against the run. Robinson has great size and tools, but he has lacked consistency. Depth is a concern. Senior Donte Spires missed last season for academic reasons, and the other backups will be a mix of junior college transfers, redshirt freshmen and true freshmen. A true freshman to watch is Sam Barrington, a big guy who can run.
Coaches hope sophomore K Maikon Bonani will be able to play this season. He was injured Sunday when he fell 35 feet into a landscaped area from a gondola ride while working at Busch Gardens in Tampa. Coach Jim Leavitt said Bonani may have injured his vertebra. Bonani was 15-of-21 on field-goal attempts last season. P Delbert Alvarado is adequate. There are enough athletes on hand to have superb return teams, most notably Bogan on kickoffs. The coverage teams need to improve; the Bulls have a ton of good athletes, and those guys need to start making plays on special teams.
Leavitt is the only coach in USF history and has done a great job building the program. But it's time for the Bulls to take the next step. They've teased their fans with great starts the past two seasons before fading. There are two new coordinators this season. The change on offense should be a big help to Grothe. But while Tresey had success at Cincinnati, the guy he's replacing at USF also had a lot of success, so the jury is out. Offensive line coaches Larry Scott and Mike Simmonds will be in the spotlight this fall.
The opening three games are a breeze – two Football Championship Subdivision opponents, plus Western Kentucky, which is in its first full season in the Football Bowl Subdivision. That should enable all the bugs to be worked out before Game 4 – a trip to play Florida State for the first time. A win over FSU and USF can start dreaming big again. There are home games in league play against Cincinnati and West Virginia, but the Bulls must travel to Rutgers and Pitt. There's also a home game against Miami. The schedule isn't overly tough. In other words, the schedule won't keep USF from winning the Big East.
USF has started strong, then faded in each of the past two seasons. The fast starts conjured hopes of New Year's Day bowls; the late-season fades meant appearances in the Sun and St. Petersburg bowls instead. The Bulls have the talent and experience to contend for the Big East title this season, especially with the departure of Pat White at West Virginia and the gutting of Cincinnati's defense. The new coordinators could mean some early season problems as the players adapt to the rebuilt staff, but the easy September schedule should help in that regard. This is the final season for Grothe and Selvie, and the potential exists for a big send-off. A Big East title is a legitimate goal, and anything less than a top-three finish in the league would be a big disappointment.