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March 3, 2011

Offense is key if USF is to take next step

Skip Holtz's first season played out like the last few seasons under Jim Leavitt, at least as far as the standings are concerned.

The Bulls went 8-5 for the third consecutive season. They won their bowl game for third consecutive season. They defeated a major in-state power (Miami) on the road for the second consecutive season. That's the good news.

On the flip side, USF finished with a losing record in the Big East for the third consecutive season and headed to another second-tier bowl game.

In 2010, USF faced its share of growing pains under the second coach in program history. Most were on offense. The Bulls traditionally have been strong on defense, and that should continue this season if younger players such as LB DeDe Lattimore, E Ryne Giddins and T Todd Chandler take the next step in their development this spring.

Offense remains the question. Only four starters return off a unit that finished next-to-last in the league in yards per game and passing. Incumbent starting quarterback B.J. Daniels will be under the microscope as he enters the spring in a true competition for the first time. As a redshirt freshman, Daniels backed up senior Matt Grothe and became the starter when Grothe was injured. As a sophomore, he was the Bulls' only scholarship quarterback. Now, as a junior, he's one of four quarterbacks on scholarship.

But quarterback isn't the only spot worth watching in Tampa. Here's a look at USF heading into spring practice.

USF AT-A-GLANCE
B.J. Daniels played well down the stretch, and he will look to build on that this spring.
THE BASICS
COACH: Skip Holtz
LAST SEASON: 8-5 overall, 3-4 in the Big East. Beat Clemson 31-26 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
SPRING DATES: March 3-April 9.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
OFFENSE (4):QB B.J. Daniels, G Chaz Hine, WR Evan Landi, G Jeremiah Warren.
DEFENSE (6): LB Sam Barrington, NT Cory Grissom, LB DeDe Lattimore, SS Jon Lejiste, CB Quenton Washington, FS Jerrell Young.
SPECIAL TEAMS (2): K Maikon Bonani, P Justin Brockhaus-Kann.

Positions of strength

USF figures to be set for the next couple of years at linebacker with the tandem of junior Sam Barrington and sophomore DeDe Lattimore. The Bulls will miss Jacquain Williams, but Barrington and Lattimore form the fastest linebacker duo in the Big East. They combined for 134 tackles and 13 tackles for loss last season. Three starters return in the secondary, led by seniors Jerrell Young at free safety and Quenton Washington at corner. The Bulls ranked 17th nation in total defense (317.9 yards allowed per game). Lindsey Lamar is a standout kickoff returner after taking back two for touchdowns last season. The Bulls hoped he would become a more consistent threat on offense, but they'll take his special teams production.

Help is needed

The Bulls need to improve their offense after a rocky season. They averaged 309.4 yards per game, which ranked 105th nationally. Rebuilding the offense will be tricky, though. Three starting offensive linemen are gone, most notably C Sampson Genus. QB B.J. Daniels struggled in the first half of the season and threw 13 interceptions. The Bulls once again struggled to find consistent receivers. USF brought in three three-star receivers in its signing class, but they enter spring drills with former QB Evan Landi as the returning leader in receiving yards (402 yards). No one else had more than 161 yards. There is hope, though. Two former starting receivers -- A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin -- will return from injuries. At running back, Demetris Murray had his moments, but he'll compete with a pair of transfers -- former mega-recruit Darrell Scott from Colorado and Tampa native Dontae Aycock from Auburn.

Guys to watch

RBs Dontae Aycock, Demetris Murray and Darrell Scott: We're putting them together because this could be a season-long competition for carries. On paper, this could be the best depth USF has had at running back in a few seasons. At the same time, two of these guys didn't play last season (Aycock and Scott) and Murray was a backup. Murray rushed for 533 yards and four touchdowns last season and also is a threat in the passing game. Scott (a one-time five-star signee) and Aycock (a four-star recruit) struggled at their first stops before transferring to USF.

DT Todd Chandler: A four-star prospect and the No. 20 player in the state, Chandler -- from powerhouse Miami Northwestern -- was the crown jewel of the 2010 signing class. The Bulls didn't need to push him into immediate duty last season with Terrell McClain and Cory Grissom established at tackle. Chandler redshirted and is poised to take over for McClain.

DE Ryne Giddins: Giddins, another major in-state recruit, will have his chance to star on the defensive line. Giddins, from the Tampa area, signed in 2009, but the Bulls redshirted him while George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul started at end. The Bulls had a pair of veterans manning the end spots last season, but Giddins started two of the last three games after Craig Marshall was hurt. A former four-star recruit, Giddins had 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception in the final seven games.

The pressure is on

QB B.J. Daniels: Daniels entered last season as our first-team All-Big East quarterback, but he struggled mightily early. Daniels threw 10 interceptions and four TDs in the first six games. He settled down over the second half of the season, completing 60.8 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and three picks. He'll look to carry that momentum into the spring under coach Skip Holtz and offensive coordinator Todd Fitch. Daniels is the presumptive starter, especially after passing for 189 yards and accounting for three touchdowns in the bowl win over Clemson. But he'll share snaps in the spring. Bobby Eveld, who was put on scholarship after the season, quarterbacked USF in the second half of the win over Miami and started the 19-16 loss to Connecticut. The Bulls also have two young quarterbacks in camp -- redshirt freshman Jamius Gunsby and early enrollee Matt Floyd.

The buzz

USF is one of the few teams in the Big East not undergoing major coaching changes this season. The Bulls hope a comfort level will make a difference in helping them take the next step. The key changes this spring will be on offense. If USF starts to find some answers on that side of the ball, the Bulls could be ready to make more noise in the conference -- and maybe even win it.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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