Rob Bridenstine

USF’s key players that will be back in 2017

New coach Charlie Strong has now been with the Bulls for over a month and has had the opportunity to see his team play in their Birmingham Bowl victory. You can bet he has taken stock of all the weapons that he has readily available on his depth chart, and these are the guys that will look to take USF to the next level.

Quinton Flowers: Was there any doubt in your mind that this guy would be on this list? Flowers scored 42 touchdowns in the 2016 season, 18 of which were on the ground, and over 4,300 total yards. His season was recognized earlier this month after he was named the College Football Performance Awards National Performer of the Year.

With Marlon Mack foregoing his senior season to enter the NFL Draft, Flowers’ ability to stretch the field with his legs will be crucial in 2017. Think about this, in his two seasons as the starting quarterback, Flowers has run the ball for 2,521 yards. That puts him third on the all-time career rushing list for the USF program; add in the 73 yards from his freshman season and he’s only 138 yards from sliding into second on that list. Keep in mind that Mack just crushed that previous record this season while having the second most rushing yards and rushing touchdowns on the team. If Flowers can replicate the season he just finished up, he will easily surpass Mack.

Flowers’ versatility and drive to win has been well documented over the past two seasons and it seems that people are finally taking notice. There is no doubt that Flowers will start the season as a dark-horse Heisman Trophy contender, but he will now have to show a watching nation that he is deserving of consideration.

 

D’Ernest Johnson: With Mack heading to the NFL Draft instead of staying with the Bulls for one more year, USF will have to fill the hole that was left open by the loss of their bell cow running back. That’s where D’Ernest Johnson comes in. Johnson is the Swiss Army Knife of the USF football team.

Johnson — who'll be a senior — was Marlon Mack’s relief this season but proved himself as a jack of all trades, picking up 293 yards and five touchdowns on 28 receptions (matching Mack’s reception total), while also serving as the team’s punt and kick returner. Johnson’s 1,280 all-purpose yards and 14 total touchdowns proves his versatility, an important aspect of South Florida’s fast-paced, ‘Gulf Coast’ offense that produced the sixth most points in college football this season.

Johnson was once called the junkyard dog and the best football player on the team by former USF coach Willie Taggart. In 2017, Johnson will be playing for a new coach, but his broad set of skills and his track record will make him standout as the new go-to back for Charlie Strong and his staff.

Tyre McCants and Marquez Valdes-Scantling: The Bulls are losing another playmaker as dynamic wide receiver Rodney Adams graduates and heads to the NFL Combine, but luckily there is plenty of depth that is ready to step up.

Adams has been Quinton Flowers’ favorite target since Flowers took control the helm of the USF offense. Now that Adams is gone, expect the quarterback to look to both Tyre McCants and Marquez Valdes-Scantling to help keep the high-scoring offense cranking out the touchdowns. McCants managed to pull in 25 receptions for 384 yards and four touchdowns, while Valdes-Scantling caught 22 for 415 and five touchdowns.

Valdes-Scantling’s height (6’5”) gives him an advantage over defenders that Adams (6’1”) never had, and was teammate of Adams at Lakewood High School, where they won a Track & Field Championship in the 4x400 relay. That tells you that Valdes-Scantling has speed to help move the ball down the field.

McCants on the other hand is shorter, but has a stockier build than Adams had. Sitting at 219 pounds, McCants has the ability to catch the high-velocity pass and use his elusiveness to make the play. Don’t be surprised to see McCants take over Adams’ role in the run game as well, if McCants can prove that he can work his way around the edge.

 

Auggie Sanchez: The defense captain and soon-to-be senior linebacker is losing teammate and friend Nigel Harris to graduation, meaning that he will be anchoring the linebacker squad. After beating his own season high tackle total (117) by three, Sanchez now holds the first and second spots for season tackle totals. Over his career, Sanchez has accumulated 303 total tackles, putting him sixth on the list of career tackles in program history.

Sanchez will most likely find himself stretching the width of the field to stop opponents again, so it wouldn’t shock anyone if he manages to finishes on top of that list by the end of the 2017 season. Sanchez only needs 64 tackles to tie the career total; he’s never finished a season with less than 66 tackles.

With the defensive minded Charlie Strong taking control of the USF football team, Strong will rely on the leadership of Sanchez to rally the defensive around any changes that may be made.

 

Deatrick Nichols: Leading the team in interceptions and pass deflections, Nichols will be heading into his senior season as a leader of the defensive backs. While the ‘Bull Shark’ defense wasn’t nearly as fearsome in 2016 as it was the previous season, Nichols proved that the coaching staff was right to match him up against the top receiver from opposing squads.

Nichols went head-to-head with nation leading wide receivers, Zay Jones; Amba Etta-Tawo; Kenny Golladay; Noel Thomas; Anthony Thomas and Courtland Sutton (all finished in the top 25 in receiving yards). From that group of receivers, Nichols and Co. only gave up four touchdowns.

Nichols proved his ability to come through in clutch moments after he shut down opposing defenses in the final moments of the game, in the red-zone, in three straight games. The cornerback will need to help make sure that opposing receivers can’t slip through to make space, but the guy is always hustling. Strong will take notice of Nichols and make another key piece of the future Bulls defense.

 

Deadrin Senat and Bruce Hector: The pair of defensive tackles had a bit of a rough year in 2016, or at least that’s what the numbers would tell you. The defense surrendered 2,554 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns on the ground, putting the defense well into the bottom half of the nation.

That’s not to say that there weren’t highlights either. Hector tied the team high in sacks with six on the season, showing that he can disrupt the quarterback and the rest of the backfield. Senat was no slouch either, picking up a total of 7 tackles for a loss, tied for fourth on the team.

While the pair proved that they can cause trouble for opposing signal callers, they need to shore up their defensive line and not allow rival running backs the ability to pick up as many yards. It’s been proven time and time again, if you can prevent the opponent from establishing the run, then you make them one-dimensional and that much easier to beat.


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