by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

USF head coach Skip Holtz got a contract extension and an extra $300,000. Now that normally might not be classified as earth-shattering news, as deserving coaches get extensions all the time. What made the timing curious is that the Bulls didn’t exactly light the Big East world on fire in 2011. In fact, South Florida lost seven of its last eight games last season, negating a 4-0 straight-up start that spurred the Bulls to a #16 ranking. The fact that four of those losses were by three points each and that the Bulls blew second-half leads in five setbacks a year ago could be cause for serious concern to an athletic department head. As a result of the collapses, South Florida missed playing in a bowl game for the first time in seven years.

A cynic might point to poor game-management for those close losses, laying blame directly at Holtz’ feet, but not USF athletic director Doug Woolard, who showed extreme confidence in Holtz in offering to extend and augment his deal. We tend to agree with Woolard.

Holtz had been a strong pointspread play in his five years at East Carolina, covering at a 38-25 rate while improving a Pirate team that was 3-20 straight-up the two years prior to his arrival to identical 9-5 marks and Liberty Bowl appearances in his final two seasons at Greenville. This year Holtz and the Bulls could make a breakout similar to the charge made by the 2007 USF team cioached by Jim Leavitt that rose to as high as No. 2 in the country.

The pieces are in place for a surge. Holtz has his most experienced team, with 29 seniors & juniors on the roster, and 18 players with starting experience. Dynamic double-threat QB B.J. Daniels (right) has 33 starts to his credit and made a dramatic jump in production last season, finishing 17th in the nation and 2nd in the Big East in total offense. The offensive line has three starters returning and soph Austin Reiter looked so good at center in spring coaches aren’t worried at all about losing Chaz Hine (third team all-Big East) to graduation. Although first team all-league guard Jeremiah Warren will be missed, 329-pound 5th year senior Damien Edwards is capable of stepping in and helping the Bulls lead the conference in rushing again as they did last season. Although leading rusher Darrell Scott went to the NFL early, sr. Demetris Murray gained 527 yds. (3rd on the team behind Scott & Daniels), and the move of Lindsey Lamar from WR to RB adds speed at the position, while jr. Marcus Shaw looked like a rejuvenated player in spring and incoming juco Michael Pierre will give Holtz another option. WR Sterling Griffin (43 recs.) returns after leading the team in catches despite missing four of the last five games last season with a shoulder injury. Griffin leads a deep crew of targets, as 8 of the top 9 pass-catchers return.

The defensive line, long a staple of quality USF defenses, should be stronger and more seasoned than last year’s crew, which set a pretty high bar, allowing just 3.0 ypc (15th in the country at 107 ypg rushing) and ranked 2nd in tackles for loss and 4th in sacks. Admittedly jr. DE Ryne Giddins (left; 11 sacks; 2nd team all-conference) got lots of help from a trio of excellent linebackers (who all return). Indeed, junior DeDe Lattimore and seniors Sam Barrington and Mike Lanaris form perhaps the best crew in the conference (all due respect to Rutgers’ group). The 2ndary boasts 2nd-team all-Big East sr. Kayvon Webster at one corner and sr. Jon Lejiste (38 starts, NFL prospect and the player that unloaded the greatest hit in South Florida history against Florida State in 2009) at strong safety. A couple of juco hotshots (Fidel Montgomery & Joshua Brown) will hold down the other corner (Montgomery won the job in spring), and jr. JaQuez Jenkins looked like a potential boon in spring workouts.

Summary: In a relatively short time, Skip Holtz has built a resume of high-quality work, and we think that extends to the foundation laid for this season’s South Florida edition. The Bulls will push for the Big East title and a spot in the top 25 this season, and should cover more than half of their games in the process. The schedule’s a bit tough, but a nine-win season should be in the cards.


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