Behind Enemy Lines: South Florida

Fresh off its 52-7 victory against James Madison, Maryland (1-0) will take on South Florida (1-0) at Raymond James Stadium (Tampa, Fla.) Sept. 6 at 3:30 p.m. In order to gain more insight into the Bulls, who are coming off a 36-31 victory against Western Carolina, we spoke to USFNation.com beat writer Corey Bender.

Fresh off its 52-7 victory against James Madison, Maryland (1-0) will take on South Florida (1-0) at Raymond James Stadium (Tampa, Fla.) Sept. 6 at 3:30 p.m. In order to gain more insight into the Bulls, who are coming off a 36-31 victory against Western Carolina, we spoke to USFNation.com beat writer Corey Bender.

Terrapin Times: OK, so this is Year Two under head coach Willie Taggart. I know USF went 2-10 last year, but how has that transition been going from the Skip Holtz era to the Taggart era?

Corey Bender: You see the most strides right now with recruiting. [USF] only went 2-10 in [Taggart’s] first year, but when you look at it, when [Taggart] came in, there was such a lack of talent across the entire roster. And last year he had a really, really good recruiting class, and it was one of the best -- if not the best -- in the entire AAC. That’s really impressive when you consider USF was coming off the year they did.

And a lot of times, you’ll see a kid commit to a school like South Florida, then decommit down the road when a bigger school come calling, but last year that didn’t happen. South Florida actually beat out a lot of big schools for some really good prospects. And those [prospects] are playing over a lot of the veterans now. Taggart has played like 12 freshmen regularly, because they are the most talented guys on the roster.

They’ve got a sophomore, Mike White, starting at quarterback now, but they have a true freshman, Quinton Flowers, who was a four-star coming out of high school that everyone is high on, though he’s still developing as a pure passing quarterback. Last year USF was one of the worst teams in college football passing the ball, and they played four different quarterbacks. But, like I said, they have Flowers coming up, and White is the starter now, and he was a big get two years ago. Taggart actually just got the [head coaching] job a couple weeks before Signing Day in 2013, and he was able to convince White to sign. Now, White struggled last week against Western Carolina, but he has some good tools.

USF also flipped its defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4, so Taggart went out and signed like five linebackers last year, and a lot of those guys are seeing time. They’ve got a lot of young linebacker talent on the roster that’s still developing.

And overall, I think USF does have a solid team, and they’re doing really well in recruiting, but it’s just they’re playing a lot of young guys. It’s going to take a year or so to get everyone clicking. Mainly, with some of these [younger] players, is they’re making mental mistakes, and Taggart said after the Western Carolina game it’s something they need to cut down on. That’s going to come in time, though. I think the guys are buying into Taggart and what he’s about, it’s just going to take a little time.

TT: What happened last week? I know USF was like a four-touchdown favorite against Western Carolina, though only managed to beat them 36-31. What was the deal there?

CB: If you look at it, Western Carolina is considered one of the worst teams in Division I-AA; they’ve won only around four times in their last 30-something games. So, yeah, it was a concern across the board. Now you’ve got a team like Maryland coming in, from the Big Ten, and people are kind of wondering what [the Terps] are going to do to [USF].

One problem [against Western Carolina] is the passing game just wasn’t there. Mike White looked really nervous and uneasy in the first half, and they have to hope he gets better. And again, some of the younger guys made some mental mistakes in coverage with the cornerbacks, and with tackling, and it hurt them. The main thing with these players now is they can’t shoot themselves in the foot with penalties and things like that.

TT: Could there be another quarterback controversy? I know USF cycled through four signal callers last year…

CB: There could be. The thing with Mike White is he was supposed to redshirt last year, but he ended up coming in in Week 6 and throwing for over 300 yards against Houston. Everyone was going crazy after that, and he ended up starting the last four, five games after that and did OK. People just assumed he’d be handed the starting job this year, but the backup, Steven Bench, can do some nice things for you. He came over from Penn State, and he’s a little more of a dual-threat and played well [in fall camp]…. I don’t see there being a controversy against Maryland, but if White struggles again I could see Bench getting some reps for sure.

TT: Tell us about this Marlon Mack kid. He’s a true freshman, and in his first collegiate start he rushes for 275 yards…

CB: The thing with Mack is he wasn’t even supposed to start against Western Carolina; he only got in there because the starting running back [Darius Tice] had a sprain. And [Mack] ends up going off for 275 yards and four touchdowns, setting all kinds of records. He broke the [single-game] AAC rushing record, he broke the school [single-game] rushing record, and he’s one the leading rushers [nationally] right now.

Again, it came against Western Carolina, so I don’t know how much stock you can put into it, but it was an impressive performance. After the game [Taggart] didn’t say Mack would definitely be starting [against Maryland], but after a performance like that you have to start the kid.

The thing is, they have another freshman running back, D’Ernest Johnson, who was even more highly touted that Mack coming out of high school. So I think with those two, Mack and Johnson, the running game is in good hands.

TT: The offensive line gets some credit, right? It looks like that group is much improved from last year when it ranked among the worst in D-I, true?

CB: Overall I’d say the offensive line has struggled a little with pass blocking and they’re OK at run blocking. A lot of people are high on the offensive line because they added a lot of strength and have guys who started a lot of games, but they didn’t do great last year and we’ll see how well they hold up this year. I don’t think you can tell a whole lot after one game against Western Carolina; we have to see how they hold up against teams like Maryland.

TT: How has the transition gone from the 4-3 defense to a 3-4? Has it been relatively smooth or some growing pains?

CB: The transition has been OK; there’s been some mental lapses, which is normal. The thing is a lot of the guys [recruited for the 3-4] just got to USF in the summer, so they’re not really into the thick of things as far as challenging for a starting job yet. Except for maybe Vincent Jackson, who is 6-2, 245, and can play with his hand in the dirt or standing up. He’s the only guy in the two-deep who [they recruited] for the 3-4 and should see the field.

Right now, I think the nose tackles are decent, but at defensive end the starters were still kind of up in the air going into Week 1. That’s a little worrisome that no one has really separated themselves or made that adjustment to the 3-4 end spots yet. They had one guy who would have fit perfectly into that 3-4 defensive end role, but he was ruled academically ineligible and can’t play until next year. They have a couple guys that could do well, but the defensive line is kind of a work in progress right now.

The linebackers aren’t too bad, and they have some young players who should be stepping up when they’re ready. But right now the two safeties are probably the best players on the defense. Jamie Byrd, he’s awesome. He went to Iowa Western for two years then transferred over [to USF], and he’s one of the hardest hitting DBs I’ve seen. He had 11 tackles and a pick against Western Carolina, and he’s a beast in the passing game and running game. And the other safety, Nate Godwin, he’s showed some really good things as well, and he’s only a sophomore.

At cornerback, one of the [starting] spots is still up in the air, and Western Carolina really took advantage of that. Western Carolina is not known as a great offensive team, and they threw for over 300 yards against [the Bulls]. Some of that falls on the defensive line and the pass rush, but the secondary is definitely worrisome. A guy like Stefon Diggs for Maryland, he could torch them.

The other corner is actually Chris Dunkley, a former five-star receiver who is playing corner for the first time since high school. It’s funny with him, though, because he’s a raw athlete but actually looked good against Western Carolina. I was watching him during the game, and I was like, ‘Wow, this guy actually looks like a natural cornerback.’ I mean, he was playing up on [receivers] and staying with them, and he had like two pass breakups. So right now he’s not really the problem [in the secondary].

TT:Any other X-factors Terps fans should know about besides Marlon Mack, Jamie Byrd, Chris Dunkley, Mike White and a few of the others you mentioned?

CB: The wide receiver Andre Davis is one of the best receivers in the conference. He only had one catch last week, but it went for almost 50 yards, and if White can get him the ball he has a lot of ability. [Davis] has a chance to be drafted. The other guy is the tight end Mike McFarland, who was dinged up for the first game and didn’t get on the field. But he was a guy who went to Florida before transferring over, and he’s a talented threat at 6-5, 250. And another receiver, Ryan Adams, transferred from Toledo, and he’s a playmaker as well to watch out for.

There’s a lot of talented players on offense, and the only thing really holding them back has been the quarterback getting them balls the last couple years.

And, really, one of USF's best players right now might be their kicker, Marvin Kloss. He's on the Lou Groza Watch List and hit all three of his field goals last week.

TT:So what does USF have to do to win this game? I would think they would have some things going for them considering they are the home team…

CB: I think the big thing is going to be Mike White executing. They can run the ball, but I don’t think you can just rely on a freshman running back who had one good game against Western Carolina. You need the passing game to pick up some of the slack and have a more well-rounded offense. And USF’s defense has created a lot of turnovers the last couple years, so that will be big for them too. The defense has to force some timely mistakes, and not make as many mental mistakes as they did against Western Carolina.

TT:Maryland opened up as 10 point favorites for this game. How do you think it will go?

CB: I know Maryland will be on the road, but I think [the Terps] win this game by 14 points. I think USF can hang for a little bit, but later in the game, with Maryland’s offensive line going against [the Bulls’] defensive line, I think [the Terps] can wear them down up front. And also [USF’s] offensive line has struggled, and I think Maryland’s defense can take advantage of that.

You see what happened against Western Carolina, a game that was a lot closer than many thought it would be, and you just wonder, ‘Man, what’s Maryland going to do to these guys?’

TT: Last question: What’s the fan base like at South Florida? Is it going to be a raucous crowd?

CB: Well, the thing with USF is they play their home games at Raymond James Stadium, which is about 35 minutes from campus. Usually, for like the openers, it’s really loud and packed, but then last year [USF] went 2-10 and the fans kind of weren’t into it as much, especially after they lost to McNeese State in the opener.

But this year, for the Western Carolina game, it was really loud and the fans were into the team again. In fact, Taggart even talked about how happy he was with the student-section. It was definitely the most live atmosphere I can remember the last couple years.

So I think it actually will be pretty packed for Maryland, especially since it’s a Big Ten team coming in; a BCS school; and with [the Terps] winning their first game pretty convincingly. If Maryland is up big at halftime, the USF fans may start leaving by the third quarter, but if it’s close it should be pretty loud the whole way. I think it will be a good atmosphere.

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