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USF Bulls

Humbled Bulls going back to basics

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 01:51 PM
MUNCIE, Ind. -

Properly humbled, the University of South Florida Bulls hope for a return to basics in today's non-conference game at Ball State.

The emphasis: Blocking and tackling.

Especially blocking.

Last week, in a 23-13 loss against Rutgers to open the Big East Conference season, USF's running game was reduced to a rumor. Senior quarterback B.J. Daniels wasn't sacked, mostly due to his elusiveness, but absorbed plenty of body blows.

"Our offensive line didn't play very well as a group,'' Bulls coach Skip Holtz said.

Slight understatement.

Holtz said the line's young players might have been overmatched by the occasion – national television, bright lights, big game, aggressive defensive front – so he is studying some personnel changes.

Meantime, the line is eager for atonement.

"Rutgers had a lot of movement, a lot of blitzing, and I don't think we handled it maturely,'' said USF senior Mark Popek, who started the first three games at left guard, but might shift back to his natural position, left tackle, where he has 21 career starts. "I just don't think we were mentally focused enough to do well and it was pretty apparent.''

"We were just out there chasing ghosts,'' Bulls senior right guard Danous Estenor said. "We didn't really stick to the fundamentals of the game. We just turned into individuals out there.''

Steve Shankweiler, USF's offensive-line coach, assumed the blame.

"We've got to get better and I've got to do a better job of coaching,'' Shankweiler said. "I think everybody goes through a learning curve at some point, especially the young guys, but that's my fault. You know it's going to happen, but you're not sure when it will happen. I needed to have them better ready to play.

"Look, they don't feel good about the way they played. There's a sense of urgency about trying to get that feeling out of their gut. We'll perform better.''

In order to get their five best linemen in the starting lineup, USF made what looked to be an unorthodox move in August, shifting Popek (6-foot-7, 299 pounds) from tackle to guard, allowing promising sophomore Darrell Williams to claim left tackle, while sending senior Damien Edwards into a reserve role.

Shankweiler said it gave the line more flexibility and depth. It provided some good news for the future with three sophomores in the starting lineup – Williams, center Austin Reiter and right tackle Quinterrius Eatmon.

But at least in the short term, it hasn't worked as well as expected.

"There were some concerns that were brought up,'' Holtz said. "Is everybody ready for this level?

"Physically, we didn't have a breakdown that gave up pressure. We had some confusion that gave up pressure. I'd much rather be in that boat because the only way you're going to eliminate (physical breakdowns) is recruiting and that takes longer to fix. If it's mental, you can fix that by … straightening some things out, staying within the system. Do your job. Work the fundamentals.''

So far, USF's defense has endured fundamental problems of its own. The Bulls surrendered 549 yards and 30 first downs at Nevada. USF gave up 150 yards in the fourth quarter against Rutgers, including a 46-yard pass on a busted assignment and a 41-yard touchdown run on a missed open-field tackle.

Now you can add offensive inefficiency to the list.

"Somebody once told me that you teach to the slowest student,'' Holtz said. "You can't teach to the fastest student. He gets it. As a football team, you're only as strong as your weakest link.

"If you have four offensive linemen playing well and one guy who's confused, then it's going to be a long day. We had a couple of them who were confused. That's on us (as coaches).''

And now it's on them to get it fixed.


jjohnston@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7353 Twitter: JJohnstonTrib

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