One of the major question marks for the 2009 University of South Florida is the offensive line. The Bulls lost four seniors and it's one reason they've been largely ignored in preseason polls and predictions. Offensive line coach Mike Simmonds took some time after practice on Monday to talk about his players.
It's 10:30 a.m. on the University of South Florida practice fields. Most of the players are heading for the locker room, seeking sanctuary from the rising Florida sun, which brings another day of searing heat and dripping humidity.
It's 10:45 and the offensive line is still working hard, pushing sleds, large bodies grunting.
The big boys are going overtime. They know that the success or failure of the offense is on their backs, riding on their pads.
They finally break at 10:55 and head inside, sweating from the first practice in full pads.
"They gotta be good," says their position coach, Mike Simmonds, who played four years in the NFL with Tampa Bay and San Diego. "They have to fire on all cylinders on every play if the offense is going to succeed," he said. "They have to perform well on every play to run the ball in the spread offense."
Simmonds expects his group to be good. He's a demanding taskmaster, doesn't settle and puts high expectations on his players.
His potential starters this season are not without experience on the most part and he likes what he sees so far.
Newcomer Jamar Bass has been a pleasant surprise for the Bulls. The junior college transfer has been inserted at the left tackle position and appears ready to play and play well. "He's a great addition," says Simmonds. "Every practice he goes up against an All-American defensive end (George Selvie) and he wins his share. He brings great athletic perspective to the position."
Bass is 6'4", 290, squats 600 pounds but has perhaps the smallest calves anyone has seen on an offensive tackle. Still, his agility and strength have him in the starting slot at the start of camp.
Next to Bass is junior Sampson Genus, a squatty beast at 6'1", 314. "Sampson played nose tackle as a freshman and it's nice to have him back with us," said Simmonds, who has installed Genus at the left guard slot. He can also play center and gives the line some depth. "He plays hard and brings a lot of leadership to the line," says Simmonds.
"Jake Sims (6'5", 285) is a most solid returner," Simmonds continued, "talking about his center. He is versatile, can play other positions on the line. He's dinged up right now but he'll be ready, he'll be just fine."
Zach Hermann, a 6'3", 313-pound junior, is slotted at right guard. He's a two-year starter who missed some games with injuries in 2008 but looks poised for a strong season and Simmonds says he's another player that should emerge as a leader up front.
Biggest lineman is redshirt freshman Mark Popek, a 6'7", 300-pounder from Plant City.
"He sure looks the part," Simmonds says. "He gets better every day and plays with a lot of pride."
Simmonds says that like Popek, the entire offensive line has to get better with each practice. "That's what we're here for. That's what it's all about. They have to do that if we want to win the Big East this year. But right now, we're getting ready for Wofford (season opener) and that's our approach. We'll take them one game at a time."
The offensive line will have three games to gel, as Wofford, Western Kentucky and Charleston Southern figure to be teams that USF should simply overpower from a talent standpoint.
After that it gets tough.
Road trip to Tallahassee on Sept. 26 to face Florida State. That's when Simmonds will find out a lot about his new offensive line.