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Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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For USF, Georgia becoming strategic target

TAMPA — You've heard of the Georgia Bulldogs.

Meet the Georgia Bulls.

Once, the University of South Florida's football program was essentially the exclusive domain of players from Florida. Coaches bragged about recruiting on a tank of gas, while augmenting it with trips to Miami, Orlando, Jacksonville and the Panhandle.

But if you examine USF's roster now, you'll spot 12 players from Georgia. And many of them are key contributors.

“We joke around and say pretty soon this isn't going to be a Florida team, it's going to be a Georgia team,'' said USF middle linebacker DeDe Lattimore, who grew up five minutes from the University of Georgia's campus in Athens, Ga. “We're taking over.''

That's a slight exaggeration. Then again, in Saturday's game against the Miami Hurricanes, USF's lineup featured five starters from Georgia — quarterback Steven Bench, offensive guard Dominique Threatt, linebackers Lattimore and Reshard Cliett and cornerback Kenneth Durden.

Obviously, with USF football at an 0-4 nadir heading into Saturday night's American Athletic Conference opener against the Cincinnati Bearcats, Bulls coach Willie Taggart is charged with improving the program's talent level. He will largely get that done with Florida players. But Georgia's high schools remain a strategic target.

“Ever since I've been recruiting, I've been involved with the state of Georgia,'' Taggart said. “It's really, really good football. You can talk about Florida or Texas or California — and there are certainly great players there — but Georgia is right up there with the best of them.

“If there are good players in Georgia who can help us win football games, we'll go there or anywhere else. But Georgia has a nice proximity to our program and we have some Georgia guys who are doing big things for us right now.''

It might seem odd. Can you grow up with dreams of becoming a Bulldog, then enjoy life as a Bull?

“I grew up 30 minutes north of Tallahassee and both of my parents went to FSU, so I had more ties there,'' said Bench, from Bainbridge, Ga., who played his senior prep season with the Cairo High Syrupmakers. “But whether you like them or not, they're a powerful force in the state. And if that Georgia offer comes in, well, it's a big, big deal.

“It's a personal preference. Obviously, you want to win your state, so USF will always be going for the Florida players. But Georgia is a nice drive away. It's great football. I'm hoping USF will be able to get its share.''

Lattimore, who counts former Georgia defensive lineman David Pollock as his all-time favorite player and witnessed a dozen or so games “between the hedges,'' knew he wanted to leave Athens and probably play out of state. USF had plenty of appeal.

“I knew that they had beaten some big-time teams and I know about palm trees and beaches,'' Lattimore said. “It was a different world from the one I was used to.''

Durden, who attended Valdosta Lowndes County High, where the stadium is a familiar landmark along Interstate 75, liked the proximity and the chance to establish his own identity. He first heard about USF in 2009, when the B.J. Daniels-led Bulls upset the Florida State Seminoles in Tallahassee.

“It looked like a program that was going places,'' Durden said. “I thought I could fit in.''

For Lattimore and Durden, though, there was an initial culture shock. The food was different. There was a wider variety of racial and ethnic groups. And they were forced to defend their brand of football.

“The people here think Georgia players are slow, whereas we always think the Florida players are nothing but speed,'' Lattimore said. “Georgia is more of a downhill running style, where Florida wants to spread you out.

“They think we're country — country strong. They think we have Atlanta and the rest of the state is just out in the country. It's totally not like that. That's like saying Florida has Miami and everything else doesn't matter.''

USF's Georgia players constantly debate on which football area is best — north Georgia or south Georgia. But they agree both areas can compete favorably with the best Florida high schools.

“Everybody is going to brag on their home state,'' Durden said. “But Georgia shouldn't take a back seat to anybody. Georgia players are everywhere.''

Including USF, which benefits from their considerable impact.

“I've been here so long, I think of Tampa as home,'' Lattimore said. “But when I'm older, I'd love to move back to Georgia. That's my real home.''

“You never forget where you came from,'' Durden said.

They still watch the Dawgs — but only from afar. Now they are Bulls.

“I'm glad to be here,'' Cliett said. “I don't think it's that crazy. I think USF is going to keep getting the Georgia players. We're making a little name for ourselves.''

The Georgia Bulls.

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