Opponent Preview: South Florida

After throttling James Madison 52-7 Aug. 30, Maryland will trek down to Tampa, Fla., to take on the South Florida Bulls of the AAC Sept. 6. Here's our take on USF:

After throttling James Madison 52-7 Aug. 30, Maryland will trek down to Tampa, Fla., to take on the South Florida Bulls of the AAC Sept. 6. USF is coming off a 36-31 victory against Division I-AA foe Western Carolina, a game that was much closer than anticipated considering the Bulls entered as almost four-touchdown favorites.

In many ways, the result was a 180-degree difference from the Bulls’ 2013 squad, which finished 2-10 and actually lost to a I-AA team in the season opener (McNeese State). USF’s offense ranked 121st out of 123 teams last year, but on Aug. 30 the Bulls rolled up 485 yards and reached the end zone four times thanks to true freshman running back Marlon Mack (275 yards, four scores). And while South Florida featured a top 25 defense in 2013, against Western Carolina the Bulls surrendered 454 yards and allowed the Catamounts to thrash their secondary at times.

Perhaps that wasn’t too surprising since USF did lose all but four defensive starters, and then overhauled the scheme, switching from a gap-control 4-3 to an attacking 3-4 predicated (in theory) on pressure and creating turnovers. Offensively, where USF loves its power-running game and often uses two tight-end sets, the Bulls return all but two starters, so that should give them somewhat of a boost (it’s not like they could get much worse than 121st in the country).

That said, there’s a feeling around the program the Bulls will actually play many of their freshmen and younger players over their veterans, who are currently listed as starters. Why? Because the vets are left over from the Skip Holtz era, and second-year coach Willie Taggart may be inclined to go with “his guys” moving forward. So basically the Bulls may take their lumps now, and in a year or two, when these newcomers will be seasoned sophomores and juniors, they’ll be ready to make a run.

Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of USF after Week 1:

Quarterback

USF cycled through four different signal callers last year, but sophomore Mike White (6-feet-4, 198 pounds) secured the gig and ended up starting five games in 2013. He completed 93-of-175 passes for 1,083 yards and just three touchdowns against nine interceptions.

Taggart said White made plenty of strides during fall camp, though it didn’t exactly show against Western Carolina. White completed just 9 of 26 throws for 181 yards and a pick, and at the end of the game the unfortunately named Steve Bench (Jr., 6-2, 215) replaced him. There doesn’t figure to be a quarterback controversy yet, but based on what the Bulls went through last year, and if White doesn’t improve, it could happen sooner rather than later.

A pocket passer, White has a good arm, but his main criticism is he isn’t particularly adept at reading defenses and suffers through spates of inaccuracy. Mixing up schemes and showing different coverages could give him problems.

Running Backs

Some figured USF would go running-back-by-committee, but after Marlon Mack’s (6-0, 195) Week One performance he might have seized the starting job. Those numbers one more time: 24 carries, 275 yards and four touchdowns, with a long of 62 yards.

Mack was a three-star recruit coming out of Booker High (Sarasota, Fla.), and he combines a power, downhill style with a little shake and solid speed. He’s a load to bring down, and in the open field he’s dangerous because he can make defenders miss and turn on the afterburners when he needs to.

Fellow freshman D’Ernest Johnson (5-11, 189) from Immokalee High (Immokalee, Fla.) was actually a four-star prospect and might be even more talented than Mack. A physical back with 4.5 speed, he had five carries for six yards against USF and figures to get his share of the load this year. Sophomore Darius Tice (5-10, 216) is also in the mix, though he didn’t get a carry last week.

At fullback, redshirt freshman Kennard Swanson (6-0, 253) is listed as the starter ahead of junior Brandon Harris (5-11, 233). While many squads don’t feature their fullbacks, USF likes to play power football, so Swanson’s ability as a lead blocker is important. So far, so good.

Receivers

If White can get these guys the ball, USF has a number of talented upperclassmen wideouts, led by senior Andre Davis (6-1, 207). Davis caught just one pass last week, but it went for 44 yards, the longest reception for USF all day. Davis mans the “X” spot and is considered an outstanding route runner with above average speed. He has a shot to be drafted this May.

At the “Z” position, senior Deonte Welch (6-0, 215) is coming off a three-catch, 33-yard game. He is a new starter this year after pulling in just eight passes for 143 yards in 2013. His listed backup, sophomore Rodney Adams (6-1, 190), also had three catches (for 67 yards) against Western Carolina, and should see ample time. Adams, along with freshman Ryeshene Bronson (6-3, 187), are part of that talented young corps Taggart will be featuring moving forward.

At tight end, junior college transfer Marlon Pope (6-4, 255) made his first career start and hauled in one pass for 10 yards. He is known as a potent blocker who helped his JUCO squad dominate in the running game. Fellow tight end Sean Prince (Jr., 6-3, 250) also started in USF’s two-tight end set, and he pulled down a career-long 32-yard pass last week. Price, a threat as a blocker and receiver, is on the Mackey Award Watch List.

But perhaps the most intriguing tight end is senior Mike McFarland (6-5, 250), who missed the first game with an injury. He's a former Florida Gator who transferred to USF several years ago, and last year he started to break out with 23 receptions for 288 yards. McFarland should have a larger role in 2014 provided he stays healthy.

Offensive Line

After a disappointing 2013, where USF’s line ranked among the worst 20 units in the country, the Bulls looks to have a much-improved front five, helped by the return of junior left guard Thor Jozwiak (6-4, 300), who missed last season with a heart ailment. USF also brought in a new offensive line coach this year, and the feeling is he’s got these guys ready to go.

After Week One, the line undoubtedly gets an “A,” as USF averaged almost nine yards per rush and surrendered not a single sack. Marlon Mack may have stolen the headlines, but when you rush for 275 yards, the big uglies deserve a ton of credit.

Overall, this is a bulky group that averages 311 pounds and has five upperclassmen starters who have had a combined 94 starts. Remember, USF loves to run power, so nimble, fleet-footed linemen who can pull aren’t exactly coveted. Many of these guys actually bulked up in the offseason in an effort to gain even more strength to aid that downhill running game.

The leader up front is senior center Austin Reiter (6-3, 296), a three-year starter who played last season at around 270 pounds. He is considered the “glue guy” who brings the group together. Classmate Darrell Williams (6-5, 307) is a two-year starter at left tackle, while junior Brynjar Gudmundsson (6-4, 305) has started the last two seasons at right tackle. And manning the guard spots are senior Quinterrius Eatmon (6-6, 313), who has more starts than any other Bulls’ lineman, and the aforementioned Thor Jozwiak (6-4, 321). Jozwiak would likely have started last season at left guard if not for his heart condition.

Many of the aforementioned linemen had some struggles last year, so we’ll have to see whether added bulk and a new coach can really raise their level of play. How will they fair against a fleet defense with a bevy of edge rushers? Will the added muscle help them then? It’s a question they might begin to answer next week against Maryland. The consensus right now, though, is the group can run block just fine, but they struggle with pass blocking.

Defensive Line

The Bulls’ defensive line, which generated plenty of pressure in 2013 and ranked among the top 25 units nationally, graduated six key contributors, two of whom are in the NFL (Aaron Lynch and Ryne Giddins). And with so much attrition, USF basically had to switch to a 3-4 since there’s little starting experience or depth. It remains to be seen how well the new guys adapt, but last week they helped hold Western Carolina to just 2.8 yards per rush while recording two of South Florida’s four sacks.

Again, while USF lists its veterans atop the depth chart, expect the youngsters to see ample playing time. For example, sophomore Derrick Calloway (6-2, 285) is the No. 2 defensive tackle behind senior Elkino Watson (6-2, 291), but Calloway is a potential all-conference stud who will frequently rotate in. He had three tackles and a sack against USF, and it may only be a matter of time before he’s elevated to the starting spot. Watson, meanwhile, was a defensive end in the 4-3 and moves to tackle in the new scheme. He had two tackles against Western Carolina.

Next to Calloway and Watson, at nose tackle, is senior Todd Chandler (6-0, 321), a pure plugger and space eater who had one tackle last week. Chandler has a reputation around USF as a weight room junkie, and he’s been known to squat 700 pounds. His backup, though, is redshirt freshman Deadrin Sneat (6-1, 300), who the staff is reportedly high on. Expect both to play when USF hosts Maryland Sept. 6.

At the defensive end spot, junior Eric Lee (6-3, 250) was elevated to the starting role this year, and he ended up recording four tackles last week. The No. 2 guy, junior college transfer Demetrius Hill (6-3, 270), is expected to provide solid depth. He had a sack against Western Carolina, so he’s already left a mark.

Linebackers

USF lost one of the best linebackers in its history in DeDe Lattimore, but it returns two starters in what looks to be a fast unit full of potential playmakers. Last week the South Florida backers produced two sacks and forced a fumble, while chipping in three of the team’s eight tackles for loss.

The two inside backers are short on experience, but the USF staff has offered up plenty of praise for both. Sophomore Nigel Harris (6-0, 220) started last season and had a big game against Western Carolina, recording eight tackles and forcing a fumble. Next to him, inside linebacker Auggie Sanchez (6-2, 241) is only a redshirt freshman, but could be a future star. The talented, instinctive Sanchez, who earned the starting gig over junior LeGrande Harley (6-1, 230), had four tackles in the opener.

On the outside, junior Tashon Whitehurst (6-3, 225) ascended to the starting role after seeing the field mainly on special teams last season. A quick-twitch, fleet-footed rush backer, he responded by racking up four tackles and a sack against Western Carolina. The other outside linebacker is senior Reshard Cliett (6-2, 235), a returning starter who is fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery. Cliett, a steady, dependable defender who is perhaps the squad’s surest tackler, had three stops and a sack last week.

Defensive Backs

This unit could be a season-long concern for USF. The Bulls, who graduated its entire starting secondary, have six underclassmen in the two deep, and one converted wide receiver as well. Although many of these young kids can ball, that’s typically not a recipe for success. And Western Carolina took advantage Aug. 30, as South Florida allowed 374 passing yards and surrendered two touchdowns.

At cornerback, sophomore Johnny Ward (6-0, 178) saw the field a good amount last year, and has the physical tools and field awareness to be a successful starter. Though he’ll make his share of errors, Ward could be special in time, according to reports. He had six tackles and two pass breakups last week.

Next to him, senior Chris Dunkley (6-0, 188) moves over to the defensive side of the ball after playing receiver the last few years. Dunkley had a couple mistakes against Western Carolina, but he made a few plays as well, recording two pass breakups and seven tackles. Senior Torrel Saffold was supposed to be the starter at corner, but the speedy Dunkley evidently beat him out during fall camp. In fact, Saffold isn’t even listed on the two-deep, as USF elected to go with talented sophomore Lamar Robbins (6-2, 200) and true freshman Deatrick Nichols (5-10, 186) as the top backups. Expect Robbins, who was given starter’s consideration, to get on the field a lot during nickel situations.

At safety, junior college transfer Jamie Byrd is considered a hard-hitting thumper with enough speed and awareness to hang in coverage as well. He certainly had a memorable debut, recording a team-high 11 tackles, a sack, an interception and pass breakup.

Sophomore Nate Godwin (5-10, 202) mans the second safety spot, and he’s yet another Taggart favorite. Godwin rotated in as a true freshman and displayed a knack for making plays. Much is expected of him now that he’s a full-time starter; he had six stops against Western Carolina.

Specialists

The Bulls boast a productive special teams unit, headlined by Lou Groza Award Watch List kicker Marvin Kloss. The senior booter is considered one of the best at his craft, and against Western Carolina he converted all three of his field goal attempts from 26, 33 and 47 yards, respectively.

Junior punter Mattias Ciabatti, meanwhile, is a returning starter who averaged 40 yards per boot last season, ranking eighth in the AAC. He had three punts last week and averaged 47.3 yards, including one 50 yarder and placing one inside the 20-yard line.

The main return man is Chris Dunkley, who has game-breaking potential. Last week Dunkley returned one punt for 24 yards, and took two kickoffs back, with a long of 41 yards.

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