By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
VERO BEACH - USF fans better stay tuned when an opponent goes three-and-out this season because the Bulls are packed with big play potential in 2012.
USF used much of the early portion of Sunday night's practice working on the return game and fans that braved the rain to catch the session experienced two feelings that they lacked at times in 2011 - relief and excitement.
"We have a chance to be way better than we were a year ago and that's something you look at and say, 'Where can we make the biggest improvement?'" special teams coordinator Vernon Hargreaves said. "That's an area we feel we need to make huge strides."
Improvement in punt returns is a strong possibility now that the Bulls have Terrence Mitchell healthy and more comfortable than he's ever been at the college level. The junior appeared in only four games last season because of an injury and looks ready to resume the role of being a special playmaker.
"He's just gotten more confident in his own ability. I haven't told him anything different other than getting under the ball and getting your feet set," Hargreaves said. "You can see his confidence level is just going through the roof."
USF fans should be happy about the cast behind Mitchell. Andre Davis, Chris Dunkley and Kenneth Durden are getting a lot of good reps a year after USF was searching for answers when Mitchell went down with a head injury.
"We have a lot of guys that have a chance to do it," Hargreaves said. "It's going to be fun to watch and hopefully we can keep T-Rex healthy and let him be that guy. But if for some reason we need to do something else, I think we've got some answers, too."
The go-to guy at kick returner is one fans have gotten a chance to cheer for a lot in the past few years. Lindsey Lamar is back and eager to have a huge year like he did in 2010 when he was named Big East Special Teams Player of the Year. The senior put himself in perhaps the best position he's ever been in to make things happen by bulking up to 180 pounds in the offseason, which has made Hargreaves a very happy man.
"He can really be a dynamic guy back there for us," Hargreaves said. "We worried about him a couple of years ago maybe being a little light. Now he's so much stronger and a little bit heavier, so he really has a chance to be a difference maker."
The Bulls also have a gifted supporting cast with Marcus Shaw, Derrick Hopkins and Dunkley also getting a lot of reps at kick returner. Shaw finished second on the team last year with an average of 28.7 yards per return. Hopkins is known for his blazing speed and fans have been quite eager to see what Dunkley can do with the ball in his hands.
Hargreaves made sure to mention that it's important to have a solid unit paving the way for USF's gifted returners and players that will fill those roles have yet to be determined.
"We're going to take a look at a little bit of everybody," he said. "We're going to watch some film and just kind of see who are the guys that we feel like we can kind of depend on that can go back and really work at it and make their blocks. It's an evaluation process that's going to go on the rest of camp."
Punter is one of the few positions on USF's depth chart that is still really up in the air and the Bulls are making sure their candidates are getting plenty of work with each guy getting 50 to 60 reps per practice.
"These are long days,"Mattias Ciabatti said.
Ciabatti, a redshirt freshman, isn't complaining one bit because of the progress he's continued to make since spring. He also knows he has to perform well if he wants to have an edge on veteran Justin Brockhaus-Kann and Chris Veron by the end of camp.
"In spring, we felt Mattias put himself in a great position. Justin pushed him all during the spring, and so far in camp over the last six or seven days he's pushed him as well," Hargreaves said. "Mattias has done a nice job, but I'm not saying that it's over by any means. He's done a nice job and put himself in a great position."
Quote of the Day
"Camp is surviving. If you can survive without getting injured, then you're good." - Mattias Ciabatti
Bill McGillis -- @USFInsiderBillM
Camp observation: Super impressed with group of GAs @CoachHoltzUSF has surrounded his staff with in 2012. These guys appear 2B outstanding
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