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Charlie Strong can win at USF, but he needs the Bulls’ offense to buy him time

With his defensive mind and recruiting ability, Strong can succeed in South Florida — as long as the offense keeps clicking.

NCAA Football: Birmingham Bowl-South Florida vs South Carolina Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

After Texas fired him, Charlie Strong landing at USF was one of the most obvious fits of this year’s coaching carousel. Recruiting South Florida has always been a key in Strong’s career. He’s fielded teams of aggressive athletes who know how to defend the modern passing game, and it’s served Strong well over the years.

The roster he left behind for Bobby Petrino at Louisville in 2014 featured as many or more Florida kids then even a power like Florida State had on its roster. That approach didn’t translate as well to managing and deploying his resources at Texas, and Strong lost his job after three bad seasons. But he’s in a good position to rebound now.

Strong inherits a good situation on offense. Less so on defense.

USF is located in Tampa, which is debatably more of a Central Florida locale than South. But USF is positioned well to recruit the I-4 corridor as well as the true South Florida region, and it’s only a four-hour drive from Miami.

The team Strong is inheriting is largely made of I-4 corridor kids who’ve had a lot of success recently, due in large part to the play of Miami QB product Quinton Flowers.

Flowers threw for 2,800 yards last year at 8.5 yards per pass, with 24 TDs and seven INTs. But he really did his damage on the ground, running for 1,609 yards at 8.7 yards per carry, with 18 TDs. When your passing game is effective and your QB is rushing for more yards per play then he’s throwing, you're probably winning a lot of games.

Much of Willie Taggart’s surrounding offense is still intact for Strong, although the Bulls lose lead receiver Rodney Adams and left tackle Kofi Amichia.

The defense is another story entirely. This was a putrid unit last year, and it’s hard to be confident that returning so much of it intact will necessarily be a positive for this team. If there is a positive, it’s that the more disruptive players are amongst the returning starters. Mike linebacker Auggie Sanchez led the team in tackles (92) and sacks (six). Tackle Bruce Hector also had six sacks a year ago, and cornerback Deatrich Nichols led the team in both pass break-ups (seven) and interceptions (four).

It’s easy to see Strong restocking this team with even better talent, particularly on defense, while tapping his traditional pipelines in Miami. How he does with the squad already on campus will be interesting to observe, though.

Strong’s a defensive mind. He’ll have to fix USF’s defense.

Taggart’s breakthrough at USF was largely attributed to him learning how to adjust to the fantastic offensive talent he brought in. However, his defense was horrible, and it often looked like USF’s players weren’t spending a ton of time in practice on fundamentals like team pursuit and tackling.

LB Nigel Harris is positioned on the edge here, and he tries to shield the inside LBs from getting picked off, so they can flow with the blockers and the ball. But these guys didn’t seem to get the memo and are trying to fill inside, as though the design of the defense was to keep the ball contained. They did not do that.

That disconnect is the biggest problem here. Another is that a USF cornerback gets flattened when trying to contain the ball, which allows the running back to get the edge and pick up a big chunk of yardage.

Temple’s fullback, Nick Sharga, must have had 10-plus pancake blocks when the Owls played USF. And despite trying to implement a plodding, ball-control approach, the Owls were picking up yardage in big chunks. They finished with 319 rushing yards on the day, winning the game and later the division.

The 2016 USF Bulls were unsound on defense, and the fix may not be quick. Here’s a glimpse at how Strong’s defenses have been at his last two stops as a head coach:

Strong is an active figure in his team’s defenses, and they always operate under his system and fairly direct guidance. However, they tend to need some time to master his schemes. The Cardinals struggled for about three years before they really nailed down his defense at the end of 2012 and then went on a tear in 2013 after mastering it.

At Texas, Strong inherited a veteran defense filled with underachieving players with NFL potential. They took immediately to his teachings, had a great year, and then graduated or headed off to the NFL. Strong had to rebuild with underclassmen, and they were still a ways from figuring it all out when he was fired.

The basic strategy of Strong’s defense is fairly straightforward: He wants to lock down the top WRs in man coverage outside and flood the middle of the field with athletic linemen, linebackers, and safeties who can all exchange places in his fire zone blitzes. Mastering this defense is a matter of the interior defenders learning how to play multiple roles and the cornerbacks learning to hold up in man coverage.

USF has to make some decisions about its QB and scheme.

Flowers and USF’s prolific offense should buy Strong some time to get his defense up to speed, a great advantage Taggart enjoyed before him. You’d figure all Strong has to do is let the offense do what it did last year while focusing on recruiting and developing a better defense.

However, new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert climbed up through the ranks as a practitioner of the Art Briles “veer-and-shoot” offense. He worked with Dino Babers at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green before heading to Tulsa to work with Philip Montgomery. Strong plucked him from Tulsa to try and save his job at Texas, and Gilbert produced the country’s No. 30 offense in 2016. That was based almost entirely on the success of 2,000-yard running back D’Onta Foreman.

The offense that Flowers has been running is a simple spread-option attack that uses different formations to set up simple run-pass option reads for Flowers. Most of those reads include a Flowers run option, like this one:

It’s an extreme and unbalanced set, with three WRs split wide on one side of the field and a RB stacked behind them, plus a TE set back on the other side. This can be a read or a quick pre-snap glance. In this case, I think Flowers always intended to run, but he gives a look at the bubble to influence the outside LB before following his LT on a “dart” run scheme.

Defenses have a hard time getting numbers to the point of attack here, when they have to worry about the RB or the QB basically executing lead runs from the opposite hashmarks. Combine this scheme with a player of Flowers’ athletic ability and a solid supporting cast, and you get a top-five scoring offense like USF’s last year.

Gilbert’s veer-and-shoot works in a similar fashion, but it’s designed to add a vertical stretch and to include more passing from the QB position. An example:

That’s an inside zone run, but with the boundary WR running a skinny post that the QB can throw if he sees the boundary safety sneaking up to help stop the run. For years, people had Baylor and other veer-and-shoot offenses pegged as spread passing attacks. But in reality, they were producing 4,000-yard passers because they were operating a spread-option offense with the deep pass as the main option.

The big question in Tampa this season will be how much of the passing element Gilbert wants to install in Year 1. Flowers isn’t a bad passer, but he was just effective enough throwing bubbles and the occasional play-action lob to make them effective constraints in the offense, deterring the defense from loading the box to stop the run. Flowers is at his best when he’s running in space.

The biggest issue may be the veer-and-shoot’s ultra-wide splits. It’s one thing to ask Flowers to hit a bubble screen outside the far hash. It’s another thing to run plays where he has to navigate the width of the field while throwing quick passes past the line of scrimmage:

All of these option-heavy spread attacks work like spread pick-and-roll offenses in basketball. The veer-and-shoot calls for more of a pass-first point guard like Chris Paul, whereas Flowers is more of a Russell Westbrook, who uses the spacing and leverage provided by pick-and-roll options to set himself up to score (or run, in this case).

If the offense works, Strong’s in a good spot.

If Gilbert can adapt the veer-and-shoot to look closer to what USF has already been running, Flowers’ incredible abilities should allow the Bulls to keep on winning and buy Strong time to do what he was hired to do. That means recruiting aggressive South Florida athletes and letting them go to work against the rest of the AAC.

Something that might help: the schedule. USF’s 2017 slate sets up favorably. The Bulls don’t have any great opponents on their non-conference schedule, and they’ll get AAC foes Houston and UCF just down the road. They’ll skip Navy. If everything clicks, the Bulls could make a run at the AAC title and a New Year’s Six bowl appearance.