The USF Bulls are in Vero Beach at their annual camp. Sports writer Laurel Pfahler is with the Treasure Coast Newspaper Groups - and filed this report.
VERO BEACH -- Despite seeing a significant drop in turnovers created last year, the University of South Florida defense has set some lofty goals for 2013.
The Bulls are aiming to break a 43-year-old NCAA record by surpassing the 57 takeaways Tennessee recorded in 1970.
USF caused 34 turnovers in 2011 but finished with just nine takeaways last year. However, the defense has shown the intensity it will need to reach its goals this week during an eight-day preseason camp at Vero Beach Sports Village , formerly known as Dodgertown.
"We're trying to get 58, so that's on my mind all the time," said redshirt junior linebacker Reshard Cliett, who was all over the place during a surprise 4 a.m. scrimmage Wednesday. "I'm trying to work on breaking on the ball so I can get interceptions, and if the ball hits the ground, I'm trying to jump on it."
Bulls first-year coach Willie Taggart said the team is well aware of its shortcomings last year and already showing improvement on the defensive side of the ball.
USF tied for last place out of 120 Division I-A programs in three key categories: interceptions (two), total take-aways (nine) and turnover margin (minus-19).
"We want the ball," Taggart said. "We say on defense we don't only want to tackle them, we want to take that ball away too. ... Unfortunately for the offense, the defense has been doing that every practice, but it's been a good thing for us. It's something we are preaching to our guys."
"There's not a lot of tipped balls or dropped balls by the DBs anymore, they are catching the ball and making plays for us, and we need that," Taggart added. "They understand that and where we were before. Everyone wants turnovers, but we're preaching it and they're doing it."
Taggart said several players have stood out this preseason, but Thursday, he singled out the play of defensive backs Brandon Salinas and Fidel Montgomery and defensive linemen Eric Lee and Aaron Lynch this week.
Also Aiming High
Taggart's West Coast offense relies on a power running game and tends to favor the tight ends, but wide receiver Andre Davis still expects to be a central part of the Bulls' attack this season.
Davis said he wants to become the program's first 1,000-yard receiver.
The junior Tampa native led the Bulls with 46 catches for 534 yards last year, 172 yards short of tying the USF record.
"We have an expectation to be one of the top 10 offenses in the nation, and I hope to be a big part of that," Davis said. "We just want to go out and play hard. Coach Taggart runs a power-style offense, so we have to go out and be physical and make it happen."
Quarterback Battle Unsettled
Taggart said the quarterback battle is no more clear than it was before camp started -- with four players competing for the job.
Senior Bobby Eveld and redshirt sophomore Matt Floyd lead the competition, but sophomore Steven Bench, a Penn State transfer, and incoming freshman Mike White also are in the mix to replace graduated starter B.J. Daniels, who threw for 2,075 yards and 14 touchdowns last year.
"They are still competing," Taggart said. "Every day, those guys are doing something well, but every day, they're doing something bad, too. It's kind of up and down. One day, a guy will throw a touchdown, but he'll also throw an interception and for us, we can't allow interceptions."
Taggart said Floyd is the more athletic player between him and Eveld, but Eveld has a better understanding of the offense.
The main thing, Taggart said, though, is that his quarterback show leadership and consistency.
"Those are the key components we are looking for in training camp, and I can't say anyone has taken the lead from that standpoint," Taggart said. "We'll continue to let this week play out and see how it goes."
Taking It To A New Level
The Bulls weren't expecting to wake up to the sounds of music blaring, horns blasting and fists pounding on windows at 3 a.m. Wednesday for a three-hour scrimmage, but Taggart was pleasantly surprised with how they performed.
Taggart said it was "by far the best football practice" the team has had since his arrival at USF, and the Bulls "got big-time better."
Returning to the field Thursday, Taggart said it was important to continue to see that same intensity as the Bulls approach the season.