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Back to pass

USF's Marquel Blackwell era was an aerial show. The Andre Hall era was slanted toward the ground. Now the Bulls are aiming high again.

By GREG AUMAN
Published September 1, 2006


TAMPA -- It's been a while since USF's quarterback has truly been a star.

For two years, the Bulls' once-feared passing attack has taken a back seat to the school's most prolific running back. Now, as the offensive balance shifts back to the air, USF's success may ride on whether Bulls quarterbacks can leave behind the inconsistency that has marked them in the three seasons since Marquel Blackwell graduated.

"You've got to have a comfort level with the quarterback throwing the football at any time," offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. "Obviously, when Marquel was playing, we were extremely confident in him. I don't ever ask anybody to be the next Marquel Blackwell, but you hope for that same level of performance."

That is the challenge awaiting senior Pat Julmiste and redshirt freshman Matt Grothe, who have battled for the starting job throughout the preseason.

"It all starts with the quarterbacks," said Julmiste, who has taken Blackwell's role as a team leader but has not been able to match his prolific statistics. "We're the ones who have to get it going, to bring the team together."

For all its recent steps - to Division I-A in 2001, to Conference USA in 2003, to the Big East in 2005 - USF's passing attack, once a trademark of Bulls football, has recently been the opposite: an uncertainty, a concern, a limitation on the program's success.

USF is one of only eight Division I-A programs that have passed for fewer than 10 touchdowns in each of the past two seasons. Aside from Navy, no school has found the end zone through the air less - and still won - more than the Bulls.

Much of that recent gravitation toward running the ball is related to the emergence of Andre Hall, who rewrote USF's rushing records in the past two years. Hall's success - and the ineffectiveness of the passing game - made less passing almost a good thing in 2005. When the Bulls attempted 25 passes or more last season, they went 0-6; when they threw fewer than 25, their record was 6-0.

"(Hall) was such a good running back, it wouldn't have mattered if we had a good thrower or not. We were going to run the ball," said coach Jim Leavitt, whose 2005 team rushed 579 times, 132 more than any previous season.

Still, the passing game wasn't the complement it could have been to Hall. In the last six games, the Bulls threw for one touchdown in 151 attempts, while throwing eight interceptions. The team's single-game high for passing was 222 yards, and USF ranked 111th of 117 schools in passer efficiency.

Is it fair to compare the current quarterbacks to Blackwell, who passed for 9,108 yards and 57 touchdowns from 1999-2002?

"Everybody's always going to compare quarterbacks to Marquel, because he had so much success," said Leavitt, who went 30-12 in games Blackwell started.

USF was a I-AA school in Blackwell's first two years, but he faced Baylor, Southern Mississippi, Connecticut, Arkansas and Oklahoma. As a senior, he guided the Bulls to a 4-0 record against Conference USA schools.

"I'd put everybody on equal footing," said Chad Barnhardt, USF's first starting quarterback in 1997-98. "The opponents have gotten better, but everything here as gotten better, too. That's going to continue to be the case."

USF's penchant for passing peaked in 2001, when the Bulls threw for twice as many yards as they rushed.

"Everybody remembers that, and we have to get back to that," said Julmiste, who redshirted in 2002, watching Blackwell's final season.

Smith, who has coached USF's quarterbacks since 2001, said another reason for last year's reluctance to pass was inexperience at receiver in his first season as offensive coordinator.

"That was the personnel we had. We weren't ready as a receiver group, as a quarterback group, to do what we wanted to do," he said. "I think we're more prepared this year. Pat Julmiste is throwing the ball much better in practice. Matt Grothe has made a lot of plays in practice. We've seen more consistency from our quarterback position and more catches from our receivers."

With redshirt freshman Moise Plancher likely starting at running back, the Bulls need the threat of downfield passing more than ever.

Leavitt said quarterbacks, by their high-profile nature, get too much credit for wins and too much of the blame after losses. For his quarterback play to improve, Leavitt needs more from everyone else, too.

"A lot of the problem hasn't been the quarterback," Leavitt said. "We've been inconsistent catching the ball. We've been inconsistent with our blocking, and inconsistent with our decisions at quarterback."

Julmiste enters the season with 23 starts, second only to Blackwell at USF, with a 12-11 career record. Since starting two games as a redshirt freshman in 2003, he has been the incumbent quarterback that Bulls coaches have sought to improve upon, but nobody has been able to unseat him.

In last year's opener at Penn State, Leavitt gave sophomore Courtney Denson the start. He was benched after three series after no first downs and a costly fumble.

After the Bulls lost their final three games of 2005, Leavitt named freshman Carlton Hill as starter before spring practice, but academic and off-field problems led to him transferring to a junior college.

"At every position, we try to get the best people out there," Leavitt said. "I've always had confidence in Pat. I've always thought Pat can play. I never worried about that."

The latest challenger is Grothe, who has kept close to Julmiste with a strong spring and a solid preseason, working hard to overcome a lack of experience.

"It's kind of nerve-racking," Grothe said. "I've got to do the best I ever have and see how it works."

Neither has pulled away in preseason, but Leavitt said he didn't mind because the position as a whole has been playing well.

"I don't care, because they're playing at such a high level," Leavitt said. "If they were all bad, I'd say yes. I'm creating high expectations for the public on (Julmiste and Grothe). They're playing well. Are they going to come out in a game and do that? If they do, we're going to be okay at quarterback."

Receiver, too, may be USF's most improved position. Last year's receiving corps, talented but young, was a frustrating group, marked by dropped passes and few long pass plays - Amarri Jackson was the only receiver with a catch of 50 yards or longer.

"I think you're going to see, hopefully, more explosive plays," said Smith, pointing to sophomores Taurus Johnson and Marcus Edwards and senior Ean Randolph as deep threats. "I don't think we were quite mature enough last year to be an explosive offense."

The need for consistency across the offense is clear, but much of that pressure falls on quarterback, and Leavitt has shown a preference for Julmiste's experience leading a young team.

"He's the only one that's been successful, that's won ballgames," Leavitt said. "Look how many big games he's been the starting quarterback and we've won."

This is Julmiste's last shot at running an offense like the ones he saw his first year on campus, and he feels more prepared than ever.

"This is my fifth camp, and it's been my best two-a-days," he said. "I can say that for all the quarterbacks. Everybody's ready to go."