USA Today

Team Preview: South Florida Bulls

After a 48-27 loss against Bowling Green Sept. 12 to move to 1-1, the Terps will play host to yet another out-of-conference foe Sept. 19. Maryland knocked off South Florida, 24-17, last season in Tampa, Fla., and a year later the Bulls will attempt to turn the tables in College Park, Md., during a noon bout.

 

After a 48-27 loss against Bowling Green Sept. 12 to move to 1-1, the Terps will play host to yet another out-of-conference foe Sept. 19. Maryland knocked off South Florida, 24-17, last season in Tampa, Fla., and a year later the Bulls will attempt to turn the tables in College Park, Md., during a noon bout.

As expected, USF handled Florida A&M in Week 1, 51-3, but suffered a 34-14 defeat at Florida State last week. The folks in Tampa, however, are viewing the Maryland game as a barometer for where this South Florida team stands heading into their American Athletic Conference schedule.

In reality, the Bulls aren’t nearly as potent as the FAMU beatdown would suggest, but they’re much more effective than a 20-point loss at FSU would indicate.

The feeling around the program is this is a solid if not spectacular squad that has a chance to contend for an AAC title in head coach Willie Taggart’s third year. Fact is, Taggart now has all “his guys” in place, and fans are expecting the program to take the next step.

Offense

Much like Maryland saw with Richmond in Week One, USF is in the process of transitioning from a pro-style set to an up-tempo spread. Taggart may have preferred the traditional pro-style, but after two years of fits and starts, he apparently realized he was trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Thus, the Bulls have two new offensive coordinators in place, David Reaves (passing game coordinator) and Danny Hope (running game coordinator), entrusted with devising a quick-strike, no-huddle attack that’s also efficient and balanced. Their job is to take advantage of a glut of fleet-footed, slippery playmakers, who can hit the home run and create yards in the open field.

Now, the Bulls’ spread isn’t going to rattle off 105 plays like Bowling Green did against Maryland, but it’s still an up-tempo attack predicated on short passes designed to get the running backs and receivers the ball in space. Ideally, USF likes to have an even 50-50 run-pass balance, although sometimes the opponent will dictate the split.

Most of the time, South Florida will spread the defense out, employing four -- and sometimes five -- wide receivers and a single back. They’ll also use tight end packages in certain situations (third downs, in the red zone), and once in awhile they’ll move into a pro-set (typically when the backup quarterback enters the game).

So far . . . and mostly so good. Despite the defeat in Tallahassee, Fla., the Bulls have racked up an average of 415 total yards and 33 points through two weeks. They’ve only converting 19 percent of third downs, but have scored five touchdowns on eight red-zone opportunities and have just two turnovers.

Quarterbacks

Last year, USF could’ve served as the poster-child for quarterback controversies. Starting in Week 4, Taggart, sometimes on a whim, started either Mike White or Quinton Flowers (So., 6-0, 210), with little indication who would get the nod heading into game day. The result? Neither signal caller felt comfortable or was able to establish a rapport/rhythm with the offense.

But White ended up transferring to Western Kentucky after 2014, leaving Flowers to take the reigns. Through two games, the dual-threat sophomore has been OK, completing 24 passes on 40 attempts for 265 yards and four touchdowns, against two interceptions. He’s added in 101 rushing yards on 21 carries.

Quick on his feet and ridiculously elusive, Flowers is a former Miami track star whose speed readily translates to the gridiron. USF will let Flowers run wild, using him on roll-outs, quarterback draws, misdirection plays and the like. If there’s a shard of daylight, Flowers is liable to take off and shoot the gap.

As a pure passer, however, Flowers has work to do. His arm is average at best, his awareness/decision making has been questioned and his mechanics are faulty. That said, he can complete the throws he’s asked to make (sometimes). If the Bulls keep it simple, allowing Flowers to hit those 5- to 10-yard initial reads, he should be fine. But when asked to scan the defense, go through his progressions and thread the ball in-between windows, well, he’s going to have problems.

Which is why USF has more of a pure passer on its bench. Steven Bench (Gr., 6-2, 215) actually had a chance to unseat Flowers during the summer, but barely finished second in the competition. Even so, Bench sees field time when USF needs to go downfield, orchestrate a two-minute drill, etc. Basically, Bench is a superior game manager compared to Flowers, although the former also has his limitations (average arm and can make bonehead decisions).

Running Backs

After two games, the Bulls’ rushing attack has generated 424 yards, averaged 5.0 yards per carry and scored four touchdowns. South Florida uses all three of its running backs, but it’s clear who the breadwinner is.

The reigning AAC Rookie of the Year, Marlon Mack (So., 6-0, 205) is a bona fide three-down back, who is coming off a 1,000-yard, nine-touchdown season as a true freshman. USF’s offense hinges on Mack producing, which, in effect, opens up the passing game and takes the pressure off Flowers.

Mack, who projects well to the NFL, has both breakaway speed and plenty of power. He can sidestep defenders in the open field before busting down the sideline, while also possessing the strength to grind between the tackles. So far this season he’s racked up 232 yards, averaged 5.7 yards per carry and scored a touchdown.

Backing Mack up are Darius Tice (Jr., 5-10, 206) and D’Ernest Johnson (So., 5-10, 208), who both receive anywhere from 8-to-10 carries per outing. After injuries derailed most of his 2014 campaign, Tice broke out in camp, displaying solid speed and vision. His style and skill-set are similar to Mack’s, and there’s little production loss when Tice is in the game. He’s not quite as electric of a runner, but still dangerous. In two games, Tice has 10 carries for 101 yards and a score.

Johnson, meanwhile, is the change-of-pace back -- the so-called “power guy.” When South Florida needs a tough yard or two, Johnson will more than likely enter the game. But he also possesses good hands out of the backfield and has shown the ability to break away from linebackers as well. Johnson has only four carries for 19 yards this year, but has tallied seven receptions for 156 yards and four scores.

Receivers

Speed, speed and more speed. That’s South Florida’s offensive philosophy, and it’s encapsulated in its receiving core. The Bulls don’t have one complete, all-around wideout, but they have about five guys who can flat out burn. Now, if only the quarterback could get them the ball . . .

On the outside, Rodney Adams (Jr., 6-1, 190) represents USF’s one true downfield threat that possesses both size and wheels. A physical wideout who is active in the air, Adams can go up top to pull down the tough passes. He’s also fast enough to leave flatfooted corners in his dust. Sometimes Adams will move into the slot to shake things up, but most of the time you’ll see him running “9” routes and deep posts.

Adams isn’t the greatest route runner, however, and sometimes he’ll drop catchable passes. And, really, he hasn’t produced much through two weeks, catching just one pass.

At the “X,” Ryeshene Bronson (So., 6-3, 200) isn’t as fast as Adams or some of South Florida’s other receivers, but he’s still got wheels. Bronson’s main calling card, though, is his ability to make plays out wide; in tight ( a pseudo-tight end); and in the slot. He’s a shore-handed wideout and a big target, but his route running isn’t always on-point and he tends to disappear at times. During his first two games, Bronson has two receptions for 24 yards.

In the slot, true freshman Chris Barr (Fr., 5-10, 175) is a raw talent who’s still learning the game. But he might just be the fastest, most dynamic playmaker on the roster. Barr clocked a sub-4.4 40-yard dash coming out of high school, so USF likes to get the ball in his hands and let him run free. The freshman has recorded just four receptions for 38 yards thus far, however, but could be primed for a breakout.

Lining up next to Bronson in four-receiver sets is A.J. Legree (Jr., 6-1, 195), a Kentucky transfer who was impressive during camp season. Not surprisingly, Legree can run, but in the summer he flashed soft hands and make-you-miss moves too. He’s yet another open-field weapon Flowers will look to get the ball to in space. Legree has two catches for nine yards so far this season.

Tight Ends

For a team that doesn’t use its tight end every series, the Bulls certainly took advantage of them in Week One. Neither caught a pass against FSU, but starter Sean Price (Sr., 6-3, 252) and No. 2 Elkanah Dillon (Fr., 6-5, 245) combined for seven catches, 157 yards and a touchdown in the FAMU game. Both are bigger targets and serve as security blankets for Flowers; the quarterback is apt to look for them down the seam, especially when facing a third down.

Price, a Mackey Award Watch Lister, entered 2015 with the most receptions out of any returning receiver/tight end. He’s a reliable pass catcher with enough speed to get behind the linebackers. Price is a refined blocker too, and is often used when USF runs power.

Dillon, meanwhile, is just a freshman and is in the process of refining his technique and blocking. But given his size, speed and inherent talent, there’s plenty of potential there. In fact, Dillon showed out in his debut, racking up 126 receiving yards and a touchdown against FAMU.

Offensive Line

The shakiest position on the roster, USF’s offensive line will experience growing pains until the unit gets in sync later during the year. South Florida lost three starters from last year, but that’s hardly the reason the Bulls have questions up front. The change from a pro style to a spread, plus a new blocking scheme (mostly gap blocking) implemented by South Florida’s first-year line coach, makes for a unit in transition.

It should help that USF’s prized freshman left tackle, Reilley Gibbons (Fr., 6-7, 290), received a waiver to play this year after transferring from Stanford. Gibbons, who wanted to move back home to Florida, was banged up during fall camp, but will be ready to go for the Maryland game. It remains to be seen how effective he’ll be (he’s a freshman coming off injury, after all), but much is expected of him moving forward. Gibbons is considered a sound all-around blocker with the strength and base to drive block, and the long arms and deftness to anchor.

If he’s truly ready to go, Gibbons will take over for Kofi Amichia (Jr., 6-4, 290), the starter the last two weeks. Amichia has been OK so far, but he’s not an ideal left tackle with his size.

At left guard, Thor Jozwiak (Gr., 6-4, 318) has been hurt the last couple years, including earlier this summer when he dealt with various knee ailments. But, when healthy, Iozwiak’s an above-average run blocker up front. The veteran can move interior defenders -- gaining leverage and packing a potent initial punch -- while he’s been solid in pass protection as well.

The center, meanwhile, is undoubtedly the most volatile spot on the line.

The current starter, Cameron Ruff (So., 6-3, 309), has been a work in progress. He’s done a decent job run blocking, but has had problems pass blocking and identifying blitzers. USF has actually removed him from center a couple times already, rotating Ruff in at guard instead.

Problem is, the team’s other center, Brynjar Gudmundsson (Gr., 6-4, 300), has had his share of issues too. Gudmundsson has past starting experience, but this year has snapped the ball over the quarterback’s head a couple times, drawing the ire of the coaching staff. He, too, has been shifted to guard on occasion.

The Bulls have even tried a third guy at center in Dominique Threatt (Jr., 6-1, 315), but he is best suited at right guard (where he typically starts). The center experiment quickly ended during fall camp, and since then Threatt’s been lining up at his natural spot. Threatt’s undersized, but has held up decently as a run blocker through two weeks. That said, Threatt allowed several pressures against FSU after a solid game the week prior.

Finally, there’s the right tackle Mak Djubegovic (Sr., 6-5, 296), who just this season is seeing extensive playing time. It’s taken awhile for Djubegovic to develop, and, in reality, he still has fundamental lapses from time to time. Like most of his linemates, Djubegovic has to take the next step, especially from a pass-pro standpoint, for USF to reach its potential offensively.

Defense

USF’s defense was exposed against Florida State, the Bulls surrendering 441 yards in the defeat. But, make no mistake, this is a unit that has a chance to be pretty good. After a subpar 2014, Taggart brought in new defensive coordinator Ton Allen, the former linebackers coach at Ole Miss. Allen immediately implemented the Rebels’ signature “Landshark” scheme, a 4-2-5 specifically designed to impede spread offenses.

For those unfamiliar with the Landshark (TCU also uses it), it’s predicated on a whole lot of pressure -- and from all angles. Defenders aren’t exactly slotted into a particular position; rather, they’re asked to fly around, wrecking havoc all over the field (think Rex Ryan’s “organized chaos”). In it’s simplest form, you can boil it down to: “see the ball, attack the ball.”

But for the 4-2-5 to work, it requires athletes, because every defender, save the interior linemen, has to cover sideline-to-sideline. Fortunately for USF, it has plenty of the former. Just like the Bulls’ offense, Allen’s guys all have that signature Florida speed.

The issue, though, is getting the defenders to maintain their lanes and remain disciplined (the “organized” part of the chaos theory). Yes, USF wants its defenders to freelance, but when they overrun plays or fail to pick up receivers downfield, well, they can get burned. And, indeed, the Bulls have had issues getting off the field on third down, although they did alright against FSU.

That said, South Florida has made its share of plays too, racking up seven sacks; recording two turnovers; and allowing an average of 312 yards (167 passing, 145 rushing) per game.

Defensive Line

While position labels can be mercurial in the Landshark, we’ll attempt to pigeonhole them anyway for TT Team Preview continuity’s sake.

A traditional 5-technique defensive end, Eric Lee (Sr., 6-3, 260) was a force during camp and continued to bust up backfields during Week One, racking up a sack and a forced fumble. Lee, who added 15 pounds of muscle during the offseason, is quick off the ball; has a strong initial strike; and can burst by slow-footed tackles. Florida State was able to neutralize Lee to an extent, but he’s a tough customer for sure. He’s tallied seven stops, a forced fumble and 1.5 tackles for loss after two games.

Now, Lee may play that familiar strong-side end spot, but the opposite edge rusher doesn’t exactly have typical weak-side responsibilities. Zack Bullock (Gr., 6-3, 245) plays what’s known as the “Bull” in the 4-2-5, which is basically a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker/cover linebacker. The Bull is asked to play with his hand in the dirt to rush from a 5-tech, set the edge as an outside linebacker, or drop back into space to pick up a tight end/slot receiver.

Naturally, whomever mans the spot has to be an exceptional athlete . . . which Bulluck just happens to be. Like many of USF’s defenders, Bullock’s on a learning curve; he’s had discipline lapses with so many responsibilities. But the graduate student’s size and short-area quickness have allowed him to disrupt passing lanes and catch backs in space. Bullock has recorded seven tackles the first two weeks.

Moving to the line’s interior, South Florida’s two defensive tackles play roles similar to what you’d see in a 4-3. James Hamilton (Sr., 6-2, 308) and Deadrin Senat (So., 6-1, 305) are burly, wide-bodied trenchmen tasked with eating up blockers and corralling backs in the hole.

But realize this: These guys aren’t slugs. Hamilton, a tenured veteran who understands offenses and their tendencies, has a rapid-fire first step and has been known to collapse the pocket. In fact, he’s USF’s most reliable backfield buster. Even if he’s not generating stats, he’s forcing quick throws and causing running backs to cut back. Hamilton has four tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack through two games.

Senat, Hamilton’s partner in crime, is starting to emerge as a sophomore. He too is quick off the line and powerful at the point of attack. Senat saw plenty of time as a freshman last year, so his learning curve isn’t as steep as one might assume. Thus far, he’s been a monster up front, recording 10 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss.

Rotating in at defensive tackle is Bruce Hector (So., 6-2, 295), who had six tackles and two sacks in the FAMU affair. Hector saw extensive playing time in Week One since it was so lopsided, but expect him more of him after that stellar performance.

Another key backup to note is Josh Black (So., 6-2, 225), who was recruited for the Bull position. Black has both the length and sub-4.5 speed to man that do-it-all position, so look for him to rotate in quite a bit.

Linebackers

By definition, there are only two linebackers in a 4-2-5, but in the Landshark version there could be three (if one of the hybrid safeties, called the “Husky,” moves down) or even four (if the Bull drops back). But to keep things simple, let’s stick with the two guys who most closely resemble traditional linebackers.

At the Mike, Auggie Sanchez (So., 6-2, 244) is a Florida native who started his career as a fullback but moved to linebacker his redshirt freshman year. Evidently he readily took to the switch, as Sanchez turned into a tackling machine last year before becoming the defense’s vocal leader this season. An adamant, blue-collar type, Sanchez can defend sideline-to-sideline, tallying tackles both in the box and in space. He’s also quite heady and possesses a high football IQ; Sanchez not only calls out the signals, but he actively identifies opponent’s shifts; extra receivers; and the like. Sanchez, who was disqualified after two personal fouls against FSU, has 10 tackles and two tackles for loss so far in 2015.

The second linebacker, who plays a weak-side type role (defends in space, sets the edge), is called the “Stinger.” It’s manned by Nigel Harris (Jr., 6-0, 230), who returns in Week Three after a two-game suspension. That’s not good news for Maryland fans, because Harris is an absolute beast -- inarguably the most electric defender the Bulls have.

Last year, he led the nation in forced fumbles and is eager to pick up where he left off after violating team rules during the summer. Harris pursues up and down the line, easily shreds blocks and has a nose for the ball. He’s one of those linebackers who will be involved in pretty much every tackle.

Harris isn’t the only linebacker coming back from suspension, either. Fellow Stinger Tashon Whitehurst (Sr., 6-3, 220) is considered a backup, but he’s been so effective in the past he usually finds himself on the field. A true thumper who flies to the ball, Whitehurst will rotate in with Harris at Stinger; Bullock at Bull; or even man the strong safety spot.

Last but not least, there’s C.J. Garye (Gr., 6-3, 231), who started at Stinger the first two weeks. Garye is actually more of a Bull (defensive end), so he could return to that role with Harris back in the fold. At the same time, he’s versatile enough to hold up at Stinger as well. Garye tallied eight tackles during his two-game stint.

Defensive Backs

None of South Florida’s defensive backs can be considered “lockdown,” but they seem to fit the scheme and are relatively reliable. They’re susceptible to big plays, according to team media, but haven’t given up anything deep yet (FSU didn’t test them up top).

At cornerback, Deatrick Nichols (So., 5-10, 189) has played in all 14 games so far during his career. He’s undersized and has trouble against larger wideouts, but Nichols has the speed/fluidity to match quick-twitch receivers. Mental mistakes in coverage have been an issue early, and he’ll need to iron those out to take the next step. Nichols has racked up six tackles, and 1.5 for loss, the last two weeks.

The opposite corner, Johnny Ward (Jr., 6-0, 178), will usually shadow opponents’ taller wideouts. The more refined of the two outside defensive backs, Ward can be counted on to keep plays in front of him and limit backbreaking deep balls. He’s considered a ball-hawk too, someone who gets physical with receivers and attacks the in the air. Ward has six stops and a breakup through  two games.

USF doesn’t employ a nickel too often, but, regardless, third corner Lamar Robbins (Jr., 6-2, 200) will get his share of snaps. A five-game starter in 2014, he plays a major role every time out. Robbins isn’t as speedy as the two starters, but, given his large frame, he matches up well with taller receivers, working to knock them off their routes.

At strong safety, Nate Godwin (Jr., 5-10, 204) leads the Bulls in career tackles. A multi-year starter, the small-but-tough safety does his best work in the box. He’s active in the gaps and can keep backs from breaking into the open. Godwin’s also known for his smarts, anticipating which direction the play is heading. Godwin isn’t as strong in deep coverage, however, and can be beaten down the field. He’s tallied 13 tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss the first two weeks.

The free safety, Tajee Fullwood (So., 6-2, 195), broke out during camp but is still getting his feet under him as a first-year starter. Even so, Fullwood’s an intriguing center fielder, someone with the wheels to offer over-the-top help; size to rise up with taller tight ends/wideouts; and the physicality to come up and jam. He’s yet another jack-of-all trades who, in time, could develop into USF’s most effective “true” defensive back.

I use the word “true,” because the final secondary position isn’t really just a defensive back. South Florida’s “Husky” must be able to defend in the box, run downfield and rush the passer. These are Landshark’s main freelancers, the guys who give offensive coordinators fits, because they can attack from almost anywhere.

The Bulls’ current Husky, Jamie Byrd (Sr., 5-11, 185), has been dubbed “the most important individual on the defense” by the team’s media. He’s the wildcard, the difference between a quarterback getting his pass off or taking a sack; a fourth receiver coming free or being blanketed in coverage; a running back busting into the secondary or being stunted after a few yards.

Byrd -- who was chosen for the job after leading the team with 95 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble in 2014 -- has to make the right read, or the entire defense becomes vulnerable. Thus far, he’s performed well, filling up the stat sheet with two breakups, 0.5 tackles for loss and seven overall tackles through two weeks. 

Special Teams

The major question surrounding South Florida’s special teams is the effectiveness of new kicker Emilio Nadelman (So., 5-6, 173), who must replace All-American booter Marvin Kloss (the school’s all-time leader in kicking percentage).  Nadelman only had one field goal attempt from 22 yards in Week One (he converted) and didn’t have a single attempt in Week Two. He has yet to face a true pressure situation or try a kick beyond his initial made field goal.

The sense from camp, though, is Nadelman will be fine from inside 40 yards, but could struggle beyond that range. His leg is strong enough to hit from 45, but his accuracy isn’t always on-point. 

The Bulls’ punter, meanwhile, is a Ray Guy Watch List and All-American candidate. Mattias Ciabatti (Gr., 6-0, 200), who earned first-team all-AAC honors last year, possesses a powerful right leg that allows him to change field position. Better yet, he’s adept at placing balls inside the 20-yard line and angling them out of bounds. USF media members described him as a potential “weapon,” who can pin offenses deep. Ciabatti has averaged 46 yards per boot this season, putting five inside the 20.

The kick returner D’Ernest Johnson’s qualities are outlined in the running back section above. Johnson has loads of speed and explosiveness, to go along with solid field vision. He hasn’t broken free yet, but has home run potential.

The punt returner, Tajee Fullwood, is more of a shore-handed possession-type. The Bulls don’t want him fumbling or muffing punts, so more often than not he’ll call for a fair catch.


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