We're starting to figure out what this year's football team is all about, but even after four games, there are a lot of riddles and question marks that are going to be answered in a hurry as conference play begins.
The first question is, how good is the team, exactly? The downside of this year's non-conference schedule is that it meant we wouldn't learn very much about the team until well into October. Almost everyone expected a 3-1 start with a loss to Florida, and that's what we got. But are these the Bulls that sputtered through a ugly win over Western Kentucky? Or are they the team that throttled Stony Brook and FAU, and gave the Gators a scare before emptying a clip of bullets into their own feet? And the extenuating circumstances - injuries, new schemes, maybe working on things in live games like an NFL team would do in preseason. Does that make the team worse, or potentially even better?
I guess the best way to do this is to go position by position, so…
QUARTERBACK - I'm a little concerned here. Not because I don't think B.J. Daniels has it in him to become a more pro-friendly quarterback, but because he hasn't had a really fair shot at proving himself so far. (I know he threw a bunch of interceptions in Gainesville when he broke through the Timmy Chang threshold, but when you have walk-ons and guys converted from other positions and you're throwing against future NFL defenders, you're going to start trying to be a hero and you're going to get picked off.) Getting Sterling Griffin back this week will help, but how much chemistry will they have right away? Will it make the offense more diverse and free up plays and matchups that haven't been available so far? (Have you noticed that nearly every deep shot has been to Dontavia Bogan so far this year? It looks like opposing defenses have.) I understand why a few people are making the "Oh, it's just like Canales' offense!" jokes, but keep in mind that Todd Fitch hasn't had close to his whole arsenal yet.
RUNNING BACK - The best position on the team, quite simply. Although they're pretty similar runners, Mo Plancher and Demetris Murray are becoming quite a one-two punch. I don't remember Plancher ever running quite the way he has before this season -- he's stronger and more elusive than ever. And depending on who you talk to, Murray is either a revelation or having his much-anticipated breakthrough. Bradley Battles and Marcus Shaw haven't had too much playing time yet, but they've had their moments as well. I would feel OK with any of these backs in the game.
WIDE RECEIVER - Huge question mark. The big guns have been missing, of course, but the offense has been so run-heavy the last couple of games that guys like Evan Landi and Stephen Bravo-Brown haven't had a chance to prove they can get on the field when everyone (or nearly everyone) is healthy. Is it because they're not totally ready? Was it so easy to run the ball that they weren't needed? Did they want to save all the good stuff for conference play? We won't know for a little while.
TIGHT END/FULLBACK - As promised, these positions have been shuffled around pretty liberally so far. Most of the impact has been as blockers and at the goal line, but Andreas Shields was pressed into duty as a wide receiver after Dontavia Bogan left the Florida game, and he showed a little bit of promise. Having a 6'6" guy split out wide could be an interesting wrinkle to look for down the road. You could even pair him and T.J. Knowles together at the goal line and -- let's move on, I'm getting all tingly.
OFFENSIVE LINE - The running game's success has been their success as well. They've played well, which you expected out of this experienced unit. I was most impressed by how much of a push they got against the Gators; they legitimately blew them off the ball at times and were a big part of USF's 244-yard rushing effort. Pass protection has been a little shakier, and it will be tested in a big way against teams like Miami and their superior athletes, and blitz-heavy defenses like Rutgers. Daniels can help lower their sack numbers artificially, but the coaches probably don't want him running around that much just to avoid sacks because far worse things can happen.
DEFENSIVE LINE - The run defense has been mostly good. Bottling up Bobby Rainey was a real highlight -- the Hilltoppers' offensive meal ticket came in averaging almost 150 yards per game, but only picked up 64 yards on 21 carries against the Bulls. Really the only time the run defense has struggled was in the late stages of the game against Florida, who had a huge time of possession advantage and a powerful offensive line that few teams can stand up to.
The pass rush had been a different story for the first three weeks, but the whole unit broke through against Florida Atlantic. Six of USF's seven sacks on Saturday night came from defensive linemen, and they harassed Jeff Van Camp even more than that. They could have had at least a dozen sacks if Van Camp hadn't proven to be surprisingly elusive. I want to go back and look at the game again to figure out how they got so much pressure, but regardless of how they did it, the line had a big game. Whether they just had a breakthrough as a unit, or if Mark Snyder found something in the scheme to gin up the pass rush, it needs to continue.
LINEBACKERS - These have been a bit of an enigma so far. Along with the defensive line, they've contributed to USF's good run defense in the first four games. But they've struggled in pass coverage. Holtz specifically mentioned their struggles against Western Kentucky, who sent their receivers into open spots of the zone and had a lot more success throwing the ball than anyone expected. They've also been a little slow at times to pick up backs as receivers and get to their landmarks after play fakes and bootlegs. But they've had some success as well -- Michael Lanaris actually leads the team with two interceptions.
SECONDARY - For a unit that was expected to be a weak link, the defensive backs have done a nice job so far. While it's true that they haven't faced huge passing attacks so far, they've prevented big plays and made a few of their own. The longest pass an opponent has completed this season has been 31 yards, and I think that was one of the early bootleg passes that Stony Brook pulled off. When teams try and go downfield to their receivers, the secondary has been there to snuff it out. (Mistral Raymond has been especially good so far.) Contributions are coming from all over, and not just on defense -- Terrence Mitchell, Quenton Washington, and Chris Lane have all made big special-teams plays.
Speaking of which…
SPECIAL TEAMS - Other than the kicking game, this year's special teams have been quite improved. I'm still not entirely sure how they took such a nosedive at the end of Jim Leavitt's tenure, but as we hoped would happen, Vernon Hargreaves has made a difference. The Bulls already have two touchdowns off blocked punts, Justin Brockhaus-Kann is having a big year punting the ball (even with his injury-affected off night last Saturday), and the return games have stabilized. Holtz finally made the switch from Eric Schwartz (1-for-5 on field goals) to Maikon Bonani last week, and he responded by drilling a 46-yarder right down the middle. Let's hope that Holtz doesn't have to see-saw between the two all year, although it's nice that he has that option.
COACHING - Nothing the coaches have done so far has really bothered me (except for putting Daniels on the hands team against Western Kentucky - WTF). I was initially upset with the passing game against Western Kentucky, but I've come to realize that the coaching staff treats winning as a yes or no question, and not something where impressing people is important. Since this team isn't a BCS title contender by any stretch of the imagination, the only thing that matters at the end of the day is winning games. Even in the Florida game, I thought the coaches had a good game plan, but the Bogan injury and Daniels' wildness throwing the ball unraveled it. I've seen nothing to reduce my confidence in their ability to get their team prepared for the opponents that have given USF fits the last few years.
How are you all feeling so far? You can tell us in the comments, and don't forget to vote in the Bulls Fan Confidence Poll, which is always in the top left corner on the main page of this site.