by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

USF head coach Skip Holtz enters 2011 with a lot of pieces at his disposal, but it remains to be seen if he can figure out how they all fit into the Bulls’ puzzle. South Florida turned in its third straight 8-5 season in 2010, Holtz’ first in charge in Tampa. Last year the Bulls maintained a string of six straight bowl appearances, but it will be a challenge for Holtz to continue that recent trend after losing 12 starters.

Key to any offensive improvement will be the continued development of QB B.J. Daniels. Daniels showed a bit of “the little girl with a curl” last season, as he had extreme highs, such as his 20 of 27 passing and two touchdown performance against Clemson in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. However, he also had some extreme lows, most notably a forgettable 5 for 20, four interception outing against Florida and a 9 of 23 performance in last season’s Big East opener against Syracuse. It wasn’t so much the number of interceptions (13) as the timing of the miscues that made a difference. Daniels killed a lot of team momentum with turnovers, and Holtz needs more consistent, error-free performances from his junior signal-caller if USF is to improve on its miserable 105th-ranked attack of a year ago. Some of those interceptions weren’t necessarily his fault, as Daniels was under a good bit of pressure last season, as the Bull offensive line allowed 26 sacks (68th in the country). Unfortunately, the protection doesn’t figure to improve this season, as OL coach Steve Shankweiler is replacing a trio of solid starters, including a pair named to the all-Big East team.

Daniels will be looking for a new favorite target due to the graduation of WR Dontavia Bogan (47 catches, all-Big East). Jr. Evan Landi and 5-9 jr. Lindsey Lamar (named all-Big East as a return specialist) combined for 53 receptions last season, while sr. A.J. Love had 63 career catches before sitting out 2010. However, Holtz recruited a couple of wideouts who will be given an immediate chance to play in Andre Davis and Ruben Gonzalez (both local Tampa products). Soph WR Derrick Hopkins has track speed (Big East indoor champ in the 60 and 200-meter sprints), but unfortunately he also has track size at 5-5 and 155 pounds. This should give Daniels a selection of decent (if not great) alternatives.

The RB position will be filled in a similar “throw numbers at ‘em” fashion. Returning backup Demetris Murray (542 YR; 4.5 ypc LY) and Colorado transfer Darrell Scott (230 lbs.) won the backup job in the spring. Another transfer, Dontae Aycock from Auburn, is an intriguing possibility. Aycock was an all-state player in Florida as a QB who rushed for 57 scores in his prep career before being released by the Tigers in the spring of 2010.

The Bull defense held up its end of the bargain, ranking 17th in the country. The USF stop unit returns six starters and has added some potential impact players. The defensive front has only DT Cory Grissom back, but soph DE Ryne Giddins (3½ sacks LY) appears ready to step in as a stalwart based on spring work. Incoming true frosh Elkino Watson is a top drawer talent who turned down Miami-Florida (among others) to come and play for Holtz. The linebacking corps should easily be able to maintain last season’s effectiveness despite losing an all-conference player, as soph DeDe Lattimore and jr. Sam Barrington combined for 134 stops a year ago. Defensive coordinator & LB coach Mark Snyder undoubtedly had a hand in recruiting speedy juco transfer Mike Juene, who was a JC All-America last season.

The South Florida secondary features three returning regulars, but they ranked just 5th in the conference in pass defense. This unit had just one truly bad day last season, giving up 512 passing yards against Cincinnati and Zach Collaros, but the Bulls still managed to beat the Bearcats thanks to an efficient day from Daniels (13 of 16 passing with no interceptions).

Summary: Skip Holtz is setting the bar higher this season, saying he expects the team to take the next step. “We need to win the Big East,” says Holtz. The Bulls haven’t had a winning record in conference play since 2007, so it’s a big ask from the head coach to make a jump to the top with just 10 returning starters and a somewhat “iffy” quarterback. USF has covered just 10 of last 26 Big East games and was 8-4 “under” last season...look for more of the same this fall.

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