The Bulls must replace three more starters from last year's defensive line. How quickly will they be able to gel against the Big East's ground attacks and the new wide-open passing games?
There are five 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 Friday, 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 DEFENSIVE LINE HISTORY
The Bulls have had a string of renowned defensive linemen, including a two-time All-American and one of their two first-round NFL draft picks. As USF transitioned from a I-AA team to a I-A team, Tavares Jurineack and Greg Walls emerged as a strong defensive line tandem, while Tchecoy Blount and Shawn Hay got after the quarterback. They were followed by Shurron Pierson (who recorded 18 sacks in two seasons before making a perhaps ill-advised decision to try and go pro) and Chris Daley. Then came Craig Kobel, one of the great one-season wonders in school history with 19 tackles for loss in 2003, and Terrence Royal, who hit double-digit sacks in 2005 and got three sacks in USF's first-ever bowl game.
Not long after George Selvie arrived in 2006, he became a household name -- first among Bulls fans, and then among anyone who follows college football. During his four years in Tampa, the defensive end recorded 69.5 tackles for loss and 29.5 sacks, both schools records. His 2007 season was positively astounding, especially in the first half of the season. Trying to block Selvie at that time was a little bit like trying to keep Lawrence Taylor from wreaking havoc in Tecmo Bowl. He was a lot faster than anyone trying to stop him, and you just had no chance. In six games, Selvie recorded 21.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, eight quarterback hurries, and two forced fumbles, including one where he knocked the ball out of UCF quarterback Kyle Israel's hands before he even had a chance to hand it off to Kevin Smith. Unfortunately, future opponents started taking extra care to take him out of the game, and he never returned to that peak of performance. But he still ended up with 31.5 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks, and a consensus first-team All-American selection in 2007.
Of course, the extra attention teams had to pay to Selvie helped Jason Pierre-Paul emerge in the 2009 season. Pierre-Paul, a junior college transfer, only played one season for USF before leaving for the NFL, but he recorded 16.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks (plus an interception that he returned for a touchdown), and was named an first-team All-Big East defensive end. Pierre-Paul was selected 15th overall in the 2010 NFL Draft by the New York Giants, making him the highest draft pick in USF history.
USF'S DEFENSIVE LINE IN 2010
Having to replace two quality defensive ends and switching to a new scheme put a serious dent in the defensive line's pass-rushing success. Although the Bulls recorded more sacks in 2010 (30) than they had in 2009 (25), they needed a lot more help from blitzing linebackers and safeties to get there. 14 of the 30 sacks came from the back seven, and safety Jon LeJiste ended up tied for the team lead with Craig Marshall, getting four apiece. USF really struggled to put pressure on the quarterback in the second half of last season. Against their last six opponents (Rutgers, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Miami, UConn, and Clemson), the Bulls only managed a total of nine sacks.
On the other hand, the run defense was sturdy considering how heavily the Big East depending on their running games in 2010. It allowed only 3.5 yards per carry on the year, and opposing offenses managed just eight rushing touchdowns all season. This despite being forced onto the field in some adverse situations after the offense gave away the ball in their own territory. Although the Gators gashed the tired Bulls in the second half of their game in September, and Louisville's Bilal Powell ran for 140 yards against them, other players like Western Kentucky's Bobby Rainey and UConn's Jordan Todman couldn't hit their normal stride.
The line keyed crucial goal-line stands against Cincinnati, twice forcing them to settle for field goals when they had first and goal inside the 5-yard line. In overtime against Louisville, the line turned back a quarterback sneak by Adam Froman on fourth and inches, which gave the Bulls an easy path to the winning field goal. Against Miami, David Bedford forced a fumble by Damien Berry just inches from the goal line that flew out of the side of the end zone for a touchback.
OUTLOOK FOR 2011
The defensive line loses three more of last year's starters, including ends Craig Marshall and David Bedford, and tackle Terrell McClain. (All three of them are headed to NFL camps -- McClain as a draft pick of the Carolina Panthers, and Marshall and Bedford as undrafted free agents.) For the second year in a row there will be a lot of churn at this position and someone will need to step up.
Will it be Ryne Giddins? The promising defensive end was a backup last season but still saw enough playing time to record 3.5 sacks. (This was well below his stated goal from 2010's spring practice of a sack every 10 snaps.) If he can take a jump up and become someone teams are forced to account for, it takes a lot of pressure off the other starting defensive end, senior Patrick Hampton or sophomore Julius Forte.
Massive junior nose tackle Cory Grissom is the only returning starter from the defensive line. Next to him will be fifth-year senior Keith McCaskill, who saw some playing time last year when McClain was resting on the sidelines. We may also see a couple of highly-touted freshmen making their debuts at defensive tackle. Todd Chandler, a signing-day surprise in 2010 who redshirted last year, is listed as the co-backup nose tackle, and incoming freshman Elkino Watson, this year's surprise recruit on national signing day, will have a chance to get into the mix at defensive tackle.
The rapid pace of change in the Big East will make this basically new defensive line's job even tougher in 2011. Last season, you could count on most teams to run, run, and then run some more. That's not the case anymore. Pittsburgh and West Virginia have installed high-octane offenses to go along with the one Cincinnati already has. Louisville would like to do the same if they have enough skill to run it. And then on the other end of the spectrum, Rutgers, Syracuse, and UConn should continue to depend on the running game. (Notre Dame and Miami will also do this in non-conference play, while UTEP likes to run and gun.) One week it will be crucial for the line to get pressures and sacks to slow down the passing onslaught; another week, they'll be counted on to hold the line while the other team runs the ball 50 times. The defensive line will have to handle the almost weekly yo-yo between offensive philosophies. If they struggle with either one, it's going to put a lot of pressure on the back seven to make all the plays for them.