The football coach likes his offensive line this season, as long as it avoids last year's injuries.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000
WINTER HAVEN -- Consider the many misfortunes that befell South Florida's offensive line last season and it's no wonder questions about the starting front cause coach Jim Leavitt to stop and ponder.
Six of the starters -- or would-be starters -- missed playing time because of injuries last season.
Then consider the fact Leavitt is banking on sophomore Marquel Blackwell to be his undisputed quarterback, and you'll understand why the offensive line is a topic of conversation two weeks before fall practice begins.
But not necessarily in the way you might think.
Although Leavitt admits the position is the most difficult to develop while building a football program, particularly when a team is besieged by injuries, he said during Sunday's statewide media gathering at Cypress Gardens that things are looking up for the line.
"We have a chance to have a real good offensive line this year," Leavitt said. "We really do. I know people are all worried about it, but our first team is pretty good."
Leavitt's optimism stems from the return of four top players. Four-year starter Joey Sipp, who has started all 33 games in school history, will be back at center. Kenyatta Jones, who missed two starts with a bad ankle, and Sean Cassese, who started two games at the end of the season, also return.
Starting left guard Anthony McKenzie returns and will be backed up by Jimmy Fitts, a starter before being injured last year.
"With Fitts, that's pretty good depth there," Leavitt said.
The Bulls also will rely on junior Ken Dawson and Mike Snellgrove, whom Leavitt said was on track to become a starter before a knee injury.
What the Bulls won't have is junior Billy Attix, a 6-3, 285-pound guard who injured his neck last season, had surgery and has not fully recovered. Potential starting guard Brent Whitfield also won't return to the team.
"Billy's not going to play this year, and he may never play again," Leavitt said. "He played the whole year, had surgery and now he's having complications from the surgery. We thought he'd be back lifting by now, but it's taking a little longer. Those things sometimes take a lot of time. I don't know if he'll play again or not: That'll be up to him and what he wants to do. Brent is not playing anymore. We gave him a medical release."
Even with those losses, Leavitt said the early outlook is good. But it all hinges on one key thing: The starters must remain healthy.
"Those are the guys for us, but if we have to go beyond that, we'll be in trouble," Leavitt said. "If they (starters) stay healthy, we'll be all right. We always set the offensive line as a priority, but you don't know whose going to end up being hurt. Last year we had 17 people hurt; it was the most unbelievable year. If you start reading in the paper where three or four of those guys (offensive linemen) are out for the season, you know we're scrambling, as would anybody."
Just how devastating a couple of injuries might be is a question mark.
Leavitt said the incoming offensive line recruits have shown promise in summer workouts, but it's an inexperienced group.
"I'm real happy with the five offensive linemen we signed," he said. "What's interesting about it is when we went out to recruit, we lost a lineman to Alabama, lost one to Clemson and lost one to Florida in the last two days. We didn't necessarily get the top offensive linemen, but a lot of these guys came in to our summer program and worked out hard. From what our strength coach is telling me, he's real excited about them. We've got blue-collar workers, and I'm real happy with those guys. I'm happy about it, but it's going to take some time to develop those guys."