With three senior starters gone, but experienced players still in the lineup, can the Bulls' offensive line regroup in 2011?
There are six weeks left until the South Florida Bulls open their 2011 football season at Notre Dame, which gives us just enough time to present a complete USF Football Prospectus. Each Thursday, we'll review one segment of the team -- looking back at its history, studying how it performed in 2010, and talking about what to expect from it in 2011.
USF'S OFFENSIVE LINE HISTORY
While USF's offensive line has rarely been dominant, there have been very few times where it was a weak link. Most years the line has been serviceable and not a major cause for concern.
Among the early stalwarts on the line was Kenyatta Jones, who started 38 games at left tackle from 1997-2000, then became USF's first-ever NFL draft pick and Super Bowl winner with the 2001 New England Patriots. He was joined up front in USF's Division I-AA years by guys like Joey Sipp, Jimmy Fitts, and Anthony McKenzie. (Larry Scott, the current tight ends coach and ace recruiter, was a reserve offensive tackle on these early teams.)
The line's play wasn't as important during Marquel Blackwell's time at quarterback. The offense relied on quick passes and ran nearly every play out of the shotgun, so there wasn't as much of a traditional running game. When Blackwell left and the Bulls went through a few years of weaker quarterbacks, the offense was retooled into a power running attack behind Derrick Sarosi, Frank Davis, John Miller, and Chris Carothers.
Another transition period came in 2006, as Matt Grothe took over at quarterback and the offense revolved almost completely around him. Grothe didn't have a particularly strong offensive line in front of him, and while he improvised his way out of some messes, the line play might have caused some of his erratic passing and turnovers.
USF'S OFFENSIVE LINE IN 2010
Despite the Bulls' problems on offense last season, the line usually wasn't one of them. USF's struggles to throw the ball made the offense more predictable, especially on first and second down. But even when teams brought the safeties down to put eight men in the box, the line was able to create some holes for Moise Plancher and Demetris Murray. For a team whose quarterback had led the team in running for the previous four seasons, it was a welcome change to see the Bulls able to hand the ball off and run between the tackles. (In reality, they had been able to do this on occasion in those previous four years -- they just didn't try it often enough.) The rushing statistics were all right, but likely would have been much better if there was a stronger passing game to complement it.
Pass blocking was sometimes an issue, especially early in conference play. Syracuse blitzed the Bulls into oblivion, often loading one side of the line and exposing USF's struggles to pick them up. The line gave up four sacks and B.J. Daniels was harassed into a 9-for-23 passing day as Syracuse picked up their first-ever win over the Bulls. When West Virginia recorded five sacks the next week doing many of the same things as the Orange had done, it was time to regroup.
Regroup they did. The line only allowed 10 sacks in the Bulls' final six games. Sometimes it was gameplanning, like the use of an option package against Rutgers that slowed down their blitz-heavy defense. Sometimes it was execution, like Jacob Sims' excellent work in the bowl game against Clemson's DaQuan Bowers, who became the Bucs' second-round draft pick in April. And while the passing game didn't completely come around, it was a big part of avoiding more negative plays, sacks, and turnovers in the second half of the season.
Another key to the line's success was their incredible health. The starting five of Jamar Bass, Jeremiah Warren, Sampson Genus, Chaz Hine, and Jacob Sims made 61 out of a possible 65 starts, and only Bass missed any games.
OUTLOOK FOR 2011
Bass, Sims, and Genus are all lost to graduation, but the Bulls do return Warren and Hine at the guard spots. Bass's left tackle position falls to backup Mark Popek, who started the four games last season that Bass did not. New to the lineup will be center Kevin McCaskill, who saw action in six games last year, and redshirt freshman Quinterrius Eatmon at right tackle. Eatmon may have had the best spring of anyone on the roster, and Bulls fans are eagerly awaiting the dawning of the Age of Quinterrius.
Of the 10 linemen on USF's two-deep depth chart following spring practice, only Eatmon and Austin Reiter, the backup center, don't have game experience. Tackles Darren Powe and Damien Edwards, along with guards John McGhin and Danous Estenor, all saw playing time in 2010. (Estenor, of course, was recently in the news for helping save a man's life by deadlifting part of a Cadillac Seville off of him back in February.)
Although the line lost a lot of experience, there's still quite a bit of it left across the unit. Barring injuries, the offensive line should be about as good as they were last year. Whether anyone notices depends on how the rest of the offense, especially the passing game, does around them.