First Look: USF
Despite finishing with a mediocre 4-8 record in head coach Willie Taggert’s second season at the helm, last season served as a stepping-stone for the future of the South Florida football program. The Bulls were just 2-10 in Taggert’s first season and thanks to the top recruiting class in the conference last season, USF looks to be trending up with 13 starters returning. Amidst the wave of returning players, Taggert’s squad returns its five top tacklers from a season ago, including nine of the top 12 overall, and the entirety of its rushing output. While personnel-wise the Bulls return most of its production, the team welcomes a new philosophy predicated on an up-tempo game plan. Whereas the Bulls lined up under center last season, the new-look offense will utilize the shotgun, spread offense that was implemented in the spring. Sophomore running back Marlon Mack asserted himself as one of the fiercest runners in the American Athletic Conference last year and was named the conference Freshman-of-the-Year. His return spells bad news for opposing defenses and he brings with him 1,041 yards and an AAC-best nine touchdowns from last season. The new offense, while likely operating at a similar pace as the East Carolina offense, will seemingly serve as a polar opposite, centering on the rushing attack of Mack and junior Darius Tice. The transfer of last season’s starting quarterback Mike White also puts more pressure on Mack and the rushing game. Senior signal caller Steven Bench and sophomore Quinton Flowers have spent the spring and summer battling it out for the top spot. With just four starts between the two, experience doesn’t seem like a large factor. Rather, whichever quarterback can better utilize the read-option rushing attack will likely be named the starter for the opening game against Florida A&M. The most turnover came on the offensive line where USF is tasked with replacing three starters from last season. Senior guards Thor Jozwiak and Brynjar Gudmundsson are the two returning starters and have 37 career starts between them. Center Austin Reiter is the biggest loss on the line. The now-graduated center was a two-time Rimington Trophy finalist. Reiter was a three-year starter and the emergence of a new center will mark the end of an era at USF. The aforementioned return of nearly all of the Bulls’ defensive production bodes well for a team trying to transition into a new offensive look. Junior linebacker Nigel Harris, much like Mack, was a standout last year and set the USF record with six forced fumbles, leading the nation in that category. He also led the Bulls with 10.5 tackles for a loss. In the Bulls 4-2-5 defensive alignment, Harris is relied on to prevent big plays in the middle of the field. USF’s experienced secondary features a junior-trio of defenders that will likely make life hard on opposing passing attacks. Safeties Jamie Byrd and Nate Godwin ranked first and third on the team respectively last season in tackles. With 167 tackles between the two, it makes the USF secondary a strong point on an already-strong defense. Cornerback Johnny Ward is also returning for USF and had a breakout game against ECU last year, recording seven tackles and an interception in the Bulls’ 28-17 loss. On the defensive line, the Bulls will see an influx of linebackers lining up on the line and natural defensive linemen with their hands in the dirt. Defensive tackle Derrick Calloway and end Eric Lee are likely mainstays on the four-man line. Calloway notched 30 tackles and three sacks and has 18 career games under his belt, including his four-tackle, one-sack performance against the Pirates last year. Eric Lee, thanks to an added 15 pounds to his already hulking frame, has 7.5 career tackles for a loss in 34 games. ECU’s Nov. 7 matchup with the Bulls will come directly before its first bye-week of the season before the Pirates round out their season against Central Florida and Cincinnati, two of the conference’s best.
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