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Team countdown: No. 39 USF

USF is known for its fast starts but bad finishes, and 2011 offered more proof.

The 2011 Bulls started fast, including a season-opening victory at Notre Dame. The upset of the Irish was part of a 4-0 start. That followed on the heels of a 3-1 start in 2010, 5-0 starts in '09 and '08, a 6-0 start in '07 and a 3-1 start in '06.

Alas, as usual, USF faded as it got deeper into its schedule. The Bulls won just one other game the rest of the way last season, a blowout of Syracuse, and finished 5-7. That snapped its six-season string of bowl appearances.

In 2006 and '07, USF finished 9-4. There were 8-5 finishes in 2008, '09 and '10.

Is this the year for a fast start and a fast finish? USF appears to be good enough to challenge for the Big East title in coach Skip Holtz's third season.

The particulars

Last season: 5-7 overall, 1-6 in Big East (tied for 7th in league)
Coach: Skip Holtz (13-12, 3rd season at USF; 85-62, 13th season overall)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (6)–QB B.J. Daniels, T Quinterrius Eatmon, G Danous Estenor, WR Sterling Griffin, TE Evan Landi, T Mark Popek. Defense (7) –LB Sam Barrington, E Ryne Giddins, T Cory Grissom, LB Michael Lanaris, LB DeDe Lattimore, SS Jon Lejiste, CB Kayvon Webster. Special teams (2) –K Maikon Bonani, P Justin Brockhaus-Kann.
Fast fact: USF played six games decided by six or fewer points last season; the Bulls were 1-5 in those contests.

Offense

Statistically, USF looked good last season, ranking 30th nationally in total offense (432.8 ypg) and 31st in rushing (183.2 ypg). The problem was a lack of consistency.

USF shredded Cincinnati's defense to the tune of 508 yards. The Bulls also put up 519 against Ball State, 745 against FCS member Florida A&M, 575 against UTEP and 490 against Syracuse. But there also were inept offensive performances: 254 yards against Notre Dame, 17 points against Pitt, 10 points against

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B.J. Daniels has been inconsistent in his three years as the starter. (Getty Images)

Connecticut, three points and 249 yards against Miami and 311 yards against Louisville.

QB B.J. Daniels is back for his final go-round; he will be a four-year starter for the Bulls. Daniels is athletic and generally good at escaping a pass rush. But he never has been consistent: He can look great on one play, clueless on the next. To be fair, he never has had the best supporting cast. One problem: His supporting cast this season isn't any different.

There likely will be a committee approach at tailback. Demetris Murray lacks breakaway speed, but he's a tough inside runner. Converted WR Lindsey Lamar, who lacks the size to be an every-down back, and Marcus Shaw are the other key tailbacks.

USF started the same five linemen in every game last season, but two of those guys are gone. There is a nice duo at tackle in sophomore Quinterrius Eatmon, who was a freshman All-America pick last season, and senior Mark Popek. Center is a potential trouble spot.

There is no proven go-to receiver, but there is some talent at the position. If junior Sterling Griffin can stay healthy, he has the talent to be a 60-catch guy and vie for all-league honors. He missed the 2010 season with an ankle injury, then suffered a broken foot and missed the final four games last season. Sophomore Andre Davis had his moments last season and should develop into at least a solid No. 2 receiver.

TE Evan Landi, who also has played quarterback and wide receiver, should be a useful weapon, and he heads a solid group of tight ends.

Defense

The Bulls ranked 15th nationally against the run (107.3 ypg) and 39th nationally overall (351.3 ypg). Similar to the offense, the defense suffered from inconsistency.

There were some good defensive performances: 253 yards allowed vs. UConn, 228 against Rutgers, six points and 316 yards against Miami. But there also were bad outings: 523 yards surrendered to Pitt, 501 to Cincinnati and 405 to Syracuse. It's up to new coordinator Chris Cosh, who had been at Kansas State, to help this unit develop consistency.

USF has the best linebacker group in the Big East, and they'll play behind a line that should be one of the two or three best in the league.

OLBs Sam Barrington and DeDe Lattimore and MLB Michael Lanaris combined for 253 tackles, 24 for a loss, 10.5 sacks, three interceptions and six pass breakups last season.

The tackle combo of senior Cory Grissom and sophomore Elkino Watson has a chance to be dominant. Grissom suffered a broken ankle in spring practice, but is expected to be ready for the season. Depth at tackle is iffy.

Junior E Ryne Giddins arrived amid a ton of hype about his pass-rushing ability. He has 11 sacks in his career and might be ready for a breakout campaign. There are high hopes for JC transfer Devin Mims at the other end spot; he began his career at Texas. Holdover Julius Forte did a nice job in a reserve role last season and could end up beating out Mims for the starting spot.

That leaves the secondary, which struggled at times last season and is looking for two new starters. Senior CB Kayvon Webster is going to be a three-year starter and is coming off his best season, one in which he had 49 tackles, two interceptions and seven pass breakups. If he builds on that, he will be an all-league performer. Senior SS Jon Lejiste also will be a three-year starter. He is a big hitter who had a slightly disappointing junior season.

The other starting spots will be determined in fall camp. JC transfer Fidel Montgomery looks like a starter at corner, while juniors Mark Joyce and JaQuez Jenkins will battle for the free safety job.

Special teams

K Maikon Bonani and P Justin Brockhaus-Kann are back. Bonani will keep his job, but Brockhaus-Kann risks losing his to redshirt freshman Matias Ciabatti. While Bonani has a strong leg, he struggles from beyond 40 yards (16-of-30 in his career).

Lamar is a dangerous kick returner, and backup WR Victor Marc is a solid punt returner.

In a weird dichotomy, USF was fourth nationally in punt return defense but an abysmal 115th in kickoff coverage.

Schedule

The Bulls have a challenging schedule. They play two non-conference games on the road and both are against non-Big Six schools: Ball State and Nevada. They play Rutgers and Florida State in September, though both are at home. They have tough conference road games against Louisville and Cincinnati. There's also a trip to Miami.

The Sept. 15 game with Rutgers bears watching. The winner stamps itself as a league title contender (though early-season wins by USF, as was discussed earlier, have a way of losing importance).

Overview

With West Virginia's departure to the Big 12, the Big East race appears wide open. USF certainly has the talent to contend for the title, but will the Bulls finally develop some consistency?

Daniels should be one of the league's top two quarterbacks, but he needs some help from his tailbacks. The defense should be fine, especially if the secondary comes together early in the season.

While last season was a huge disappointment, this edition of the Bulls looks primed to win eight games and contend for the league championship.

The recruiting side

Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 51st nationally
The buzz: USF signed a 20-player group that was the No. 49 overall class in the nation. Two in-state prospects stood out: four-star WR D'Vario Montgomery and four-star TE Sean Price. Both are members of the Rivals250. The focus on Florida is evident, as 11 of the Bulls' top 12 signees came from the Sunshine State. – Chris Nee, Rivals.com

Breakthrough player

WR Andre Davis. Davis, a Tampa native, is line for a starting spot this season after having a breakout spring. Davis, a former three-star recruit, showed his ability to make plays as a freshman, recording 22 catches for 257 yards in 11 games. Offensive coordinator Todd Fitch has praised Davis from a physical standpoint, as Davis has added more strength and physicality. If Davis can stay healthy, he has a good chance to be USF's best receiver this season. – Phil Neary, USF BullsEye.com

For more on USF throughout the season, check out USFBullsEye.com

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