USF coach Jim Leavitt's craggy and he's crabby. He's not into sound bites and he's not into smiling pretty. And George Selvie says it's all fake. "Coach is really a good guy," Selvie swore. "He's fun -- really."
Yeah, well, Leavitt's the guy that told Selvie quarterbacks are yummy. Obviously the kid's going to think he's fun. Three years ago, Selvie was a 6-foot-4, 215-pound center. His high school coach in Pensacola, Fla., had tried to make him a quarterback, or even a receiver. But Selvie had insisted on playing offensive line, and when Leavitt came to see him, the one-time defensive back and defensive coordinator saw ... a center.
"I thought he'd be a good center," Leavitt said, refusing to even jokingly brag about the foresight he had, or the genius he is. Because, see, last year Leavitt needed a defensive end, he threw Selvie there and today, Selvie is the country's biggest quarterback-chomper. The sophomore has 11.5 sacks, another eight hurries, and last week he was in Central Florida's backfield, stripping the quarterback -- on a handoff.
Selvie and South Florida, the biggest surprise in a wild season, are No. 2 in the nation and come storming into Piscataway, N.J., to take on Rutgers Thursday night. The Scarlet Knights have one of the least-sacked quarterbacks in football and if Leavitt really gets to make a truth-teller out of Selvie, it'll probably be because Selvie got his coach to smile.
"I can make Coach smile. Because he's right," Selvie said with a laugh. "Hitting the quarterback is fun."
It wasn't always that way for this "Yes, Sir" son of a Navy man. Selvie was taught to protect first; from the time he was a kid ("I was a chubby little boy," he said), he played offensive line. His dad wanted him to play basketball, but he didn't like shooting baskets. His friends wanted him to play running back, but he didn't like scoring touchdowns. As center he got to touch the ball first and that's all the glory Selvie ever wanted.
"On offensive line, I got to block somebody and hit somebody in the mouth on every play," he said. "When you're the running back, you have to take hits. On offensive line, you get to give hits."
Selvie never thought about dishing out hits on defense, though. He might've gotten a scholarship to at least one other school besides South Florida if he had. But he didn't. So he went to Tampa and on the first day of practice, when Leavitt was lean at end and deep at center, he amiably switched his jersey, thinking the whole time, "he'll move me back to offensive line."
Leavitt did, midway through that redshirt year. But then in the spring Selvie was back on defense, he muttered at the coach "this is going to be the last time" and it has been. For now at least.
Selvie's put on 20 pounds (and when someone off-handedly says that 235 is still kind of skinny for an end, he yelps, "Do you know how hard it is to put on weight?"). He's ready to admit that the picture of him as an offensive lineman is a bit odd ("When I see film of myself doing that now, I think, 'Oh my God. That's crazy' "). And he's almost ready to kick the pre-game Pepto-Bismol habit. ("I still get a nervous stomach").
He's fast and he's explosive and he may be as much of a run-stuffer as he is a disruption to the pass game. He has 21.5 tackles for loss and no one since Rutgers' Ray Rice -- whose 202 yards in the teams' last meeting was the last time a back managed a triple-digit game against the Bulls -- has been able to run on the perimeter against South Florida.
Of course, Leavitt thinks Selvie's best position is still probably center, that he could be one of the country's best. To which Selvie says, "Well, we're not going to find that out anytime soon."
What we're all going to find out about Thursday is South Florida. The Bulls have won at Auburn and beat West Virginia at home, and in a conference with four ostensible Heisman candidates, quarterback Matt Grothe is the leading contender for Offensive Player of the Year. USF has a pair of corners, Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams, that Rutgers coach Greg Schiano -- a former NFL secondary coach -- said will play on Sundays. And they've got another All-America candidate in linebacker Ben Moffitt.
And yet, even with all that, and even though No. 1 Ohio State and No. 3 Boston College have a zero wins against BCS top 20 teams, the Bulls' lack of pedigree has the snobs out in full force. First the coaches gave more votes in their poll to Auburn than they did South Florida, after South Florida had beaten Auburn. Then Alabama coach Nick Saban derided the school's academic credentials, saying, "there are six guys starting on South Florida's defense who probably could have gone to Florida or Florida State, but Florida and Florida State couldn't take them."
And last week, Jimmy Johnson, from his perch on Fox's NFL Sunday Show, said the Bulls "don't deserve to be up there" and that he's "got a bunch of teams that's got two losses that will wear them out."
For all the chatter this week about South Florida's meteoric rise, this really isn't an out-of-nowhere story. Sure, football only came to campus in 1997. And yes, it's been just six years since the Bulls began playing Division I football and just three since their coaches got an actual building -- instead of trailers - for their offices. But Leavitt's been on campus, coaching the same system, working the same way, from the start. He turned down Alabama's offer in 2003 and, two years later, Kansas State's, and he does know a thing or two about vision.
He did, after all, turn Selvie into a defensive end.