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Charlie Strong’s USF is again loaded with talent ... except it’s mostly new talent

The Bulls will be athletic, volatile, and probably a little bit too glitchy to get past UCF and Temple in the AAC East.

NCAA Football: Birmingham Bowl-Texas Tech vs South Florida Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

On USF’s official depth chart each week, the school denotes which players are and aren’t from the seven-county Tampa Bay area. At the end of last season, 10 of 25 offensive players listed had the “(BA)” mark, while 12 of 24 did on defense.

If they were to draw a line of demarcation as anything Tampa Bay or south — really lean into the “South Florida” designation — they could have given more of their biggest stars the parenthetical treatment. Quarterback Quinton Flowers and nickel back Deatrick Nichols are from Miami, cornerback Ronnie Hoggins is from Coconut Creek (which is basically Miami), and the trio of running back D’Ernest Jackson, tackle Deadrin Senat, and safety Jaymon Thomas all hail from Immokalee, the fertile recruiting soil 2.5 hours south of Tampa.

In other words, South Florida’s best team since 2007 was made up of South Floridians.

Charlie Strong doesn’t get the “(BA)” designation. The 57-year-old Bulls head coach grew up in Arkansas and attended Central Arkansas in the early 1980s. But he’s by any measure honorary “(FL),” at least. He was a UF assistant for 16 years, occasionally leaving — to Texas A&M in the mid-1980s, to Ole Miss in 1990, to Notre Dame and South Carolina alongside Lou Holtz — but always returning. And after stints as head coach at Louisville and Texas, he returned once again.

He won 10 games with the dynamic, experienced personnel that Willie Taggart left, and then he signed, per 247, the second-best class in the AAC. Aside from the requisite Australian punter (Trent Schneider, a Sydney native whom I just assume will average 48 yards), the class featured 25 players — three from the Atlanta area (foreigners!), nine from northern Florida, six from the BA and parts just south, and seven from the Miami area.

Strong’s 2018 squad will be as athletic as anyone’s. It’s going to have a lot of new names, though.

  • Flowers is gone after serving as the muse for Taggart’s shift in offensive identity (something that both saved his job and earned him a bigger one). His three-year starting career ends with 8,130 passing yards, 3,672 rushing yards, and a combined 112 touchdowns. The last pass of his career was a game-winner.
  • Backs Darius Tice and Johnson are gone after combining for 1,739 yards and 18 touchdowns. The leading returning rusher, Trevon Sands, had 111 yards.
  • Leading receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, originally an NC State signee, caught 53 balls from Flowers for 879 yards in 2017.
  • Guard Jeremi Hall was first-team all-conference last year.
  • Senat and fellow departing linemen Bruce Hector and Mike Love combined for 34.5 tackles for loss and 18.5 sacks.
  • Linebacker Auggie Sanchez was USF’s leading tackler and made 10 stops behind the line to go with four passes defensed. He took part in 18 run stuffs, second on the team.
  • Nichols and strong safety Devin Abraham combined for six TFLs, eight interceptions, and 14 breakups.

Most of the players you remember from last year’s USF team are gone. The replacements are exciting and fast, and in most cases they were recruits ranking in the upper half or quartile of all AAC recruits. This is still going to be a fun, successful team.

It’s also probably not going to be as good. This is probably a fall for retooling/reloading.

USF made the mistake of peaking when rival UCF was really peaking. After years of seemingly having one good unit and one shaky unit — the defense was 34th in Def. S&P+ in 2013 while the offense ranked 103rd in Off. S&P+, then the offense ranked eighth in 2016 while the defense ranked 110th — the Bulls ended up in the top 30 on both sides. They lost only to Houston and UCF, giving up the game-winning points with 11 seconds left against the former and with 88 seconds left against the latter. They finished 15th in S&P+, as good as even an optimist could have hoped.

Here comes change, though. Welcome, and please enjoy USF: The Next Generation.

Offense

The battle to replace Flowers sort of began a couple of years ago. Junior Brett Kean and sophomore Chris Oladokun have been sharing the QB room for a while, and while Kean got all the non-Flowers passes last fall (he was 7-for-11 for 64 yards), the battle will evidently continue into fall camp after an even spring. And it might include another competitor — Arizona State and Alabama transfer Blake Barnett is apparently visiting soon.

No matter who wins the job, though, there’s going to be a pretty stark personality change. Flowers was one of a kind. USF’s run rates were among the nation’s top 25 on both standard downs (9 percentage points above the national average) and passing downs (7 percentage points) because Flowers’ legs were just too good not to use. Plus, some called passes became runs when he saw an opportunity.

NCAA Football: South Florida at Temple
Brett Kean (7) and Chris Oladokun (10)
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Second-year coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, now in his third year with Strong, isn’t going to start passing with Mike Leachian regularity, but you do figure the Bulls will be throwing more, both because Flowers is gone and because the receiving corps might be the most proven unit on the offense.

Valdes-Scantling departs, but in senior Tyre McCants and junior Darnell Salomon, USF returns two players who combined for 68 catches and 1,198 yards. Both had marginal efficiency rates far greater than Valdes-Scantling’s, and McCants had him beat in the marginal explosiveness category.

This is, for lack of a better word, a thick receiving corps. McCants is 5’11 and 230 pounds, while Salomon goes 6’3, 207, senior Ryeshene Bronson (who missed 2017 with injury after catching 10 passes for 188 yards in 2016) is 6’3, 205, and tight end Mitchell Wilcox (6’5, 245) could get a bit more involved after catching 17 passes last year. A physical secondary might have trouble finding an advantage.

USF’s run game wasn’t nearly as good as one would have thought, considering Flowers’ presence. Johnson averaged just 4.1 yards per carry, and USF managed just a No. 74 ranking in rushing success rate, No. 86 in stuff rate. Three of last year’s five line starters are back, including second-team all-AAC tackle Marcus Norman, and just about no one in the conference can match the number of former three-star recruits that USF boasts up front, but without the Flowers trump card, the line is going to have to improve in 2018.

Florida transfer Jordan Cronkrite, a former four-star recruit, was a pretty efficient back in Gainesville and flashed major explosiveness this spring. Sophomore Elijah Mack evidently began to live up to his mid-three-star rating in practice, too.

NCAA Football: Florida at Tennessee
Jordan Cronkrite
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Strong made his name as a defensive assistant, but his defenses have been inconsistent as a head coach. The good ones have been awesome — Louisville ranked 11th in Def. S&P+ in 2013, and Texas ranked eighth in 2014 — but when the experience levels weren’t right, the performances were shaky: 60th at Louisville in 2012, 62nd at Texas in 2015, 60th in 2016. He lost the Texas job because his defense failed, not Gilbert’s offense.

I was assuming he’d find a veteran to run his defense at USF, but he basically promoted his linebackers coach at Texas, Brian Jean-Mary. Early indications suggest that was a great call. USF leaped 82 spots to 28th in Def. S&P+, combining decent big-play prevention with the best efficiency in the AAC.

Granted, it’s pretty easy to play good defense when you’ve got Deadrin Senat and Bruce Hector up front. The two tackles are waiting to hear their names called in the NFL draft at the moment, and along with Love, they leave a pretty big void up front.

It appears Jean-Mary and Strong are going to replace that quality with extreme quantity. Three returning tackles and three ends recorded between 6.5 and 12 tackles last year, and a couple of them (ends Kirk Livingstone and Juwuan Brown) made the most of their opportunities, combining for 10.5 TFLs. Plus...

  • Two Duke transfers (end Marquies Price and tackle Brandon Boyce) are eligible.
  • Jean-Mary has blurred the lines between DE and OLB in his approximate 3-4 system, meaning guys I’ve listed as linebackers (including extreme play-maker Greg Reaves and 270-pound sophomore “linebacker” Mi’Carlo Stanley) could line up as ends.
  • Strong signed seven freshman linemen, including high-three-star ends Stacy Kirby and Dwayne Boyles.

USF is set on the edges up front, but is still less certain at tackle. Guys like sophomores Kelvin Pinkney Jr. and Kevin Kegler and senior Kevin Bronson will need to raise their games.

NCAA Football: Tulsa at South Florida
Greg Reaves
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If the front seven holds up, the secondary should be fine. It’s basically the only senior-heavy unit on the team. Nichols and Abraham are gone, but seven returnees made at least 10 tackles last year, and five are seniors. That includes corners Ronnie Hoggins and Mazzi Wilkins (combined: 22 passes defensed) and safeties Jaymon Thomas and Khalid McGee (combined: 4.5 TFLs, four passes defensed).

The veteran DBs will get pushed by a pretty big batch of youngsters — sophomore corners Mike Hampton and Naytron Culpepper, sophomore safety Craig Watts, plus three redshirt freshmen and four three-star true freshmen — and for the 2019 team’s sake, a few of those young guys better see the field a decent amount.

If some young DBs break through, this has all the makings of a pretty fantastic 2019 defense. But one assumes there will be some “new guys in new roles” glitches this fall. If Jean-Mary pulls off a top-30 performance this year, find him a head coaching job.

NCAA Football: South Florida at San Jose State
Mazzi Wilkins
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

USF was a pretty volatile team in 2017, with lots of penalties and big plays in both directions. That volatility rubbed off on the special teams unit, apparently — the Bulls ranked in the top 20 in two efficiency categories (punt returns and place-kicking) and 92nd or worse in the others.

Of course, talking about last year is moot because basically everyone’s gone from last year’s unit. McCants is a decent return option, but Tajee Fullwood was a strong punt returner, and Emilio Nadelman was a big-legged kicker. Even with the new Aussie punter, there are roles to be filled here.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Elon NR 24.6 92%
8-Sep Georgia Tech 53 1.5 53%
15-Sep at Illinois 99 7.6 67%
22-Sep East Carolina 125 20.2 88%
6-Oct at Massachusetts 102 7.7 67%
12-Oct at Tulsa 108 9.2 70%
20-Oct Connecticut 124 19.8 87%
27-Oct at Houston 59 -2.0 45%
3-Nov Tulane 98 11.6 75%
10-Nov at Cincinnati 88 4.0 59%
17-Nov at Temple 81 1.9 54%
23-Nov UCF 17 -8.9 30%
Projected S&P+ Rk 56
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 65 / 51
Projected wins 7.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 0.6 (66)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 69 / 63
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 10 / 5.6
2017 TO Luck/Game +1.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 46% (38%, 54%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 9.9 (0.1)

It’ll probably take a little while for Strong and company to figure out exactly what they’ve got — and figure out if they’ve got a QB — but the Floridian potential and athleticism are there.

With that in mind, the schedule is pretty interesting. First, though projected to fall to 56th overall, the Bulls are only a projected underdog in two games this year. So if they exceed that projection at all, nine or 10 wins could be on the table. But if they survive a couple of potential early tossups (primarily the visit from Georgia Tech in Week 2), they could scuffle their way to a 7-0 start before heading to Houston on October 26. And if this is indeed a “better late than early” team, then there’s serious potential for 11-1 or so.

Of course, losing early to Georgia Tech and then losing late to Houston, Temple, and UCF are also on the table. And right now that feels a little more likely.

I’m going to punt on this season — give me 7-5 or 8-4 — and go ahead and start preparing next year’s “USF is ready for another breakthrough” piece.

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