TAMPA – When the 2009 football recruiting class arrived at the University of South Florida, the quarterback was record-setting Matt Grothe. The All-America defensive end was George Selvie. National rankings were expected. Bowl games were a given.
During his redshirt season, LB DeDe Lattimore quietly raised the bar in conversations with his first-year teammates.
“We said we were going to be the best class USF ever had,'' Lattimore said.
It hasn't worked out that way.
The Bulls (2-9, 2-5 American Athletic Conference) will complete their third consecutive bowl-less losing season Saturday night at Rutgers (5-6, 2-5). The latest bad news came Tuesday when senior DBs Mark Joyce and JaQuez Jenkins were dismissed for what coach Willie Taggart called a violation of team rules.
Now there are just nine players remaining who were recruited by coach Jim Leavitt, the program's patriarch — Lattimore, FB Ryan Eppes, DE Julius Forte, DE Ryne Giddins, DL Anthony Hill, WR Derrick Hopkins, OL Steven Jacques, DT Luke Sager and DL Demi Thompson.
Call them the survivors.
“It hasn't been easy, but we never packed it in,'' Lattimore said. “We're still here.''
They have worked under three head coaches — two of whom were fired — and four defensive coordinators.
They have started a season 5-0. They have combined for four conference victories in their last three seasons.
They have beaten Clemson and Notre Dame. They have been defeated by McNeese State and Florida Atlantic.
“I can't really blame people (for criticizing the team), because we haven't gotten it done,'' Sager said. “At the same time, nobody really knows how hard it is to lose like we have. We have a losing record, but we're not losers.
“We've yet to put a whole game together. Do we have the ability to be a national contender? Probably not. But did we have the ability to have a positive season and get to a bowl game? Absolutely. That's the disappointment. Now I just want to win. After all we've seen and all we've done, winning the last game would be a memory for us to have the rest of our lives.''
It was fun to see Bulls mingling with Knights — in a tremendous on-campus atmosphere — before Friday night's game at UCF. The game was pure entertainment, as the BCS bowl-hopeful Knights edged the Bulls 23-20. And you could see how this game will quickly become one of the AAC's showcase events.
For the most part, it was perfect. But it was disheartening to hear that someone slashed the tires on the car of USF athletic director Doug Woolard, who parked near the UCF training facility. As Woolard said, whether the incident was random or targeted, it's hoped that the culprit is apprehended and prosecuted because these things have no place in an otherwise promising rivalry.
UCF responded with class. A courtesy car was provided for Woolard's trip home. UCF athletic director Todd Stansbury personally delivered Woolard's car to Tampa on Saturday morning.
“We always encourage good sportsmanship and responsible behavior, and this was neither,'' Stansbury said.
Ominous sign for USF football going to Rutgers: The Bulls have dropped five consecutive regular-season finales and are 3-9 overall in December (all three victories came in bowl games). … For the seventh time, USF volleyball has a conference Player of the Year. Tuesday, Bulls sophomore Erin Fairs received that honor from the AAC. Other USF volleyball players of the year: Belinda Spivey (1986, Sun Belt); Erica Berggren (1995 and 1996, Conference USA); Paula Araujo (1997, C-USA); and Michelle Collier (2000 and 2002, C-USA). … Men's basketball hosts Alabama on Saturday night. The Bulls are 8-36 all-time against SEC teams. USF hasn't faced Alabama since Dec. 9, 1971 — its third game ever — when the Crimson Tide prevailed 123-97.