NCF Nation: Dontae Aycock

We continue our team position rankings today with running back. The running back situation in the league is similar to the receiver situation. Only one team returns its leading rusher from a year ago (Rutgers leading rusher Jordan Thomas is now at cornerback). Most everyone has a lot of young, unproven talent waiting in the wings.

So how to judge? To make these rankings, I considered returning starters, accolades for returning starters, depth and potential. I went with the top 2 teams based largely on the belief that their No. 1 running backs will be the two best in the league even though depth is lacking. Everybody else has significant questions so I weighed depth and potential more heavily.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Pead
Mark Zerof/US PresswireRunning back Isaiah Pead is part of a strong returning backfield for Cincinnati.
1. Cincinnati. The Bearcats have perhaps the best back in the league in Isaiah Pead, a second-team Big East selection last year after he ran for 1,029 yards and six touchdowns. A healthy Darrin Williams should help, too. Joining them this year are two highly touted true freshmen in Jameel Poteat and Akise Teague, making this a unit that has returning talent and even more potential than last season.

2. Pittsburgh. The Panthers have one of the best running backs in the league in Ray Graham, but behind him there are major questions. Zach Brown is transferring in from Wisconsin, so that should help. Depth is a major concern, but Graham is the reason this unit is up so high. Some of the incoming true freshmen among Malcolm Crockett, Jeremiah Bryson, Isaac Bennett, and Corey Davis are going to have to play.

3. West Virginia. Noel Devine is gone, leaving a big hole to fill at the running back spot. This is one of the biggest positions of intrigue going into fall camp because it is so wide open. True freshman Vernard Roberts came in during the spring and did a nice job. Ryan Clarke, Shawne Alston, Matt Lindamood and Trey Johnson are in the mix. But expectations are high for true freshmen Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison to contribute as well. The Mountaineers have the best depth but no No. 1 back right now, which is why they are here.

4. Louisville. Another big-time rusher in Bilal Powell is gone and so are his 1,405 yards. Victor Anderson had a nice spring, leaving many to hope he can return to the form that he showed as a freshman. He and Jeremy Wright could be a fearsome 1-2 combo. The Cardinals are committed to running the ball, so that is a plus, and a big reason why the Cardinals are ranked No. 4. The big question here is how an inexperienced offensive line is going to affect the run game.

5. Syracuse. The Orange lose Delone Carter and his 1,233 yards. But Antwon Bailey is back and ready to assume the starting job. Bailey had 554 yards last season, but he is not the power back Carter was. Prince Tyson Gulley is second on the depth chart, and there are others who could contribute: Steven Rene, Jerome Smith, Mario Tull and maybe even freshman Greg Tobias. There also is freshman Adonis Ameen-Moore, a bruiser with speed.

6. USF. Hopes are high for Darrell Scott to come in and transform the Bulls rushing game. He is eligbile after transferring in from Colorado, and so is Dontae Aycock, a transfer from Auburn. Demetris Murray, who ran for 573 yards last season, also returns. But there are questions here. Will Scott be the savior? He was OK at Colorado and had a so-so spring. Who is the game-breaker? The Bulls traditionally have struggled to run the ball consistently. USF has not had a 1,000 yard rusher since 2005.

7. Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have struggled in the run game since Ray Rice left and believe they might have a game-changer in true freshman Savon Huggins. No question the young man has talent, but will he step in right away to start and make a huge impact out of the gate? Jeremy Deering, De'Antwan Williams and Jawan Jamison are in the mix as well, but all eyes are going to be on Huggins. One key to this whole mix -- how much better will the offensive line be to help the run game?

8. Connecticut. The Huskies lose their MVP in Jordan Todman, who led the league with 1,695 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns. Also gone is backup Robbie Frey, leaving this position a gigantic question mark. DJ Shoemate is penciled in to start and is the team's leading returning rusher with 115 yards and a touchdown. Redshirt freshman Lyle McCombs also will be in the mix to start and there are some true freshmen who might play as well.

Previous rankings:
South Florida has landed yet another high-profile transfer.

The school announced on Tuesday that former Florida receiver Chris Dunkley has officially joined the program. Dunkley redshirted last season while dealing with a hamstring injury. He was suspended for parts of this spring with academic issues. ranked the 6-foot, 172-pounder as the No. 7 receiver prospect in the Class of 2010 and rated him an ESPNU 150 recruit.'s recruiting profile of Dunkley concluded with this: "Overall, Dunkley can run and he can make people miss. He is one of the speedier wide receivers we have seen over the last few years and could be an impact player early in his college career."

“We’re really excited to have Chris join the program," USF coach Skip Holtz said in an official statement. "He’s very talented, has a lot of ability and we think he’ll be a positive addition at USF.”

Dunkley won't be eligible until 2012 under NCAA transfer rules, but he should help a position of need for the Bulls. A big-time receiver appears to be one of the last missing pieces for the Bulls.

Dunkley joins several other transfers who've opted to play for Holtz at USF. The Bulls have also welcomed former Colorado running back Darrell Scott, former Auburn tailback Dontae Aycock and ex-Notre Dame defensive back Spencer Boyd into the fold. They are currently pursuing another former Gator, running back Mike Blakely.
The number 1,000 is like Mount Everest for a college running back. Forget for a moment that over 12 regular season games plus a bowl, a runner has to average fewer than 77 yards per game to reach the milestone of 1,000 yards in a year. It's still a magical number.

The Big East has been blessed with top tailbacks the past few seasons, including five 1,000-yard rushers in 2010 (and two more guys who topped 920 yards last season).

Who will get there in 2011? Let's take a look at the top candidates, in order:

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Pead
AP Photo/Al BehrmanCincinnati's Isaiah Pead is the Big East's leading returning rusher.
1. Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati: Pead is the Big East's leading returning rusher this season, having produced 1,029 yards last season. The senior could be in for an even bigger year in '11 if he can stay healthy and the Bearcats offense can remain committed to the run.

2. Ray Graham, Pittsburgh: Graham ran for 922 yards and averaged 6.2 yards per carry despite splitting carries with Dion Lewis last season. Now as the featured back -- and the only experienced ball carrier -- in new coach Todd Graham's fast-paced offense, Graham might be the safest bet of any Big East player to top 1,000 yards this year.

3. Antwon Bailey, Syracuse: Bailey rushed for 554 yards last season and now should be the starting tailback behind a veteran Orange offensive line. Delone Carter topped 1,000 yards each of the past two seasons in this offense, so Bailey could do the same if given the same opportunities.

4. D.J. Shoemate or some other Connecticut back: Picking a UConn back to go over 1,000 used to be a given. Donald Brown eclipsed 2,000 in 2008, two backs got into four figures in 2009, and Jordan Todman finished second nationally in rushing a year ago. The Huskies still have a powerful offensive line that will pave holes, and the running game will be important with an unproven quarterback. But there's no clear heir to Todman. Shoemate has gotten most of the reps this spring but must prove he's elusive enough to be an elite tailback. If not, perhaps Lyle McCombs or an incoming freshman will get a shot.

5. Unknown West Virginia back: Most of the focus on Dana Holgorsen's offense centers on the passing game. But Holgorsen had a 1,500-yard back last year at Oklahoma State and 1,200-yard one at Houston in 2008. So the Mountaineers could definitely see a player cross that threshold. The question remains whether that would be Ryan Clarke, Shawne Alston, Daquan Hargrett, Andrew Buie or whomever.

6. Jeremy Wright, Louisville: The sophomore likely will succeed Bilal Powell, who finished as the second best runner in the Big East last year. Wright showed his ability in limited time when Powell was hurt a year ago, and the Cardinals proved their commitment to running the ball under Charlie Strong in 2010. But Wright has also missed this spring with an injury, and the offensive line must replace four starters. Senior Victor Anderson has a 1,000-yard season under his belt but must regain his freshman form.

7. Darrell Scott/Demetris Murray/Dontae Aycock, South Florida: Call them the 3-D backfield. It's unclear which back will emerge as the leader in the USF backfield, whether it's the Colorado transfer Scott, the Auburn transfer Aycock or Murray, who ran for 542 yards a year ago. They might split carries so much that no one guy reaches 1,000.

8. Savon Huggins or another Rutgers back: The Scarlet Knights haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Ray Rice, though Joe Martinek got close two years ago. The conventional wisdom is that super-recruit Huggins will earn the running back mantle when he arrives this summer. But first he'll have to beat out Jeremy Deering, De'Antwan Williams and Jawan Jamison. And the Rutgers offensive line will have to be a whole lot better to clear the way toward 1,000 yards for any one back.
We're talking about practice.

Specifically spring practice, which opens in the Big East on Thursday when South Florida takes the field. Syracuse will follow suit next week, and all eight league teams will be practicing before March is over. This month, I previewed the spring for every team. Colleague Mark Schlabach has offered his biggest national spring storylines. Here are what I think are the five biggest questions as a whole this spring in the Big East:

[+] EnlargeDana Holgorsen
Matt Strasen/US PresswireDana Holgorsen takes over West Virginia's offense after a successful run at Oklahoma State.
1. How quickly can Pitt and West Virginia pick up their new offenses?: Dana Holgorsen might hold the key to the entire Big East 2011 race in his playbook in Morgantown. Meanwhile up I-79, Todd Graham will bring a wide open no-huddle attack to Pittsburgh. Both Holgorsen and Graham have overseen some of the most productive offenses in the nation at their previous coaching stops. How quickly can they install their systems at their new jobs?

2. How different will Connecticut be?: The defending Big East champion and league BCS representatives has most of the coaching staff back except for at the top, where Paul Pasqualoni takes over with two new coordinators. Will the Huskies look like the old Syracuse teams that Pasqualoni and offensive coordinator George DeLeone ran? How much did Pasqualoni pick up as an NFL assistant? Who will be the offensive stalwarts with new leaders needed at quarterback and running back?

3. Is South Florida ready for prime time?: The Bulls closed 2010 strong and are drawing some buzz for Year 2 under Skip Holtz. For them to fulfill the promise, they'll need a lot better offensive consistency, starting with quarterback B.J. Daniels. Can transfers Darrell Scott and Dontae Aycock beef up the running game? Is the wideout position in better shape with more experience, or does it still lack go-to guys?

4. What now, Syracuse and Louisville?: The Orange and the Cardinals were two of the feel-good stories of 2010, escaping the league basement and going on to win bowl games. Both relied on a large amount of seniors last season, though, raising questions about how they will follow up their breakthroughs. For Syracuse, who steps up at linebacker, running back and wide receiver? Can freshman Teddy Bridgewater jump right in this spring at quarterback, and can a rebuilt offensive line repeat last year's success, especially without Bilal Powell running the ball?

5. Can Rutgers and Cincinnati bounce back?: Both the Scarlet Knights and Bearcats finished 4-8 last year in very disappointing seasons. Rutgers has a new offensive coordinator in Frank Cignetti Jr. and is getting back to its pro-style ways. The biggest question is, can the offensive line come together and play better than it has the past two years? Cincinnati brings back its entire coaching staff and all of its defensive starters from a year ago, plus the nucleus of the offense. Can the Bearcats improve on defense, cut down on turnovers and find more leadership within the program?

These questions and more will begin to be answered in March.

Big East spring preview

February, 23, 2011
Spring practice is just around the corner -- South Florida will be on its new practice fields next week, while other Big East teams will follow suit shortly after.

So here's a look at what to expect from each league team this spring.


Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Fixing the defense: There's little doubt that improving the defense is the first order of business in Clifton. The Bearcats ranked last in the Big East last season while giving up 28 points per game. The good news is that all 11 starters on that side of the ball are back. The bad news is those are the same guys who couldn't get it done a season ago. An extra year of maturity should help, and Butch Jones expects more depth and competition on defense, including the arrival of junior-college import Malcolm Murray at safety.
  • Restocking the Binns: Cincinnati should still be strong on offense with the return of senior quarterback Zach Collaros and senior Isaiah Pead, the leading returning rusher in the Big East. Yet the loss of the league's most productive receiver in 2010, Armon Binns, means the Bearcats need to find a few more guys to make plays at receiver. D.J. Woods is an obvious choice as the new go-to guy, but he'll have to solve his fumble problems. Transfer Kenbrell Thompkins, who couldn't get eligible last season, will look to step forward. Another sidelined receiver, freshman Dyjuan Lewis, won't be cleared to join in team activities until the summer.
  • Looking for leaders: One of the problems during the 2010 4-8 season, as voiced by departing senior Jason Kelce and implied by Jones, was a lack of leadership on the team. Hey, it happens sometimes when your program has been to back-to-back BCS games and young players feel an undeserved sense of entitlement. Jones has been trying to change that, and we should be able to tell during the spring whether some new leaders have emerged.

Spring practice starts: March 15
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Back to the future: For the first time since the end of 1990s, and for the first time ever as an FBS-level program, the Huskies will have someone other than Randy Edsall leading them through practice in March. Former longtime Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni took over when Edsall left for Maryland, and Pasqualoni hired new coordinators (George DeLeone on offense and Don Brown on defense) to mix in with the holdovers from Edsall's staff. UConn has been doing things the same way for a long time, and with pretty strong results. How will the team react to Pasqualoni's new-look, old-school ways?
  • Backfield in motion: Quarterback Zach Frazer is gone. Star tailback Jordan Todman left early for the NFL. Fullback Anthony Sherman graduated. Everything behind center is new. The quarterback position looks pretty wide open, with sophomore Michael Box perhaps having the edge after making one (very unsuccessful) start in 2010. Early enrollee Michael Nebrich is one to watch. How will the Huskies replace Todman? Good question. Robbie Frey decided to concentrate on graduate school, leaving USC transfer D.J. Shoemate as the only experienced ballcarrier. Freshman Lyle McCombs' status is unclear for spring after his offseason arrest, and the two running backs in the signing class won't arrive until summer. Right now, it's anybody's guess as to who might carry on the UConn running back tradition.
  • Reloading at linebacker: The Connecticut defense brings a lot back, but one position that needs refilling is linebacker. Lawrence Wilson, who led the Big East in tackles the past two seasons, and Scott Lutrus, a four-year starter and solid leader, both exhausted their eligibility. Sio Moore looks like a rising star and had some huge games in 2010, but the other two positions have large shoes to fill.

Spring practice starts: March 23
Spring game: April 15

What to watch:
  • Smooth sailing for Bridegwater?: The Cardinals' most pressing issue is at quarterback, where senior co-starters Justin Burke and Adam Froman are gone. Highly-touted recruit Teddy Bridgewater will participate in the spring, and how quickly he picks up the college game and coordinator Mike Sanford's system could go a long way to determining what happens this fall. If he needs more time, senior Will Stein will happily take the reins.
  • Rebuilding the O-line: The key to Louisville's offensive success was its senior-laden line, which proved to be the best in the Big East a year ago. But now four new starters must be found to go along with center Mario Benavides. The new guys must get up to speed and develop chemistry quickly for the running game and presumed new starter Jeremy Wright to duplicate last season's progress.
  • Last line of defense: Louisville's defense was most vulnerable at its back end at times last season, and now the Cardinals must replace both starting cornerbacks (including All-Big East first team performer Johnny Patrick), no to mention two senior linebackers. An obvious candidate to take over some leadership is safety Hakeem Smith, who was the Big East rookie of the year. The plus side is that Charlie Strong and coordinator Vance Bedford will have more young talent to work with.

Spring practice starts: March 15
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Golden Graham?: There will be no more drastic change in the Big East this spring than the offense at Pittsburgh, which will go from a run-based pro-style attack to Graham's no-huddle, wide-open, points-per-minute machine. Can the Panthers get this new offense up and running this spring? Does Graham have the players to make it work? And how will his offense, so successful in Conference USA, translate into the more rugged Big East? All those questions will be fascinating to follow.
  • Quarterback competition: Junior Tino Sunseri started every game in his first year at the controls in 2010, and he played well at times. But a new style and new coaching staff means that he might have an edge, but not necessarily an insurmountable one, in this spring's competition. Redshirt freshman Mark Myers is multi-talented and will be given a look, along with classmate Anthony Gonzalez and Kolby Gray. The current staff has no loyalty to Sunseri, so he'll need to perform at a high level this spring to keep his job.
  • Shoring up the 'D': It's no secret that Pitt struggled in defending the pass last season. Graham's offense may be more explosive, but he doesn't want to have to get into shootouts all the time. He and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson have experience running 3-3-5 and 4-2-5 formations and may go to more of those kinds of looks to counter the increasing spread offenses throughout the league. First Pitt will have to get better play from its secondary and linebackers in pass coverage, and that starts this spring.

Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 30

What to watch:
  • Line change: The first thing to focus on this spring for the Scarlet Knights is the front five on offense. The offensive line has been a mess for the past two years and was an utter disaster a year ago. Head coach Greg Schiano is counting on junior-college center Dallas Hendrickson to provide some immediate help, and that another year will lead to better things for the returnees. Rutgers needs answers at right tackle, especially, and if the line can't block its own defense in spring practice, you'll know there's trouble.
  • A Frank re-assessment: Former Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti takes over the Scarlet Knights' playcalling duties this spring, and his pro-style background seems like a perfect match for what Schiano likes to do. Look for Cignetti to try to establish a stronger running game this spring (while waiting for mega-recruit Savon Huggins to arrive this summer) and abandon the Wildcat formation and other gimmicks that Rutgers desperately turned to the past two years. His work with sophomore starter Chas Dodd will also be critical, since there are no other experienced quarterbacks on campus.
  • Recharging the defense: You always expect a Schiano-led defense to be rock solid, but that defense wore down last season and ended up allowing more points in conference play than anybody. Three of the starting four defensive linemen are gone, as well as the team's leading tackler -- linebacker Antonio Lowery -- and safety Joe Lefeged. Schiano has recruited well and has lots of young players ready to step into bigger roles. Spring will be the time we start to learn who's ready to handle increased responsibilities.
South Florida

Spring practice starts: March 3
Spring game: April 2

What to watch:
  • Transfers accepted: Running backs Darrell Scott and Dontae Aycock have strong credentials; Scott was one of the more sought-after recruits in the country before disappointing at Colorado, while Aycock was set to play for Auburn. Both become eligible this year and will show their stuff this spring. The two big-bodied ballcarriers could add some power and explosiveness to the Bulls offense. Notre Dame transfer Spencer Boyd should bring depth, at the very least, to the secondary.
  • B.J. still the main Bull?: Junior B.J. Daniels seemed to reassert himself as the starter with a big performance in the Meineke Car Care Bowl win over Clemson. But before that, there were serious questions about whether sophomore Bobby Eveld might unseat him. Daniels goes into the spring with an obvious edge, but he'll be pushed by Eveld and redshirt freshman Jamius Gunsby. He'll need to perform at a consistent level to stiff-arm questions about his job security.
  • Receiver reconstitution: No doubt, receiver was the position that needed the largest upgrade a year ago. The bad news is, the Bulls lost leading pass-catcher Dontavia Bogan, who was nearly a one-man show at wideout in 2010. On the flip side, A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin return from injury. And Skip Holtz hopes getting thrown into the fire last season sped the development of guys like Evan Landi, Joel Miller and Lindsey Lamar. At the very least, the position has a lot more experience and depth than it did a year ago at this time.

Spring practice starts: March 8
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Displacing Delone: Senior Delone Carter brought the thunder to the Syracuse running game the last two years, and he may have been the least favorite ballcarrier for opposing tacklers to bring down. With him gone, it remains to be seen whether the smaller Antwon Bailey can be an every-down back, or if youngsters like Prince-Tyson Gulley and Jerome Smith are ready for an increased role in the offense.
  • Linebacker makeover: It would be hard for any team to lose a more productive linebacker tandem than the Orange did with seniors Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith. They were both crucial to what defensive coordinator Scott Shafer liked to do. The lone returning starter is Marquis Spruill, who played as a true freshman last year. Could a newcomer like junior-college transfer Siriki Diabate be ready to help immediately?
  • Wideout wonders: Marcus Sales helped rescue an ailing passing game with his breakout performance in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Is Sales ready to play like that all the time now, or was he a one-game wonder? Will Van Chew continue the improvement he showed last season before getting injured? Can the Orange get more out of Alec Lemon? What new faces might help at receiver? The answers to these questions will be key to the attack under Nathaniel Hackett, who was promoted to offensive coordinator this offseason.
West Virginia

Spring practice starts: March 28
Spring game: April 29

What to watch:
  • Dana days: Mountaineer Nation is salivating at the thought of what Dana Holgorsen will do to revive the offense. Holgorsen has had an immediate and incredible impact at the last two places where he called plays, and some solid work in the spring is required to do the same in Morgantown. A couple of things are for sure: the Mountaineers will be throwing it around a whole bunch during practice, and fans will breathlessly gobble up every small detail. Another thing to watch will be the chemistry between Holgorsen's hand-picked offensive staff and Bill Stewart, the man he'll replace at the end of the season. That relationship will also be dissected relentlessly.
  • Defense reload or rebuild?: Most people assume West Virginia will continue to field an excellent defense because of coordinator Jeff Casteel. That may be true, but no team lost more defensive talent than the Mountaineers, who must replace frontline players like tackle Chris Neild, linebacker J.T. Thomas, safety Robert Sands and cornerback Brandon Hogan, among others. There's still a lot to like here, including ends Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin and corner Keith Tandy, but for Casteel must find new contributors to keep his 3-3-5 humming along.
  • Who's in the backfield?: It's not yet know just how much quarterback Geno Smith will be able to do during spring practice after his offseason foot surgery. Obviously, the more reps he can take, the better he'll be able to get Holgorsen's system down. And there's no experience behind him. West Virginia will be cautious with Smith, though, because the fall is way more important. With Noel Devine gone and Tavon Austin seemingly making his move to receiver permanent, there will be competition for the starting running back spot. Shawne Alston and Ryan Clarke are bulldozers who could add an interesting wrinkle to Holgorsen's spread if they get the job done.
Here is Part II of my pre-spring interview with South Florida coach Skip Holtz, in which we look forward to spring practice and the 2011 season. You can read Part I here. And if you missed Holtz's comments on his quarterback situation, you can find those here.

You don't bring back a lot of starters. But considering how many guys you played last year, how comfortable do you feel with your returning experience this season?

Skip Holtz: I do feel like we return quite a bit of experience. You look at a guy like Mark Popek on the offensive line, who didn't start but played quite a bit, and Danous Estenor played quite a bit. Obviously Bobby Eveld started one game. I'll just use the quarterback position: last year in the spring, we had one quarterback on scholarship; this spring we're going to have four. I look at the improvements we've made there from a competitive standpoint.

[Tight ends] Andreas Shields and Jeff Hawkins played. We had a number of running backs play. I look on the defensive line and we played four defensive ends and even though we graduated two of them, Ryne Giddins, Patrick Hampton and Julius Forte played just as much as the starters did. We played about seven linebackers a year ago, so even though we lost three, you return four with a significant amount of experience. I think we redshirted some really good players. We return all four of our safeties a year ago. We played three cornerbacks and two of them return.

So I think we have a great nucleus to build on. I definitely feel like we're much farther ahead than we were a year ago at this time.

You brought in three transfers from other BCS programs last year. Can you tell me about each of them?

SH: I'm really excited, and I'll start with the running backs. When we came in here a year ago, all of a sudden [Mike] Ford and [Jamar] Taylor were dismissed from the team. You start looking ahead and say Mo Plancher is going to graduate, and we're going to have a hole at the running back position. So we brought in some transfers in Darrell Scott from Colorado and Dontae Aycock from Auburn, and I think they're both very very talented players who are working extremely hard. They were both very impressive on the scout team with their attitudes and their work habits.

Darrell Scott came in about 240 [pounds]; he's down to about 226 and looks great. I think both of them are definitely going to be guys who make an immediate impact, and that's why we didn't sign a lot of junior college guys -- there was only one junior college player in our class. I think guys like Aycock and Scott are going to make a huge difference. And then a young man who transferred from Notre Dame, Spencer Boyd, is going to bring some depth to us in the secondary, where we graduated Mistral Raymond. He's a great athlete, and he's going to have an opportunity to come in and compete for time.

You had a good running game but not a lot of explosive gains there last season. How much can the new guys help that?

SH: We didn't have a lot of big plays there, you're right. Both Dontae Aycock and Darrell Scott are bigger running backs. Mo Plancher was about 200, Demetrius Murray was about 200 pounds, where Darrell Scott is 226 and Dontae Aycock is about 230. I think they're bigger, stronger running backs who are going to be able to break more tackles maybe than we have in the past, and when I watch those two guys run, they've shown me some big-play potential. So I'm really excited to see how they develop and mature as we go through spring practice and fall camp.

How are receivers A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin coming along from the injuries that kept them out all of last season?

SH: Well, it's nice to have them both back. A year ago we had four players returning with any type of experience at receiver, and Carlton Mitchell left early for the NFL before we got here. All of a sudden A.J. Love gets injured in the spring game, and Sterling Griffin gets injured in the summer. Dontavia Bogan had a great year for us, and what happened was a lot of these young guys got a chance to get experience last year. And then when you add A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin back to the mix, I think we'll be much deeper there. Plus, I'm excited about a couple of young signees we have that are coming into the program this season. But I think we'll be much deeper at that position, we'll be more experienced and we'll have more playmakers than we had a year ago.

Did it feel like, offensively, you were playing with one arm tied behind your back at times last year?

SH: It really did, with our limited big-play potential in the running game and how inexperienced we were at the receiver position. But Evan Landi came on and gained some great experience. Terrence Mitchell converted over to wide receiver halfway through the year and made an impact. Steven Bravo-Brown got better, Joel Miller had a great game against Miami. And with those guys gaining that kind of experience and then being able to throw A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin in there, it may be one of the most experienced positions on our football team.

[+] EnlargeTerrell McClain
Kim Klement/US PresswireSouth Florida's departing defensive tackle Terrell McClain leaves big shoes to fill this coming season.
Defensively, it seems like Terrell McClain will be the hardest guy to replace. I know Bruce Feldman had some nice words about Todd Chandler the other day. How do you see the defense being able to replace McClain?

SH: It's hard to replace a guy like Terrell McClain as a senior, whom they're talking about as a possible first-day draft pick, with a redshirt freshman. Keith McCaskill was solid for us last year and he's going to have to play more for us. Cory Grissom is going to be a year older as a starting nose guard. We're going to have to get a little more out of him. Anthony Hill is a guy who played a limited role for us a year ago that's going to be a junior; both him and Luke Sager, I expect more out of them. And then you hope Todd Chandler continues to mature into that position. And then there's a signee like Elkino Watson, who came in with an awful lot of accolades and is a talented player.

There are an awful lot of players there, and I don't think we're going to ask just one player to pick up that slack, that hole in the bucket left by Terrell McClain. We're going to ask a number of players to step their game up and fulfill that void.

Your season opener this year is at Notre Dame. How much does that help motivate everybody this offseason?

SH: I think it's huge as a far as a motivational factor. I remember being at Notre Dame, and we used to open with Michigan every year, when I was at East Carolina, we opened with Virginia Tech. And what that does for your players' focus as they go into winter workouts and spring practice and summer conditioning and fall camp, it just keeps their focus maintained with what's on the horizon. Having the opportunity to play Notre Dame as a young football program like we are, I think it creates an awful lot of excitement in our program, and it's something I know the players are looking forward to.

Have you talked much with your dad about that game yet?

SH: No, not enough yet. We'll get into that more as we get into summer breakdown. Right now, as we started winter workouts and are getting into out new practice facility, we're just trying to see where our players are and what we can do. Every team has a life expectancy of one year, and this time of year you start to put the pieces together. We're working on our own strengths and weaknesses before we start looking at our opponent and what they can do.

But I know they finished the season with wins at Southern Cal and a lopsided win against Miami. So I know it's going to be a great challenge, it's going to be a tall order. But it's going to be something as a young program that our players and fans are really looking forward to. It's going to be interesting to see what colors Dr. Lou is wearing that Saturday.

The team is drawing some offseason buzz because of how you finished. How do you address that, if at all, with the players?

SH: I think it's a huge compliment to what this team has accomplished and a huge compliment to this program for what we've been able to accomplish in such a short period of time. The thing for us is, we've just got to stay focused on the task at hand. You start sitting around reading the newspaper articles and drinking the Kool-aid and start believing what everybody starts writing about you, your focus isn't where it needs to be as far as getting a team ready, getting it focused and getting ready for a season. I think it's nice to be able to have that type of exposure for our program, for our fan base and for our players, that they've earned and deserved.

But I think there are two aspects of building a program: I think you have to start by learning how to win, and then once you learn how to win as we started to do toward the end of last season, I think there's a whole another process that goes into being able to handle winning. That becomes maintaining your focus and not getting sidetracked by the circus of college football that goes with the media exposure and everything else.

I suppose that's a nice problem to have.

SH: I'd much rather be here than still trying to learn how to win.

How buzzworthy is South Florida?

January, 20, 2011
I put South Florida atop my way-too-early 2011 Big East power rankings this month. Do the Bulls deserve such hype? Let's examine some of the factors that determine how much offseason buzz USF should garner.

[+] EnlargeSkip Holtz
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonSouth Florida coach Skip Holtz, right, and QB B.J. Daniels have some momentum for next season.
2010 finish: The Bulls won five of their last seven games, including solid wins against Miami and Clemson away from home. That's the kind of finish that gets people talking about a program heading into the following season.

Coaching: It's often a good bet that teams will improve in their second year under a new coach, as they become fully familiar with the new system. Skip Holtz has won everywhere he's been, and his staff has not suffered any defections in the offseason. Given that he came in under difficult circumstances last January and installed a different type of offense, there's every reason to suspect progress in Year 2.

Schedule: South Florida has only one road nonconference game, though it's a doozy. The Bulls open the season at Notre Dame, a team that will draw some considerable offseason buzz for many of the same reasons. A win there would put the program in the spotlight. The next three out-of-league games at home against Ball State, Florida A&M and UTEP shouldn't pose too many threats. A Nov. 26 home date against Miami will be interesting as the Hurricanes will be looking for revenge and playing under a first-year coach. All in all, it's a manageable schedule with a couple of opportunities for marquee wins.

The drawback is that USF has four away games in Big East play and only three at home in 2011.

Returning players: The Bulls return just 10 starters (four on offense, six on defense) from their Meineke Car Care Bowl lineup, which is a small number for a buzz team. But while many seniors leave, the team still has a lot of returning players who saw valuable time.

The Bulls will have to replace three starting offensive linemen and three of the four starting defensive linemen, along with their leading rusher and receiver and top defensive back (Mistral Raymond). But they were deep on defense and have ready-made replacements up front with guys like Ryne Giddins, Julius Forte and Patrick Hampton. Finding someone to take over Terrell McClain's run-stuffing role might be the most difficult task.

Dontavia Bogan is gone, but A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin return from injury, and the Bulls will hope players like Evan Landi, Lindsey Lamar and Terrence Mitchell evolve as playmakers. Mo Plancher led the team in rushing but operated in a tandem with Demetris Murray, who is back. Colorado transfer Darrell Scott and Auburn transfer Dontae Aycock become eligible and should add to the running game.

Once again, the fortunes of the team might rest on quarterback play. B.J. Daniels looked very good in the bowl game, and he'll have Bobby Eveld to push him all offseason. Daniels will be the most experienced quarterback in the Big East in career starts in 2011, for what that's worth.

Conclusion: South Florida has a lot of factors you like to see when determining a buzz team. More returning starters, especially on the offensive line, would help, and there are several players who need to take a step forward in the offseason. Is Daniels the guy we saw in the bowl game or the one who struggled much of the season? Overall, I think USF deserves heavy consideration as one of the league favorites in 2011, but the conference will have many contenders.

What do you think?