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If Charlie Strong had this USF roster at Texas, he'd still be there

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Strong inherits one of the best offenses in the country. That defense is a work in progress, however.

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

This preview originally published April 26 and has since been updated.

Even hires that feel right don’t necessarily work out. I’m saying this as much to remind myself as to remind you. USF swooping in to hire former Louisville and Texas head coach Charlie Strong after losing Willie Taggart to Oregon feels like a great hire in about every possible way, but things can always go wrong.

For one thing, Strong is still figuring himself out as he enters his eighth season as a head coach. Despite an incredible résumé as a defensive assistant, in seven years as head man he has only twice fielded a defense that ranks better than 39th in Def. S&P+. Meanwhile, he has only once had an offense that ranked better than 47th in Off. S&P+.

Last year, in attempt to save his job at Texas, he finally embraced the move to an up-tempo spread. It resulted in what was, per S&P+, his best offense as a head coach, but it wasn’t enough to save his job in Austin. Still, it represented a continued evolution process that probably should have begun years earlier.

By 2003, as a successful assistant coach under both Steve Spurrier and Lou Holtz, Strong had already interviewed for positions at Vanderbilt, Kansas, California, ECU, and Tulsa. Louisville considered him but went with Bobby Petrino (the first time). Georgia Tech would consider him before going with with Paul Johnson. Minnesota would consider him before going with Tim Brewster.

Strong finally got a chance at age 49. He inherited a 4-8 Louisville team and went 7-6 in each of his first two years. In his next two years, he went 23-3. But he was still evolving. His offense wasn’t all that impressive, but he had quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to paper over some weaknesses.

This run earned him a shot at UT. The insular Strong always felt like a strange fit in media-intense Austin. He waited too long to undergo an offensive overhaul and in the meantime lost control of his defense, but the hire never felt quite right.

USF hiring him, on the other hand, feels very, very right. Because if one thing is certain about Strong’s career, it’s that always comes back to Florida.

  • He was a Florida graduate assistant in 1983-84, then left for Texas A&M and Southern Illinois.
  • He returned to Gainesville to serve as Galen Hall’s linebackers coach in 1988, then left for Ole Miss in 1990.
  • He returned again to coach defensive ends for Steve Spurrier in 1991, then jetted off to coach for Lou Holtz at Notre Dame and South Carolina.
  • Ron Zook brought him back to town to serve as defensive coordinator in 2003, and he remained there until he finally got a head coaching gig in 2010, nearly three decades into his career.

In Strong's 34-season college coaching career, 15 of those were spent in the Sunshine State. The 16th will take place this fall. Strong gets to rekindle his legion of Florida recruiting ties and inherits a team loaded with experience and speed and coming off of its best ever FBS season.

More importantly, he inherits a set of personnel that has already proven it can do a lot of what he probably wants to do.

Willie Taggart wasn’t originally a proponent of a spread or hurried-up style either. But his USF personnel swayed him.

On a bye three years ago, Taggart set aside his strict observance of smash-mouth, West Coast, power football.

He embraced what he saw in his Floridian roster: raw athleticism, as fast as possible.

“That’s so important to us. That’s why we have the respect. Because you don’t normally see coaches do that,” senior running back Marlon Mack said after the win vs. UCF. ... “We said, ‘Please, let’s go fast, let us go and we’ll show you,’ and he did.”

“At first it was, well, let’s just run West Coast, but see how it looks in the ’gun,” Taggart said. “And then it got intriguing, because we started seeing all the options available that we didn’t have under center. And then we started running all the practice reps, Quinton [Flowers] in the ’gun, spread out, but with the shifts and motions. And it was like … wow.”

Taggart’s a-ha moment came a year before Strong’s. Moving to the gun and committing to moving more quickly between snaps resulted in staggering improvement: USF rose from 111th in Off. S&P+ in 2014 to 51st in 2015 and eighth in 2016. The win total moved from four to eight to 11. Quinton Flowers rushed for more than 1,600 yards (not including sacks) and threw for nearly 3,000. The scheme fit the personnel beautifully, and it should be the same story for Strong and offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert.

The defense? We’ll see. It fell apart last year for Taggart just as it did for Strong. But in this story of evolution, Strong might come up with just the right answer soon enough. Regardless, he’s where it feels like he belongs. Hires that feel right may not be guaranteed to succeed, but you figure the odds are pretty good.


2016 in review

2016 USF statistical profile.

Technically, even more was expected of USF in 2016 than what the Bulls actually delivered. Taggart’s squad was projected 41st in S&P+ and finished only 55th; the offense was far better than anticipated, but the defense plummeted to 110th in Def. S&P+. The Bulls played four teams that ranked 52nd or better overall and allowed an average of 47 points in those games.

Of course, they also scored 42 points per game in those contests and won two of the four. USF was adept in the art of the shootout.

USF benefited from the fact that most of its opponents also failed to live up to expectations. UCF and Temple overachieved, but Syracuse (projected 44th, finished 76th), Cincinnati (70th, 85th), ECU (78th, 100th), all UConn (81st, 123rd) underachieved, and even at 55th, the Bulls had too much athleticism for most of the teams on the schedule.

  • USF vs. S&P+ top 60 (2-2): Avg. percentile performance: 42% (~top 75) | Yards per play: USF 8.1, Opp 7.6 (plus-0.5) | Plays per game: Opp 79, USF 65
  • USF vs. No. 61-plus (9-0): Avg. percentile performance: 64% (~top 45) | Yards per play: USF 6.8, Opp 5.1 (plus-1.7) | Plays per game: Opp 85, USF 74

The Bulls played a lot of hurry-up teams in 2016 and scored on a lot of super-quick possessions. Such is life when you have the second-most rushes of 40-plus yards in the country, as USF did. The defense didn’t have the depth or wherewithal to keep making stops, and while the Bulls were quite good at ending drives when the opponent was leveraged into passing downs, they couldn’t figure out how to leverage the opponent into passing downs.

Much of that last paragraph could be applied to Strong’s Texas team, too, though USF’s offense was better at creating big plays.


Offense

USF offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Sterlin Gilbert is a son (or maybe grandson) of the Bear Raid. He spent three years as Art Briles disciple Dino Babers’ offensive coordinator at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green, then filled the same role for another Briles offspring, Philip Montgomery at Tulsa. He was tasked with the impossible in 2016: saving Strong’s job and rejuvenating the offense with a true freshman quarterback.

The results were sporadic but mostly successful. Though limited and less than adept at finding Plan B, the Longhorns still improved from 64th to 29th in Off. S&P+. They spread defenses out, operated at a mach-speed tempo, and ran the ball a lot.

If Strong had been retained at Texas, he and Gilbert would have headed into 2017 with more experience at quarterback and receiver and a gaping hole in the “workhorse running back” department. But that’s what they’re looking at at USF, too.

Quinton Flowers is in many ways what Gilbert probably hoped Texas quarterback Shane Buechele would become. The senior-to-be completed 63 percent of his passes last year (Buechele: 60 percent), took half as many sacks (a 3.8 percent sack rate to Buechele’s 7.3), and threw fewer interceptions. He also proved brilliant at running the football. Not including sacks, he averaged 8.7 yards per carry, mixing steady efficiency with big-play potential.

Flowers and Marlon Mack formed maybe the most explosive backfield in the country.

USF offensive efficiency & explosiveness

USF had the second-best offensive success rate in the conference and by far the best explosiveness. The Bulls averaged under 6.3 yards per play just once all year and posted 8.2 per play against Florida State.

The return of Flowers and some key targets — receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Tyre McCants, and Ryeshene Bronson and tight ends Mitchell Wilcox and Elkanah Dillon combined to catch 77 passes for 1,442 yards and 14 touchdowns last year — should ensure that USF’s potential explosiveness is as high as ever. But big plays happen when you are efficient enough to stay on schedule and stay on the field, and there are reasons to wonder about USF’s efficiency.

NCAA Football: Navy at South Florida
Marquez Valdes-Scantling
Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Senior D’Ernest Johnson was actually a bit more efficient than Mack, who left for the NFL after the season. Forty-four percent of Johnson’s carries gained at least five yards as opposed to Mack’s 40 percent. But Mack’s explosiveness was off the charts, and he averaged nearly two more yards per carry than Johnson. Johnson is an incredible threat out of the backfield — he caught 28 of 30 passes last year and averaged 10.5 yards per catch to Mack’s 8.1 — but without Mack’s home run capability, USF might need to snap the ball a few more times to score. Maybe that ends up being a good thing (it could keep the defense off the field a bit longer), but maybe that means more stalled drives, too. [Update: the WR corps also added one of Rice’s best weapons, Temi Alaka.]

Meanwhile, the only loss in the receiving corps (besides Mack) is slot receiver Rodney Adams, who was targeted more than twice as much as anyone else and caught 72 percent of the passes thrown his way. Without him, Flowers’ completion rate might fall.

There is plenty of returning talent here, and it almost goes without saying that any number of younger players could emerge as exciting weapons — redshirt freshman running back Elijah Mack, freshman receivers Kevaughn Dingle and Jernard Phillips, etc. But the loss of Mack, Adams, and two all-conference linemen (tackle Kofi Amichia, guard Dominique Threatt) could mess with USF’s efficiency levels.

NCAA Football: Birmingham Bowl-South Florida vs South Carolina
D'Ernest Johnson
Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

USF defensive radar

Based on its offense’s own tempo and big-play ability and the propensities of its high-pace opponents, USF did its best to follow the script regarding how to account for facing a lot of snaps.

The Bulls played a ton of guys — eight linemen averaged at least 0.8 tackles per game, as did six linebackers and 11 defensive backs; that’s 25 total contributors despite a relative lack of injury. Plus, they attempted to create havoc near the ball. Seven of those eight linemen recorded at least three tackles for loss, and chief linebackers Auggie Sanchez and Nigel Harris combined for 17.5.

While USF didn’t have that many contributors to replace following the 2015 season, the Bulls did have to replace coordinator Tom Allen, now Indiana’s head coach. First-time coordinator Raymond Woodie didn’t have the same level of experience, and the product simply never came together. USF ranked a woeful 120th in Standard Downs S&P+, which is death for any defense, much less one that is dealing with so much tempo.

With ECU, Tulane, Houston, Tulsa, and UCF on the schedule, and with new coaches at SJSU, UConn, and Cincinnati all promising upgrades in the tempo department, USF is going to face a ton of snaps again in 2017, and it’s up to new coordinator Brian Jean-Mary to figure out how to deal with it better. Jean-Mary served as Strong’s linebackers coach at both Louisville and Texas, and he gets 18 of last year’s 25 defenders back. That includes:

NCAA Football: East Carolina at South Florida
Auggie Sanchez (43)
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
  • senior tackle Deadrin Senat, USF’s best run defender (six non-sack tackles for loss last year) and, at 305 pounds, its biggest defender
  • senior tackle Bruce Hector and linebacker Auggie Sanchez, USF’s best pass rushers (six sacks each)
  • senior cornerback Deatrick Nichols, USF’s best ball defender (four interceptions, seven breakups)
  • junior safeties Jaymon Thomas and Khalid McGee, USF’s most versatile defenders (combined: 9.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, two passes defensed)

[Update: backup junior DE LaDarrius Jackson was dismissed in May, but the Bulls have since added former four-star CB Jeff Farrar.]

USF didn’t get enough hands on passes and didn’t stuff the run enough, but it returns its best guys in both of those departments and brings a lot of experience to the table. And youngsters like four-star redshirt freshman safety Craig Watts, three-star redshirt freshman linebackers Mi’Carlo Stanley and Keirston Johnson, and freshman end Jabreel Stephens could certainly make a difference if they hit the ground running.

A lot was asked of this unit last year — too much, actually. We’ll see if, with a combination of defensive experience and offensive efficiency, USF can better figure out how to generate more havoc and deal with the effects of tempo.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at South Florida
Deatrick Nichols
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Special teams was a mixed bag for USF. Emilio Nadelman was a tremendous kicker but suffered a quad injury late in the year; replacement Brandon Behr wasn’t nearly as consistent.

Meanwhile, D’Ernest Johnson was tremendous in the return game and created a potential field position advantage that USF’s punt and kickoff teams frequently gave away. (Punter Jonathan Hernandez didn’t offer many return opportunities, but the ones he allowed were returned quite a ways.)

Nadelman, Johnson, and Hernandez are all back, though, and that’s probably a good thing. USF ranked 55th in Special Teams S&P+ in 2016 and should improve on that, especially if Nadelman stays healthy this time.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
26-Aug at San Jose State 105 11.7 75%
2-Sep Stony Brook NR 27.6 94%
9-Sep at Connecticut 125 17.5 84%
15-Sep Illinois 85 11.9 75%
21-Sep Temple 67 4.2 60%
30-Sep at East Carolina 100 10.2 72%
14-Oct Massachusetts 111 17.8 85%
21-Oct at Tulane 94 9.1 70%
28-Oct Cincinnati 75 8.2 68%
4-Nov Houston 49 1.6 54%
18-Nov Tulsa 77 8.5 69%
24-Nov at Central Florida 78 3.6 58%
Projected S&P+ Rk 56
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 10 / 107
Projected wins 8.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -1.6 (77)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 70 / 59
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 9 / 3.8
2016 TO Luck/Game +2.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 74% (71%, 77%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 9.6 (1.4)

Maybe the most intriguing plot line in the 2016-17 coaching carousel was the way that Florida mid-majors — USF, FAU, and FIU — all made exciting, recruiting-friendly hires. Add in UCF’s hire of Scott Frost in 2016 (and his subsequent signing of the best 2017 class in the AAC), and you’ve got massive competition for three-star Floridians.

Strong’s almost certainly going to win his share of recruiting battles, and he’s probably going to have both the talent and the type of talent he needs to succeed. The experiment, and the attempt at evolution, he began in his last year in Austin will continue in Tampa. And with Temple, Houston, and Tulsa all coming to Tampa and with three of four conference road opponents projected 94th or worse in S&P+, it’s safe to say that USF has the schedule to win the AAC East, something Taggart couldn’t quite pull off.

Fit matters. The fit wasn’t right for Strong at Texas but feels very right at USF. He inherits an offense that, even without Marlon Mack, is further along than the one he left in Austin, and now the next step in his evolution will be figuring out how to account for tempo on defense. Given enough time and athletes, he might do just that.


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