South Florida ready to take next step, dominate weak Big East

Publish date:

When Leavitt tells the story, in that raspy voice that makes it sound as if he just spent four hours barking at officials, it comes off as both self-effacing and as a testament to his tireless determination.

"I rode the thing 18 miles," Leavitt said, chuckling. "I rode as fast as I could and [the other riders] were smoking right by me. I thought 'This is unbelievable.' It even had the streamers on the handlebars."

That three-hour drive and 18-mile ride prepared Leavitt well for his time at South Florida, where the last two seasons the Bulls have wedged themselves into the Big East and national title races, only to watch the spokes melt. In 2007, the Bulls rose to No. 2 in the nation before hitting a rough patch, losing three straight and eventually earning a berth to the Sun Bowl, where Oregon shellacked them. In 2008, the Bulls climbed to No. 10, but then went 2-5 in conference play. The program Leavitt built from scratch has tried to keep pace, but has wound up approaching the Tour de France on a three-speed bike.

"We're just kind of skirting [being a real contender] right now, kind of teasing people a little bit," Leavitt said. "But we haven't been able to get there."

For a program that's only been in existence since scientists cloned Dolly the sheep and James Cameron sunk the Titanic, however, USF has come impressively close. "We started with a trailer and no goal posts," said Leavitt, who ran the Bulls' first team meeting under a tree because the school didn't have a football facility. But they rose through the ranks quickly, making their first bowl game four years after joining Division I-A and earning their first AP ranking just 104 polls after becoming eligible, the fastest rise in history.

Ultimately, though, the Bulls have been hampered by their own infancy, which is most noticeable by their lack of depth. "We're not a deep enough team to sustain injuries, and you're going to have injuries," Leavitt said. The last two seasons, the Bulls struggled when injuries forced inexperienced players into more prominent roles. "Both years we've come back strong at the end [because] guys came back and played," Leavitt said. "We can still play at a pretty high level with some injuries but we lost a lot of close games. We need to continue to build more depth."

Leavitt's working on that. This offseason he brought in the school's highest-rated recruiting class (No. 29 nationally) by beating out the likes of Auburn, LSU, Miami, Nebraska and South Carolina for players. He's doing anything he can to draw the spotlight toward Tampa. This year, Leavitt ran the 40-yard dash to promote the spring game. He clocked in at 5.72 seconds and awarded "I'm Faster Than Leavitt!" T-shirts to students who beat his time.

While Leavitt focuses on the big picture, the two most important players are senior quarterback Matt Grothe and two-time All-America senior defensive end George Selvie, two of the best nationally at their respective positions. Grothe, who has started all but one game since arriving at USF, enters his senior season 287 passing yards West Virginia's Pat White as the Big East's career yardage leader, a mark he could well reach in the season opener against Wofford. Selvie, a 6-foot-4, 245-pound sack machine who decided to return to school to improve his draft stock, is the nation's active leader with 61 tackles for loss and needs just 14 to break Jason Babin of Western Michigan's NCAA record of 75.

They're both more interested in leaving their mark another way, however. Two years in a row they've seen a BCS berth slip through their grasp. This year they feel a sense or urgency to finally take that step.

"It's been frustrating at times, but me and George still have one more year," Grothe said. "We're going to do everything in our power to make it the best one." USF's offensive star isn't willing to use the team's relative infancy as an excuse for failing to reach the next level. "If you can play football you can play football," he said. "What makes the Florida Gators any different than us just because we're 12 years old and they're over 100 years old?"

The opportunity is there. Defending Big East champ Cincinnati returns just one starter on defense, while Pitt, Rutgers, West Virginia and UConn all must adjust to life without key offensive stars. Louisville is breaking in a new quarterback and Syracuse won't likely end its string of losing seasons in the first year of the Doug Marrone era.

Then there are the Bulls, a tested team boasting a Selvie-anchored elite defensive line and a Grothe-led offense that returns its top receiver (senior Jessie Hester, who caught 54 passes for 579 yards and three TDs in '08) and running back (junior Mike Ford, who ran for 417 yards and five scores during an injury-plagued year). Though both units will operate under new coordinators this season, they'll still follow a similar script. Mike Canales, USF's third offensive coordinator in four years, served as the Bulls' first offensive coordinator and spent the past two years as the receivers coach and passing game coordinator. He knows the players and will run an offense similar to the spread the Bulls have been running. Joe Tresey, who came to Tampa after Cincinnati cut him loose, won't change much on defense, either, as the Bulls will continue running a 4-3 scheme.

Ultimately, the biggest obstacle facing USF in its quest to win the Big East title will be itself. Grothe believes this team has learned from the mistakes of the past and is ready to make another run up the rankings and avoid a collapse. "We've been on the short end of the stick the last few years and screwed ourselves at times and had to work through some injuries," he said. "It's been a learning experience."

Now, Leavitt, Grothe, Selvie and the rest of the Bulls know to keep the spokes further away from the exhaust pipe.