TAMPA — On paper, it looked like a recipe for disaster. Late last season, the University of South Florida Bulls employed four true freshmen in the secondary. And the opponent was UCF, featuring quarterback Blake Bortles, who would become the NFL draft's No. 3 overall pick.
The Bulls not only survived, they thrived. They collected two interceptions and gave a good account of themselves before eventually falling to the Knights, 23-20.
“I think we felt very comfortable out there,'' said Bulls sophomore safety Nate Godwin, a former Freedom High standout who disdained an offer from Minnesota to sign with hometown USF.
USF's secondary should be one of the team's strongest components. Last season, it helped the Bulls to a No. 21 overall defensive ranking in the Football Bowl Subdivision. If everyone stays healthy and together, it could be nationally recognized in 2015.
“I like our guys,'' Bulls secondary coach Ron Cooper said.
For good reason.
The freshmen-turned-sophomores are Godwin and fellow safety Hassan Childs, plus cornerbacks Johnny Ward and Lamar Robbins.
They are complemented by senior cornerback Torrel Saffold and junior safety Jamie Byrd of Pasco High, a hard-hitting junior-college transfer who has been dubbed “Angry Byrd'' by teammates.
“(Byrd) has brought some maturity,'' Cooper said. “He will tackle. He will hit. In the secondary, if you can add somebody who receivers and quarterbacks fear a little bit, if they say, 'Hey, you know what, he'll hit us,' then it adds a little more to it.''
Otherwise, it will be a sophomore-dominated unit.
“I think we're really communicating well,'' Ward said. “It's exciting to think we have three more seasons together.''
“Most freshmen would be nervous or shook up when they get into the game,'' Childs said. “I think last season we were just excited. I think we couldn't believe it when we were all in the game at the same time, but we weren't scared. We were eager to show what we could do.''
“Last season, there was a need for us to play and we did a good job,'' Robbins said. “Now it's like it's our team. We can be the face of the program. We're here to stay.''
Last season, six of USF's 11 defensive interceptions were by freshmen, including a team-leading three by Childs. Godwin had 49 tackles, ranking fourth on the team, and a 75-yard touchdown return of a blocked field goal against Cincinnati.
Cooper wants his players to continue carving out a strong identity instead of being satisfied with their successful indoctrination into college football.
“They are still learning,'' Cooper said. “I want them to play well as a unit, but I want them to keep the biggest focus on the team. In order for us to be successful, we have to hold up our end of the bargain.
“Playing in the secondary is hard. You've got to be a little different. You've got to understand that you're going to get beat. The ones who become great are the ones who know how to forget about getting beat and not let that follow them to the next play. You've got to have a short memory.''
Godwin said he and his teammates are determined to play even more effectively.
“I think we all play with great enthusiasm,'' Godwin said. “We know we have a great opportunity by getting the chance to play so early. We want to make the most of it. I think we will continue to get better and better.''
“We didn't have a good year as a team (finishing 2-10),'' Childs said. “But the experience we got, it's going to pay off. We feel great about that.''