What began as one of the biggest question marks entering the season has become one of the biggest strengths through the first four games for the University of South Florida football team.
The offensive line, which lost three starters from 2010 and had one of the two returning moved into a new position, has paved the way for a unit ranked 10th nationally in total offense entering Thursday's Big East Conference clash at Pittsburgh.
USF coach Skip Holtz knows the big men up front don't receive a whole lot of praise, but he went out of his way during Monday's news conference to relay how well he believes the group has performed.
"I continually say that if we robbed a bank and didn't want anybody to know who we were we'd become offensive linemen. They sit there with very little exposure, but they're the guys that really make the wheels on the bus go 'round," Holtz said. "They're the guys with their hands taped and the knee braces on and they're down in the trenches winning every day. I think those guys are really playing well."
With both starting tackles from 2010, Jacob Sims and Jamar Bass, and two-time all-conference center Sampson Genus lost to graduation, the Bulls had some big holes to fill. The unit began to round into form coming out of spring practice, with junior Mark Popek and redshirt freshman Quinterrius Eatmon penciled in at the tackle spots and senior Jeremiah Warren at left guard, where he'd started the previous two seasons.
The final tweaks, however, came at the start of fall camp. Senior Chaz Hine, a two-year starter at right guard, slid into the center position and junior Danous Estenor moved up from the backup guard spot, and the moves seem to be paying dividends.
"As the team develops and we get further and further into the season, offensive lines get a chance to be more cohesive and kind of find out more about themselves and learn more about each other so they can work better together," Hine said. "We've just been getting more comfortable with each other in game situations and understanding what's happening and communicating."
The offense has topped 500 yards in each of the past three games, the first time in program history that has been accomplished. That includes a Big East-record 745 yards against Florida A&M and 575 yards in Saturday's win over UTEP.
USF also ranks second in the Big East in scoring offense (45.5 points per game), rushing offense (228.5 yards) and passing offense (294.8 yards), and the line's play is a big reason why.
"They're doing a tremendous job," junior quarterback B.J. Daniels said. "They're doing everything that's asked of them. They're really paving the way for us, through the passing game in the air and on the ground."
Offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler has been impressed with how quickly the unit has come together, and he was impressed with how the group handled the last two opponents, Florida A&M and UTEP. The Rattlers brought an immense amount of pressure, blitzing 77 times in 90 snaps, while the Miners "did some of the most bizarre looking stunts and movement you'll ever see."
Against Pittsburgh, however, Shankweiler is expecting a much more conventional defensive approach.
"They have very good players. They don't have to do bizarre things. They can line up and knock you in the teeth," Shankweiler said of the Panthers. "This will be more of a Notre Dame-looking deal. They're going to be big, strong people that don't try to pretend where they're going to be. They're going to line up there and say, 'Bring it on, let's go.' "
The unit knows there's still work to do, but Warren admits it's good to hear positive comments coming from coaches and fellow players, knowing the group was scrutinized entering the season.
"We take it very personally and very internally because of the fact that we've been told for years the O-line has always been a question mark," Warren said. "What are you going to do now? What are you going to do? Now we're always trying to prove ourselves. We're out to prove ourselves every game, every practice, every play."
So far the line has proven up to the task, and the goal now is continuing to build on the positive momentum built through big offensive games the past few weeks going forward.
"We're getting better every week," Eatmon said. "It's a process. We're a growing team. As long as we continue to get better and better, we should continue to see results like that."
NO. 16 SOUTH FLORIDA AT PITTSBURGH
When: Thursday, 8 p.m.