It’s September 3, 2011, and South Florida had just marched into South Bend and knocked off 16th-ranked Notre Dame on a soggy Saturday afternoon. Skip Holtz had led his team into his dad’s olds stomping grounds and won. Two days later, the Bulls earned a No. 22 ranking in the AP poll. Fans were thinking big…but that would be their team’s peak. South Florida went 1-7 in Big East play and finished 5-7 on the year, and followed it up with a 3-9 season in 2012 that led to Holtz’s firing.
In came Willie Taggart (whom Holtz ironically replaced at Louisiana Tech), who oversaw a 2-10 team in 2013 and a 3-9 one in 2014. Taggart enters this year surrounded by hot seat questions, but is armed with three solid recruiting classes, a new offense and defense and five new uniform designs from Under Armour (obviously the most important part). Will it lead to a noticeable improvement and possibly the first bowl berth since 2010? Let’s take a look.
To say the Bulls struggled offensively in 2014 is an understatement. They managed a measly 17.2 points per game, good for 119th in the FBS. Here’s what they got out of their three quarterbacks: 2,361 yards, 11 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 6.5 yards per attempt and a 49.2 (49.2!) percent completion percentage. Mike White, who started most of the games and led in all passing categories (for what that’s worth) is gone, leaving senior Steven Bench and sophomore Quinton Flowers to compete for the job. Bench showed little on his 100 pass attempts, and Flowers struggled as a true freshman in very limited action. A former top-100 recruit as a wide receiver, Flowers is a better fit for South Florida’s new spread offense. Per the Tampa Bay Times’ Joey Knight, his velocity and accuracy looked better in spring practice too. He’s the best bet to open the season as the starter. If UCLA transfer Asiantii Woulward win his case for immediate eligibility, he would shake up the competition, but he seems unlikely to win it.
South Florida needs consistent play at QB, but it will lean on sophomore running back Marlon Mack (above). The reigning AAC Freshman of the Year, Mack rushed for 1,041 yards (5.2 ypc) and nine touchdowns. He’ll be the workhorse and the offense’s engine. At wideout, the Bulls must replace leading receiver Andre Davis, but that is not as daunting as it seems. Junior Rodney Adams will be counted on as the main option and is a possession-receiver type. Lots of depth is behind him. Kentucky transfer A.J. Legree, a former state track champion, is eligible. Sophomore Ryeshene Bronson, redshirt freshman Stanley Clerveaux and senior tight end Sean Price will all have roles. Clerveaux is a sneaky breakout candidate. Three solid starters are gone from the offensive line, but there’s a deeper group here too that has some size. Both offensive tackles are gone, and Stanford transfer Reilly Gibbons will compete for a starting tackle spot with junior Kofi Amichia and senior Mak Djulbegovic (Billy's left tackle at Carrollwood Day School in Tampa).
New defensive coordinator Tom Allen comes to Tampa from Ole Miss, where he was linebackers coach. He’s installing a new 4-2-5 defense, a nickel-based defense designed to counter the rest of the AAC’s spread and Air Raid offenses. South Florida has a plethora of defensive back depth that will help make the transition easier. Taggart has recruited the position pretty well. Senior Jamie Byrd will play the “Husky” position, a linebacker/safety hybrid that will also occasionally rush off the edge. He’ll be the leader of the defensive backfield. Juniors Nate Godwin and Johnny Ward will start at strong safety and corner, respectively. Sophomore Devin Abraham was solid in a backup role and could take the starting free safety spot, and redshirt freshman corner Mazzi Wilkins will see a lot of action too. Defensive line is a little thin, however. Defensive tackle Derrick Calloway withdrew in late July for academic reasons, leaving a handful of inexperienced players who will have to step up. Defensive end has a little more depth, with senior Eric Lee and sophomore Josh Black looking like impact players. At linebacker, freshman early enrollee Danny Thomas will compete for a starting spot right away.
Taggart’s widespread changes need to work and work fast. He has a deeper and more talented team than he had in his first season. But the talent must bring results and improvement. Flowers made progress as a passer in the offseason and has some quality weapons and depth around him. Mack will be a big asset, but last year proved a strong running back can’t offset quarterback deficiencies.
The Bulls open against FCS opponent Florida A&M, a nice first opponent for a team that made significant changes. It’s a good opportunity to get comfortable in the new systems in a game situation. After that, the schedule gets tough. Road games at Florida State and Maryland are next, followed by home dates with defending AAC co-champ Memphis and then Syracuse. So South Florida could play good football and still start 2-3, or even 1-4. The schedule softens with UConn next, but the season closes with a six-game stretch against rising SMU, East Carolina, Navy, Temple, Cincinnati and Central Florida. All but SMU and Temple won eight games a season ago, and Temple won six. Against this schedule, six wins will be tough, but as long as USF shows improvement all year and looks competitive in its losses, five wins might be tolerable. It will depend on how well and how quickly the players can acclimate to and execute in the new systems. If the changes don’t work and there is little evidence of improvement, Bulls fans may endure another three-win season. If so, a coaching change is very possible.