South Florida begins spring practice in just a little more than two weeks. The Bulls are also generating some offseason buzz for the way they finished 2010. So I thought it would be a good idea to catch up with head coach Skip Holtz and get his take on the program. In Part I of our conversation, Holtz talks about how last season ended, how this offseason has begun and national signing day. Look for Part II on Wednesday.
Every year is a new year, but how encouraged were you by the way the team finished in 2010?
Skip Holtz: It was just a whole different comfort level. The first year is such a blur. You go through it and, golly, it happens so fast and you're getting to know your players. You can coach them and teach them all you want but you never know how a young man is going to respond on game day. So we had some bumps in the road early on, especially in the league. But I was really proud of the way they finished, the way they continued to get better and the way they continued to work.
There were a lot of intangibles in last year's senior class. They gave us the chance to get our feet underneath us as we were in the middle of the season. Then we finished winning five of our last seven, with wins against Miami and against Clemson in the bowl game. It was really exciting to see the personality that team took on and the way they came on toward the end of the year. And it creates a lot of excitement going into this year, to be able to finish up the way you did and know what's returning. And for a guy like B.J. Daniels to have the same offense to come back to. Everybody is in the same terminology; you're watching cutups, seeing what you did, seeing mistakes, positives and negatives. That's how you grow as a football team.
You were really just a couple of plays away from winning the Big East. I know a lot of teams can say that because the league race was so close this year, but in retrospect how big of an accomplishment was that for Year 1?
SH: When you look at it, you're one play away in the Syracuse game. You're one play away in the Pittsburgh game. You're one play away in the Connecticut game. When you look back at how close you were, that just kind of gets you salivating to look toward 2011. And to see what's returning on this football team, it really gets you excited for a new season.
When you have that success toward the end of the year, how much does that increase the buy-in factor for players toward the new staff?
SH: This football team has really bought in. And that's a real tribute to the assistants and the work they've done, and getting into those individual meetings and showing players how they can get better. If a player feels like he's getting better and you're doing the things you need to help him improve, that's when the light bulb goes off. You can just see them, right now with what they're doing in the weight room. We have a new hire in the weight room in (strength coach) Mike Golden and he is doing a great job, and the players are making some great strides. The attitude, the way we finished the season, the job the players are doing and what Mike Golden is doing in the weight room, I think all those are contributing factors to get those players to buy in the way they are right now.
How much different is it for you this time of year compared to last year, when you had just really gotten the job?
SH: (Laughs.) You can't even compare this year to last year. A number of coaches have said to me, it's totally different walking out on this field and knowing the players. Last year we were out there with pieces of paper with players' numbers on them, just trying to put players' faces and names together. You were trying to learn not what your players could do, but who they were. A lot of the things you spent your time on last year are not things you have to worry about right now.
You also know what's coming into your program from signing day, because we had the opportunity to see many of these players in camp. We feel like we know more of what's coming in. You more of what you're getting on your football team, and you can spend more of your time on some of your weaknesses and what we have to do to improve as a program.
And how much difference was there in recruiting with a full year to work on it?
SH: Again, huge. You had an opportunity to build relationships with these young men, to be around them and see them in camp. It's the difference between recruiting somebody for 12 months and recruiting them for 10 days. It was such a difference and it's really a breath of fresh air once they've signed, because I feel really comfortable with where this class is, what type of people they are, where they're at academically, the talent level they're bringing to the table. I think there are some key players who have a strong chance to come in and make a contribution, and we answered a lot of the needs. You go out recruiting a year ago, and you don't even know what your needs are. You have names on a depth chart board, but you don't know what their strengths and weaknesses are as players. Night and day difference from a year ago. Not even close.
Even so, it seems recruiting is beginning earlier and earlier with high school prospects these days. So do you expect even better results in the near future?
SH: You build relationships with the high school coaches, so when you go into the high schools, you know the coaches and know their teams. We've got a 2012 list and we've already started recruiting with mailings and young men are taking unofficial visits and getting to know the coaches. I've seen where a number of players [in the Class of 2012] have already committed. So when you look at it, you've got your 2012 list which is very active, your 2013 names are on the board and your 2014 names are on the board. You start to develop that list much earlier now.
So from a short-term standpoint, it's going to get easier every year because you know more about each one of these players you're recruiting, and as they know more about us and get to know more about our program. I have a saying that was sent to me long ago: "Recruiting is like shaving. If you don't do it every day, you're going to look like a bum."
Some fans had concerns about the lack of a lot of four- and five-star guys in your recruiting class. You talked about getting players who fit your system. Was that your philosophy going in, or were you looking to get more so-called big-time recruits in this class?
SH: I ask the question, who's the big-time guy? And who's making the evaluation on how many stars there are next to a young man's name? I keep using Chris Johnson, who was a two-star athlete out of Orlando who's one of the best players in the NFL today. You look at Nate Allen who was a safety here who went to the NFL and was up for rookie of the year on defense -- he was a two-star athlete when he signed here. When we went back and looked up the people who signed four years ago with Nate Allen, right below his name was a four-star player that I've never even heard of.
So I think they evaluate recruiting classes way too early. I think if you want to evaluate a recruiting class, you evaluate them three or four years down the road, when you find out who is even going to make it to that college or university because of the academics and then how they're going to develop and how they'll mature. That's why the NFL isn't predicated on just four- or five-star athletes. They told me a stat that there was one five-star payer in the Super Bowl. I would much rather value my assistant coaches' decisions and working with the high school coach and evaluating film, academics and the quality of people than I would just chasing stars on a recruiting board.