TAMPA, Fla. -- So near, yet so, ah, bad. That pretty much sums up South Florida's football fortunes last year and the Bulls want to change that. For a team that won only three games last season, South Florida wasn't all that far out of things when it comes to statistics. The Bulls were outscored by about a touchdown a game, but outrushed opponents by about two yards per game with a 152.0 average. Thanks to an inconsistent passing game, they were down in total offense with foes averaging 401.8 yards per game overall to USF's 367.5 average, but they had a 44 percent success rate on converting third downs, slightly better than the 42 percent rate of their opponents, and had 25 sacks, four more than they gave up. But the one number that stands out is in turnovers, specifically interceptions. They had only two, tying Auburn for last place among FBS teams. Together with seven fumble recoveries, they had only nine takeaways for the year, tying New Mexico State for fewest in the nation in that category. So it shouldn't be surprising that turnovers are a major emphasis for the Bulls in fall camp. "Takeaways on defense come with a lot of effort," first-year coach Willie Taggart said. "A lot of bad things happen for the offense when the defense is running to the football." The possibilities are there for the Bulls to have the kind of defense that could produce more turnovers this time around. Frankly, it would be difficult for them to have fewer, but with pass-rushing ends like Notre Dame transfer Aaron Lynch, Tevin Mims, and Ryne Giddins, linebackers DeDe Lattimore and Reshard Cliett, and tackle Elkino Watson, the Bulls should raise the pressure against opposing quarterbacks, which could force mistakes. The big question may be if the offense can take advantage of whatever opportunities the defense might create. It's an inexperienced bunch overall with an unsettled situation at quarterback. Four guys -- returnees Matt Floyd and Bobby Eveld and newcomers Steven Bench and Mike White -- are competing with little separation among them early on. "I hate that," Taggart said of the four-way competition. "Only one can play at a time, and we're going to play one guy." Bench, a Penn State transfer, added some spice to USF's open quarterback competition. Floyd, a sophomore, was slightly ahead of Eveld, a senior, coming out of spring. But Bench made it at least a three-way fight. Bench announced in May he was leaving the Nittany Lions to enroll at USF. He is immediately eligible because of the NCAA sanctions levied against Penn State. White, a true freshman, is also getting reps. Giddins, the senior defensive end, says he was not even close to 90 percent healthy last year after injuring his shoulder early in the opener, which is where he rates himself now. Giddins' injury, which eventually required surgery, was not revealed in the fall, and thus he took what looks to be unjustified criticism after finishing with just 3.5 sacks for the year. If healthy (he is still undergoing rehab), he could make a big difference for the Bulls' defense. SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: After what is hoped to be a "tune-up" against FCS member McNeese State on Aug. 31, the Bulls face a big challenge with a trip to Big Ten contender Michigan State on Sept. 7. They get back home for their next two outings with an open date splitting their games against Florida Atlantic (Sept. 14) and Miami (Sept. 28). KEYS TO SUCCESS: The Bulls have struggled with consecutive losing seasons, but it's not like they have been blown out. Of their 16 losses the last two years, 11 have been by fewer than 10 points. It could be getting over that mental hump and winning a close game or two early would lead to some success. AREAS OF CONCERN: The Bulls have questions on both sides of the ball, but the most critical would seem to be at quarterback, where a replacement for B.J. Daniels must be found. Next on the list would be depth at running back and receiver. The main issue on defense is in the secondary, where two new starters must be found at cornerback. --Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.
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