TAMPA — During a time of transition, when the University of South Florida's 0-2 start has many fans wondering where the offense is headed, junior center Austin Reiter represents a much-needed direction for the Bulls.
He's all about stability.
Last season, outside of special-teams snaps, the Bulls ran 652 plays from scrimmage.
Reiter, a first-year starter, was in for 651 of them.
Midway through the season finale against Pittsburgh, Reiter's helmet was knocked off his head by a defensive lineman. By rule, he had to leave the field for one play.
“I was kind of mad,'' said Reiter, a 6-foot-3, 273-pounder from Bradenton Lakewood Ranch High. “Twelve games in and I've played every snap. It should've been a facemask. I said (to the official), 'You didn't see that facemask, did you?' He's like, '(Number) 78, you've got to come off.'
“It just ticked me off. One play … one play.''
It didn't take first-year coach Willie Taggart long to discover Reiter's dependability.
“Austin has been great,'' Taggart said. “He's one of those kids who bought in from Day One since we got here. He's like, 'Coach, what do you need me to do?' He doesn't complain about anything. He's excited to be out here every day with his teammates and playing football.
“I like the way he communicates with the other guys on the offensive line. We need that. We need him.''
USF's offensive line struggled in Saturday's 21-6 loss at Michigan State. Senior quarterback Bobby Eveld was under siege, twice being pressured into turnovers that were instantly transformed into Spartans touchdowns. The running game had some nice moments — senior Marcus Shaw gained 94 yards against a Michigan State defense that allowed just 11 overall in its opener — but not nearly enough.
Actually, Michigan State might be the best defense USF faces this season, so the results could be relative. But regardless of the opposition, Taggart said he expects more from the offensive line heading into Saturday night's home game against winless Florida Atlantic.
“We couldn't get passes off and we had them batted down,'' Taggart said. “That just can't happen. A big part of it is guys just trusting each other. I thought they were communicating, but they just didn't trust each other. They were playing with too much doubt.
“When we did play like we knew what we were doing, we were able to move on those guys. On the offensive line, those guys have to play with a synergy. I think they're going to play much better.''
It starts with Reiter, who, like most kids, never aspired to become a center during his formative seasons in football.
“I played tight end and fullback,'' Reiter said. “Of course, everybody wants the ball.''
Then he smiled.
“Now I get to touch it on every play.''
Last season, he was replacing the reliable Chaz Hine. Reiter played alongside two guards (Danous Estenor and Mark Popek) who signed NFL free-agent contracts. He drew preseason praise from coaches and pretty soon it became clear that he was a fixture in the lineup. Now he's on the road to serving as a three-year starter.
“Obviously, center is the anchor of the offensive line and it's really good to have a guy like Austin there,'' USF sophomore guard Brynjar Gudmundsson said. “He makes all the calls, recognizes the defenses and tells us what to do.''
“When you have a question, he'll be able to answer it before you have to go to the coach,'' USF senior guard Lawrence Martin said.
Reiter said he learned many of early lessons from his father, Richard, an offensive tackle at the University of Cincinnati and a teammate of Urban Meyer, now the Ohio State coach. After a while, though, Reiter's father became more of an observer, a distant presence who didn't want to interfere with his son's coaches.
“He always told me to take the coaching and never talk back,'' Reiter said.
And that's a characteristic Reiter still lives by.
“He's dealing with a system that's a little different than the one he's used to,'' said USF offensive coordinator Walt Wells, who works specifically with the linemen. “He has to be more of a quarterback out there. He has gotten comfortable with what we're doing and that has allowed him to become more of a leader.
“There's nobody who's going to outwork Austin. Nobody is going to outhustle him or outhit him. He gets after it.''
Reiter loves that part about being a center.
“I get real excited putting people on their backs,'' said Reiter, grinning.
If USF's offensive linemen follow their leader, the transition should be much smoother. He's in the center of it all, setting an example, showing everyone the way.