There are nine 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. First up, the quarterbacks.
(Two notes here. If you're a Bulls fan, you can probably skip down to the 2011 expectations right now, because the goal of this series is to introduce the team to fans who aren't familiar with USF football. Also, this is probably going to be the longest of all the stories we do in this series. So don't freak out about the length. That's what she said.)
USF'S QUARTERBACK HISTORY
The Bulls have a boom-or-bust history at this position. USF's first quarterback was Chad Barnhardt, who transferred from South Carolina when the program started and provided above-average play and steady leadership in 1997 and 1998. His successor, Glen Gauntt, didn't really have it as a starter and was soon replaced by a redshirt freshman named Marquel Blackwell, who never gave the job up. Blackwell is USF's all-time leader in passing yards, touchdowns, starts, and wins, and he was at the helm as the Bulls moved out of I-AA and became a bona fide I-A program. In his senior season in 2002, USF went 9-2, beat four future Conference USA opponents, and picked up its first-ever votes in the AP poll.
After Blackwell left, the Bulls had issues at quarterback for a few years. Ronnie Banks, much like Gauntt had before, wasn't able to hold onto the starting job in 2003, and for most of the next three seasons the starter was Pat Julmiste. Unfortunately, Julmiste was not much of a passer and he ended up being more or less a conduit for getting the football to Andre Hall, but players like Courtney Denson were unable to take his spot, and recruits like Carlton Hill fizzled out.
At the beginning of the 2006 season, after the Bulls struggled to beat FCS McNeese State and almost lost to an FIU that would eventually go 0-12, Julmiste was replaced by Matt Grothe and another boom cycle began. Grothe led the Bulls to three straight bowls and their first national ranking, winning three of the biggest games in program history with his arm and his legs. Grothe is the Big East's all-time leader in combined rushing and passing yards, and he would have broken all of Blackwell's passing records if not for a torn ACL in 2009 that prematurely ended his USF career.
The week after Grothe's injury, B.J. Daniels went to Tallahassee and pulled off an improbable upset of Florida State. Except for a game last season that he missed due to injury, he has been USF's starting quarterback ever since.
USF QUARTERBACKS IN 2010
Expectations for Daniels were pretty high going into last season. He had done reasonably well as a freshman in 2009, and with better offensive structure and his combination of speed and arm strength, it seemed like he would break through and possibly be an All-Big East caliber quarterback. The first game against Stony Brook did nothing to slow these expectations down. His first pass of the season went for a touchdown to Dontavia Bogan, and in just over a half of action, Daniels threw for 264 yards and two TDs.
The next week at Florida was a different story. The talent on the other side of the ball went way up. Bogan left the game with an ankle injury, leaving Daniels with virtually no experienced receivers. (At one point, the Gators put all-SEC cornerback Janoris Jenkins on walk-on receiver Stephen Bravo-Brown. That was not a favorable matchup.) Whether it was the lack of targets Daniels could trust, or his struggles to adapt to a more pro-style offense, or just that Florida broke his brain, B.J. went into a spiral in the second half of this game and stayed in it for another month after that. He threw four interceptions in the Swamp, then was basically put in mothballs as the Bulls used their run game to overpower Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic.
But when it was time to get Daniels back into throwing mode, he had two of the worst games imaginable. Against Syracuse, he missed two wide-open touchdowns and got zero help from his receivers and offensive line. He continued his bad play at West Virginia the next week, throwing three bad interceptions and forcing the coaches to pull him for walk-on freshman Bobby Eveld once the game was out of reach. Daniels looked completely broken as a quarterback and Bulls fans were preparing for something like a 4-8 season, because there appeared to be no better option available.
Then, somehow, Daniels played a great game against Cincinnati, going 13-for-16 for 286 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for two scores on his own as the Bulls came up with an unlikely 38-30 win. The coaches still didn't completely trust him, though. He attempted less than 20 passes in each of USF's next two games, but he took much better care of the ball and stayed out of the way until he had to make a big play. (Daniels only threw three interceptions in his last 120 pass attempts of the season after throwing 10 in his first 125 passes.) Towards the end of the regular season, Daniels was about a C quarterback -- much better than the F on his mid-October report card, and good enough to help USF win three close games, but there was plenty of room for improvement.
B.J. was playing hurt, though. He had injured his calf earlier in the season, which might have limited his running ability. (After running for 772 yards in 2009, Daniels only rushed for 95 last season. Whether it was the injury, a complete lack of positional depth, or the coaches demanding he stay in the pocket is anyone's guess.) When he aggravated the injury right before halftime against Miami, his regular season ended and in came Eveld.
At the beginning of the year, no one was even sure who the backup would be. Daniels' backup in 2009 was Evan Landi, and even though he shifted to wide receiver, a lot of people expected that Landi would be next in line if anything happened to B.J. Instead, it was Eveld who took over, and he led the Bulls to another unlikely win over the Hurricanes after driving the team 80 yards in the last five minutes of regulation for a touchdown that forced overtime. Eveld started the next week against Connecticut and had the kind of struggles you would expect from someone starting their first college game. He threw three picks, one of which was returned for the Huskies' only touchdown. Eveld got into a rhythm late in the game and nearly led USF to a comeback win, but a late UConn field goal knocked off the Bulls 19-16.
When Daniels returned against Clemson in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, he looked like the month off and the extra practices had done a world of good. Finally healthy for the first time in months, he went 20 for 27 for 189 yards, threw for two TDs, ran for another, and took home game MVP honors. But most importantly, he had a better grasp of when to run the play and when to improvise, and he didn't make any of the blunders that had sunk the team against Florida or West Virginia. He graded out to a solid B on his final exam.
OUTLOOK FOR 2011
And that grade is important, because a B is around the level that Daniels will need to play at for USF to compete for a Big East championship and a BCS bowl. He has a strong running game, a pretty good defense, and top-notch special teams backing him up, so Daniels won't have to throw for 300 yards every week in order for the Bulls to win. But there will undoubtedly be stretches of games or key moments where he has to do it himself. What will he do when those moments arrive?
The backup situation is also improved. Eveld did better than anyone expected in relief against Miami and UConn, and if Daniels were to get injured again, there wouldn't be nearly as much concern about what would happen next. A better security blanket may in turn may free up Daniels to run more often than he did in 2010, which makes the defense worry about containing him and frees up other players to create big plays.
Don't forget about Matt Floyd. You never want to read too much into a spring game, but Floyd made our list of players who stood out during spring practice, and he appears to be well in line to take the #3 spot as a true freshman this fall. Floyd would hopefully be as good as Eveld was last year if disaster struck and he was forced into action. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him become the starter a couple of years from now.