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It’s a really, really big year for Charlie Strong at USF

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Malaise set in for Strong and his Bulls late in 2018. Can a new offensive coordinator and a couple of healthy stars put them back on the right track?

NCAA Football: Gasparilla Bowl-Marshall vs South Florida
Charlie Strong
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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

Theoretically, these are boom times for the University of South Florida football program.

The Bulls have won 36 games in four seasons, their most ever for that range. From a recruiting standpoint, they are among the most consistently successful programs in the Group of 5, having signed classes ranked 77th or better by the 247Sports Composite every year this decade.

Thanks in part to a few transfers, their roster is as loaded as any program in (technically) a mid-major conference could hope to be. It’s experienced, too: the Bulls are top-40 in returning production.

USF has been to 10 bowls in 14 seasons. They’ve been ranked for part of seven of those seasons. They endured a brief reset at the end of the Skip Holtz era and the beginning of Willie Taggart’s time but picked up steam again in 2015 and have to some degree kept it rolling. Taggart went 19-7 in his last two seasons, and Charlie Strong grabbed the baton and went 17-8 in his first two.

At the macro level, these are all very good things. At the micro level ... well ... the fans seem kind of miserable.

There are reasons for that. Everything I wrote above is true, but it’s also spun positively. If you are of a less optimistic mindset, you could easily point out the following:

  • The 2018 season ended horribly. USF started the year 7-0 and reached as high as 41st in S&P+. They then proceeded to finish 0-6 and end up 83rd. Strong being 17-8 sounds a lot better before you realize he was at one point 17-2.
  • In two years, the Bulls’ offense has gone from second in Off. S&P+ in Taggart’s final season to 47th in 2017 and 69th in 2018. Granted, they were 30th before quarterback Blake Barnett started battling injuries, but still.
  • The defense, which surged to 29th in Strong’s first season, ended up 80th in year two.
  • That whole “every signing class 77th or better” thing? At 77th and 76th, Strong’s 2019 and 2017 classes were the lowest-ranked of the decade. Their classes have ranked fifth in the AAC three of the last four years after ranking either first or second for the four seasons before that.
  • UCF. When your rival is doing what USF’s rival is doing right now, and when you’re at best standing still as a program, people are going to get antsy.

Slides happen. After maintaining a top-50 or so level for most of three seasons, USF lost the plot late in 2018. Strong suspended a bunch of players before a miserable bowl performance against Marshall (at home, no less), and we will either end up looking that as a defining moment for the culture of the program or as the beginning of the end.

The Strong-to-USF marriage seemed perfect on paper. Ace Florida recruiter with big-boy head coaching experience (53 wins in seven years at Louisville and Texas), occasional defensive chops, and a suddenly discovered, spread-happy offensive identity? Wonderful. But Strong’s now won more than seven games just once in his last five seasons, and his next win will be his first since October. Malaise set in last fall, and that theoretically healthy program that I laid out above needs to become more reality than theory in 2019.

Offense

In his last year at Texas, Strong hopped on the spread offense train. He roped in Tulsa assistant Sterlin Gilbert, and Texas improved from 59th to 25th in Off. S&P+. It didn’t save Strong’s job, but he was pleased enough with the results that he brought Gilbert with him to USF in 2017.

Things were reasonably fine until mid-2018, but the Bulls were already sliding a bit when Barnett got hurt. The wheels came off after that.

After averaging 36 points per game through eight contests, USF averaged 17 in the last five. Gilbert found a nice life raft in the McNeese State head coaching job, and it was time for Strong to again find an interesting offensive identity.

He found Kerwin Bell. A former Florida quarterback and journeyman pro, Bell spent the last 17 years as a head coach at the high school, FCS, and Division II levels. His Valdosta State Blazers won the 2018 Division II title. Now he’s the new head coach of the USF offense.

Bell’s 2018 offense averaged 52 points per game, running and passing at almost a 50-50 split. The run game was an all-hands-on-deck experience, with the leading rusher averaging under 10 carries per game but five guys carrying at least 50 times for the season. The passing game was fun and aggressive — four of the top five receivers averaged at least 15.5 yards per catch, and quarterback Rogan Wells combined a 57 percent completion rate with a 160.6 passer rating and a crazy 38-to-4 TD-to-INT ratio.

NCAA Football: South Florida at Houston
Blake Barnett
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

VSU benefited from having a deep skill corps and an aggressive QB last year. Theoretically (there’s that word again), he could have the same at USF.

It starts with Barnett. The Arizona State and Alabama transfer was a top-25 prospect in the 2015 signing class, and he proved quite a bit of that potential early in 2018. Five games in, he had a 65 percent completion rate and 153.7 passer rating — over a full season, that’s top-20 in the country. Injuries set in, however. First, it was the shoulder, then the ankle. He missed the Cincinnati and UCF games and was terribly mediocre against Temple in between. Still, when healthy, he looked the part.

Barnett loses burly slot receiver Tyre McCants, but he doesn’t lack for weapons.

Randall St. Felix was one of the best freshman receivers in the country last year, catching 33 balls for 679 yards and four scores. Barnett’s got decent possession options in Stanley Clerveaux and tight end Mitchell Wilcox. Beautifully named Michigan transfer Eddie McDoom could be the new man in the slot, but he will be pushed by another thrilling sophomore, Johnny Ford. Ford averaged 6.8 yards per carry as the No. 2 RB last year and also caught three balls for 78 yards and a score.

NCAA Football: Connecticut at South Florida
Randall St. Felix
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Variety or no, I’m guessing Jordan Cronkrite averages more than 10 carries per game. Call it a hunch. He averaged 15.3 per game last year, and like Barnett, he was dynamic early on.

  • Cronkrite during USF’s 7-0 start: 18.3 carries per game, 7.8 yards per carry
  • Cronkrite during USF’s 0-6 finish: 12.3 carries per game, 3.5 yards per carry

The Florida transfer had 302 yards and three scores in a shootout win over UMass, then rolled for 151 the next week in a win over Tulsa in which Barnett struggled. He was a four-star prospect and clearly has four-star upside.

He’s also got an experienced line blocking for him. Left tackle Eric Mayes is gone, injuries and shuffling led to eight guys starting at least two games last season, and seven are back, including three-year starting right tackle Marcus Norman. Strong added Virginia Tech transfer Jarrett Hopple and has seven three-star freshmen (three redshirts, four true frosh) waiting for a shot. USF ranked 57th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and 91st in sack rate; the line was at least decent last year, and continuity could lead to improvement.

Defense

I guess you shouldn’t question USF’s team unity. When the offense started to collapse, the defense decided the kind thing to was collapse as well to take some of the heat off the O.

  • USF defense during the 7-0 start: 5.3 yards per play, 25.7 points per game, 62% average percentile performance
  • USF defense during the 0-6 finish: 6.5 yards per play, 39.3 points per game, 37% average percentile performance

Granted, the defense’s slide had begun before the losses did. UConn scored 30 points and gained 455 yards, after all, in the Bulls’ final win of the season. Still, the overall team collapse was comprehensive.

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at South Florida
Nico Sawtelle (54)
Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Third downs were an issue. In open-play situations (snaps between the offense’s 10 and the defense’s 30), USF ranked 39th in standard downs success rate but 100th in third-down success rate. In what I define as blitz downs (second-and-super-long, third-and-5 or more), the Bulls were absolutely horrid: 106th in success rate, 111th in big-play rate, 101st in sack rate. And that was with ends Josh Black and Juwuan Brown. The two were among USF’s three sacks leaders (along with returning end Kirk Livingstone), and now they’re gone.

“Blitz downs” suggests blitz potential, but USF linebackers combined for a horrid 3.5 sacks. The blitz was nonexistent.

Third-year defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary is a longtime Strong assistant, and in two years, he’s produced a remarkable success and a fizzle. The front seven appeared to be the biggest problem in 2018 — along with the inability to fluster QBs on passing downs, USF also ranked 90th in Rushing S&P+ — and now it has to be rebuilt. Livingstone and part-time LB Greg Reaves return at end, but Black, Brown, and two of the top three tackles are gone. Junior tackle Kevin Kegler appears to be a keeper, but he’ll need help.

At linebacker, there’s a lot of pressure on Nico Sawtelle to stay healthy. The senior produced more tackles for loss (7.5) in six games than any other LB did all year, and his shoulder injury correlated almost perfectly with USF’s collapse. Plus, half the two-deep is gone — sophomores Dwayne Boles and Andrew Mims combined for 14.5 tackles last year and are the most experienced options after Sawtelle.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at South Florida
Mike Hampton
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The secondary experiences similar turnover — five of last year’s top 10 are gone — but I’m less worried there. Sophomores Nick Roberts (SS), Mekhi LaPointe (FS), Bentlee Sanders (CB), and Vincent Davis (nickel) are all keepers, and junior Mike Hampton was dynamic in logging 18 passes defensed last season.

USF was a much healthier 51st in Passing S&P+ despite all of these young guys in the rotation. Davis has to clear a high bar to match departed nickel back Ronnie Hoggins’ production, but the upside in the back is enormous.

Depth, however? A potential concern. After this potential starting five are redshirt freshmen, true freshman, and JUCO transfer McArthur Burnett. Any injury issues could be game-changers.

Special Teams

Place-kicking is the most important piece of the Special Teams S&P+ equation, and Copy Weiss is a pretty good kicker. The problem for USF is that, aside from a few strong kick returns from Bentlee Sanders, Weiss was the only strength. The Bulls’ efficiency rankings were 110th or worse in punting, kickoffs, and punt returns, and that dragged USF ranking down to 91st overall.

Just about everybody’s back, but we’ll see if that’s a good thing. One additional return is undoubtedly good, though: that of Terrence Horne Jr., who returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in an unlikely win over Georgia Tech and then proceeded to tear his ACL two weeks later.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
30-Aug Wisconsin 11 -16.6 17%
7-Sep at Georgia Tech 89 1.9 54%
14-Sep SC State NR 42.9 99%
28-Sep SMU 85 5.7 63%
5-Oct at Connecticut 129 23.2 91%
12-Oct BYU 50 -2.2 45%
19-Oct at Navy 118 14.8 80%
26-Oct at East Carolina 113 12.9 77%
7-Nov Temple 66 1.3 53%
16-Nov Cincinnati 44 -3.6 42%
23-Nov Memphis 26 -8.8 31%
29-Nov at UCF 27 -13.3 22%
Projected S&P+ Rk 71
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 44 / 90
Projected wins 6.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 2.1 (65)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 72
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -1 / -2.5
2018 TO Luck/Game +0.6
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 69% (83%, 55%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 6.7 (0.3)

This is a huge season for Strong and USF. Strong has produced a mostly mediocre product for most of the last half-decade, with the offense and defense rising and falling opposite each other, but everything fell apart late last year. Barnett’s and Sawtelle’s injuries were certainly a large part of that, but the Bulls need a strong response.

The beginning and end of the season will define things. USF starts by hosting Wisconsin and finishes with a loaded November slate: Temple, Cincinnati, and Memphis at home, then UCF on the road.

In between, there should be plenty of wins for a team projected 71st in S&P+. But USF is a projected underdog in four of those five definitive games and a narrow favorite in the fifth.

S&P+ projects a 7-5 season, which wouldn’t be fireable but wouldn’t reinforce any sort of faith in Strong’s program, especially if UCF rolls to another division title. The Bell hire is a potential game-changer, and the secondary could be super exciting if it stays healthy. But USF and Strong could both use huge years, and there are enough obstacles in place to doubt that happens.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.