Snake and Father Ben form talented trio

By Mike Medina  |   Wednesday, March 29, 2006  |  Comments( 0 )

South Florida Bulls
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By Joe Starkey; Special to ESPN.com

Which feels better -- blasting a seven-point buck or belting a five-star back?

"That's a tough one," says University of South Florida middle linebacker Ben Moffitt, who has experienced both. "I love the feeling of making a good goal-line stand. But, I don't know, shooting a buck kind of lasts a little bit longer."

Big Mr. Moffitt plans to give lots of ball carriers that deer-in-the-headlights look this season. He anchors coach Jim Leavitt's 4-3 defense and represents a third of what promises to be a dynamic linebacking crew, one that returns intact for a second straight season.

It might be the best in the Big East.

On Moffitt's left is an NFL-caliber pass rusher in Stephen Nicholas. On his right is hard-hitting Patrick St. Louis. The three native Floridians recently gathered for a group phone interview -- and they weren't shy about answering questions such as, "Who's the best team in the Big East?"

"I mean, we are," Nicholas said. "We are. I always feel we're the best team."

OK, who has the best linebackers?

"The South Florida Bulls," St. Louis said. "The University of South Florida Bulls."

That remains to be seen, as the Big East is stocked with quality linebackers. But this much is certain: Nobody has 'backers with better nicknames.

St. Louis goes by "Bullet Head."

"Stephen Nicholas says my head is shaped like a bullet," St. Louis said.

Nicholas has been called "Snake" since his freshman year when linebackers coach Wally Burnham noticed how easily he eluded blockers in drills.

"He said, 'You just wiggle back through there, don't you?'" Nicholas said. "Then [ex-teammate] Maurice Jones started saying it, and then it got real big and here I am: Snake."

Moffitt goes by "Father Ben," because he is married with two children: son Trevor, 3, and daughter Rylan, 1.

"I was married in high school at 17 and had my first kid at 18," Moffitt says when asked what it's like to be a father. "I've gotten used to it. It's part of your life. Other people work and have kids."

St. Louis and Nicholas are seniors, while Moffitt is a redshirt junior. The three rolled up 265 tackles and 12½ sacks last season, helping USF to finish third in the Big East in total defense in its first year in the league. Moffitt was third in the conference in tackles, St. Louis seventh and Nicholas 14th. Nicholas and Moffitt combined for 30½ tackles for loss last season, and Nicholas registered seven sacks.

Stylewise, they are quite different. Nicholas (6-foot-3, 225 pounds) is the stud, edge rusher. He was ready to leave for the NFL this spring until he was told he'd likely be chosen around the fourth round.

"I'm not a fourth-round pick," he says.

It's hard to miss Nicholas. He plays with white socks pulled to his knees and usually spends a lot of quality time with the quarterback.

"If he's not one of the better linebackers in the country this season, I'll be shocked," Leavitt said. "There's not a real weakness there."

St. Louis recounted an amazing play Nicholas made last season, against UConn, when he was cut by a running back but crawled on all fours to sack the quarterback.

"Stephen Nicholas crabbed all the way there," St. Louis said.

The 6-1, 220-pound St. Louis is the heavy hitter. Moffitt calls him a "heat-seeking missile." St. Louis made a game-changing hit against Louisville last season, forcing a Michael Bush fumble in South Florida's 45-14 romp.

"I tell him all the time, 'Hey, make something happen!'" Nicholas said. "Well, he met [Bush] in the hole and hit him there. That got me real excited. I liked that."

Moffitt (6-2, 235) calls the signals and blows up running plays. He's always around the ball. All three of them are. It has become a competition to see who gets there first, though it'll be a bigger challenge this year because some quality defensive linemen -- the guys who tie up blockers -- have graduated.

Moffitt forced four fumbles last season. He brings serious pop to the line of scrimmage. You might even say he brings the wood, seeing as his body is sculpted from years of moving trees.

"My father has a tree business," Moffitt said. "I've grown up with cutting trees and tree removal and all that stuff. It's pretty hard work, very physical work."

All that strength transferred to the weight room, where Moffitt set a record for the school's linebackers, squatting 10 repetitions of 480 pounds. He has tied the clean-and-jerk record of 365 pounds and now is shooting for 370.

"I had it on my shoulder and missed it," he said. "I'm going to get it one day."

Father Ben acknowledges that he, Bullet Head and Snake have different styles. But, he says, "I think we're a lot alike in some of the stuff we do."

Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
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