|J. Meric/Getty Images|
|Coach Jim Leavitt this spring will need to plug holes in the offensive line.|
TAMPA -- South Florida has the two biggest returning stars in the Big East in quarterback Matt Grothe and defensive end George Selvie. But players you probably haven't heard of yet will likely determine how far these Bulls run this season.
"People will say we've got a shot to be decent because of Matt and George," head coach Jim Leavitt said after Tuesday's practice. "It seems like that's the way it will alway be. But there are question marks."
Heck, Leavitt isn't even sure how he's going to field a team for Saturday's spring game because of his offensive line situation.
The Bulls lost four starters from last year's offensive front and have been hampered by injuries this spring. Jake Sims, who started 10 games a year ago, has been out with a hand injury. Zach Hermann, another expected starter, is dealing with a concussion. Jeremiah Warren, who Leavitt figures will at least be a part of the rotation, is concentrating on his academics. And Sampson Genus, who was playing center with Sims out, hurt his knee. On Tuesday, Leavitt had every available offensive lineman snapping the ball.
"Those four might be our starters," Leavitt said. "Right now, we're practicing with a lot of guys who will probably be on our scout team. You take away four starters last fall and with four out now, we might be working third-team guys."
All of the missing starters should be back for the fall, and Leavitt said incoming junior college transfers Jamar Bass and Carlos Savala and true freshman Steve Jacques will compete for playing time right away. But the offensive line has missed a key chance to build chemistry this spring.
"That's been a real negative," Leavitt said. "On the other hand, we're building some depth, if you want to look at the silver lining. We're making our quarterbacks work really hard, which is probably good. But we're probably getting a false sense of confidence on defense.
"When it's all said and done, can we put a good group together (on the offensive line)? I don't know. That's the big question."
This spring has a much different feeling for the Bulls. Leavitt said that in the past two years, he felt like the team was ready to start playing games in April because it had so many experienced players back. This year, they're counting on several young players to step in and contribute.
On the other hand, Leavitt said that maybe this current situation will help prevent the team from going through the midseason backslide that has plagued it the past two seasons. The Bulls climbed to No. 2 in the country in 2007 and No. 10 last season before tumbling into losing streaks.
"We plateaued the last few years and didn't get better," he said. "It will be real interesting to see how it plays out. This team will get a lot better than the last few years. That I know, because we're not as elevated right now, today. So we will get better. That's encouraging to me."
A lot will depend on this summer, when the majority of South Florida's large and highly-touted recruiting class arrives. Leavitt has said that as many as 20 first-year players could see time right away. And he's not afraid to unseat more experienced players who aren't performing up to his standards.
"If it's even, we're going to go after the guys coming in this summer," he said. "It's really important that some of these guys realize that in the fall, there's not going to be as much patience. If you're not at the top of your game then boom, all of a sudden, you might not see the field again."
The Bulls could have the best defensive line in the league, the most experienced quarterback, a cadre of weapons at receiver and running back and as much overall athletic talent as anyone in the Big East. They have holes to fill at linebacker and cornerback, as well as the offensive line. And it remains to be seen if a team relying on so many new players can truly contend for the conference title.
So even with Grothe and Selvie, South Florida has a lot of questions.
"But there are questions all over the Big East," Leavitt said. "There really are. It's going to be a really interesting year again.
"I think this program has a chance to make a move this summer. I really do."