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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Nation takes note
Don't bother whispering, the word's out now: USF is touted as a contender.
By Greg Auman
Published August 31, 2007
TAMPA - On a hot Saturday afternoon in July, the practice fields at USF were overrun with close to 150 top recruits, gathered from across the state and beyond to be poked, prodded, timed and evaluated at the Bulls' annual Senior Showcase camp.
Some players wore skin-tight Under Armour gear, others baggy gray T-shirts with their high school team's motivational catchphrase written on the back. A select few had already orally committed to the Bulls, and only a handful more would get scholarship offers after impressing USF coaches.
Amid it all, a father on a cell phone was raving to his wife about the 10-year-old football program he had just discovered.
"And they play their home games in Raymond James Stadium, where the Bucs play," he said.
Pack enough people onto a football field and you'll find one who doesn't know about the Bulls, who still gets confused that "South Florida" is actually in Tampa, who doesn't know Jim Leavitt and what he pulled off in the past decade.
"We still have to tell the story," says Leavitt, still happy to introduce himself and his school to recruits. "But it's a lot better now than it was."
The familiar refrain in any Bulls story throughout the first decade of USF football was that obligatory line, immediately following any recognition of success: Just xx years ago, the program didn't even exist.
The Bulls' rapid progress always has been best measured in their amazing growth: one big green-and-gold blur, from the first game in 1997 to moving to Division I-A in 2001, from joining Conference USA in 2003 to its current proud membership in the Big East.
But all of a sudden, the Bulls barely qualify as upstarts. Words like "unprecedented" and "the first time" are hardly stopping by anymore.
The underdog card, well-worn and dog-eared through 10 years of faithful service, remains holstered in Leavitt's back pocket, but he can't play it with a straight face as often as he once could.
Disrespect is getting harder to find, as USF is showing up in preseason top 25 rankings, as a surprise-team pick so trendy it can't qualify as "outside the box" anymore.
As horses go, they aren't so dark anymore. And if these Bulls still are considered sleepers, they are restless ones at that.
For Leavitt's program to continue its steady ascent, the time has come to stop joining leagues and start winning them.
"You have to work for everything. Nothing's given to you," said senior cornerback Trae Williams, one of only 10 current Bulls that played on a disappointing 4-7 team in 2004. "We've always been a blue-collar team. Even with some of the accolades we're getting, we're still focused, still humble and hungry. We still haven't won a Big East championship."
There it is, and the Bulls aren't the only ones saying it. West Virginia and Louisville, ranked in almost all preseason top 10 lists, are still the teams to beat in the Big East. But USF has knocked off both programs in the past two years while they were ranked in the top 10. If the Bulls can do so again this fall, they won't have the element of surprise on their side anymore.
"Everybody knows who we are now. They know what we can do," said aptly-named receiver Taurus Johnson, honored as the team's playmaker of the year last season. "We're getting respect now. We still have to earn it."
As impressive as USF's quick ascent into a BCS conference has been, the challenge facing players now is to continue that amazing growth on the scoreboard. The Bulls have tasted fame, success and respect; now they just want more.
"We're finally starting to get that," said sophomore quarterback Matt Grothe, a major reason for the excitement and optimism on Fowler Avenue. "Now we have something to look forward to. We have to hold it. We can't drop off the map. We can get even higher than they're expecting us to be."
USF's coaches hope Grothe won't have to do so much of that by himself this time around. A year ago, he won Big East Rookie of the Year honors, passing for 2,576 yards while leading the team in rushing, scrambling his way to 622 yards and nine touchdowns. Rest assured, Grothe will still be running, just not quite as often.
"He's got to run the ball. That gives us uniqueness offensively," offensive coordinator Greg Gregory said. "It allows us to have a one-back offense and a two-back running attack with him."
Helping him establish a more conventional ground attack are junior Ben Williams, the former walk-on who was MVP of USF's bowl win against East Carolina, and a slew of promising newcomers. Freshmen Mike Ford and Jamar Taylor, who both originally signed with Alabama, should lead the influx, along with redshirt freshman Aston Samuels and sophomore Moise Plancher.
"You have to be able to run the football to be successful. The theme of any offense is to run the football," offensive line coach Mike Simmonds said. "If you can't run it, it's hard to go down the field."
While the offense is young, with likely only three senior starters, USF's defense is loaded with veteran leadership, starting with middle linebacker Ben Moffitt and cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams, all entering their fourth year as starters. Add a young defensive line led by sophomore end George Selvie, and USF could have the Big East's top defense.
That defense has the challenge of stopping two of the nation's most explosive offenses, which stand between USF and its hopes of a conference crown. West Virginia, with two Heisman Trophy candidates in running back Steve Slaton and quarterback Pat White, comes to Tampa on Sept.28, and Louisville and quarterback Brian Brohm visit Raymond James Stadium on Nov.17.
USF hopes a newfound balance can get its offense among the league's high-scoring units. The word most commonly used is "explosive," taking the same system but getting more out of it. In USF's final 10 games, the Bulls managed one offensive play of 50 yards or longer. These Bulls hope they can still surprise a few people in 2007.
"We have the strength to be explosive. We've got a lot of playmakers, guys with size and speed," senior receiver Amarri Jackson said. "We're going to find out Sept.1."
Greg Auman can be reached at 813226-3346 or email@example.com Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf.