| SoFloBulls.com by Matthew Manuri |
W illie Taggart’s blueprint for South Florida places thumbtacks in the following counties: Collier, Hernando, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Miami-Dade and Sarasota. For today, tomorrow and for the foreseeable future, the Bulls’ projected rise – still coming, potentially – hinges on how effectively Taggart and his staff mine these rich Florida basins for the state’s overlooked-yet-underrated talent.
Because there’s plenty to go around, of course. Check out USF’s first full class under Taggart, for example, a 28-signee group with feet in each positional group on both sides of the ball – with extra emphasis on the offensive and defensive lines, the weakest links in the Bulls’ chain.
It wasn’t merely a consensus top-40 class nationally; that’s impressive enough, given how Taggart’s debut ended with the first double-digit-loss season in program history. It doubled as the best class in the American Athletic Conference, threatened only by Louisville and Rutgers, two program soon set for greener pastures.
Here’s why this matters: Only six of South Florida’s 28 recruits held offers from one of the state’s top dogs – Miami (Fla.), Florida and Florida State. Again, there’s plenty to go around.
Complete list (so far)
So that’s the Taggart-approved blueprint, and it’s easy to see it succeed in the fluctuating and unpredictable American. But it needs coaching; it needs leadership, conviction and a sense of identity, and it definitely needs a quarterback.
LAST YEAR’S PREDICTION:
I would wager – as I’m predicting, per this ranking – that USF doesn’t get above five wins, but to say that the Bulls don’t have what it takes to reach six wins ignores the level of talent and athleticism on this roster. Above all else, USF now has a coach capable of supplying the consistency USF has lacked for the better part of a decade. I think the schedule plays a role in keeping the Bulls outside the postseason, but the future is bright.
In a nutshell: Call it a lost season, if you must, but if not addressed, the issues that plagued the Bulls last fall could linger into 2014 and beyond. One was some of the worst quarterback play humanly imaginable: USF tossed more than twice as many interceptions than touchdowns, to cite one marker. Another was the play of the offense as a whole, which ranked last in the American in yards, passing yards and points per game. A third was this defense, even if the Bulls did rebound from a horrible, horrible start to find some bright points during conference play. The total package was a disaster: USF lost to McNeese State, Florida Atlantic and Memphis in the same season, and that’s got to be some sort of record.
South Florida coach Willie Taggart talks with linebacker Dede Lattimore (34) during the first half of a game against Miami last September at Raymond James Stadium.
Beating Cincinnati to open October. Still not sure how that happened. High point:
The slaughter that was McNeese State. The Cowboys scored 31 points in the second quarter and led 40-7 three minutes into the second half. Low point:
Prior to last season, South Florida was the only team in the current American to never suffer a season with double-digit losses. Now that’s over. Nationally, only 21 programs have never lost more than nine games in a season: Arkansas, Clemson, Fresno State, Georgia, LSU, Miami (Fla.), Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, USC, Tennessee, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Toledo, Troy and West Virginia. Tidbit:
To the best of my knowledge – and correct me if I’m wrong – USF was the only program in the Football Bowl Subdivision to have two marriage proposals occur on its home field during the 2013 season. Then-senior defensive end Ryne Giddins popped the question on Nov. 23, less than one month after former quarterback Matt Grothe did the same during the Bulls’ Oct. 26 matchup with Louisville. Tidbit (that’s nice edition):
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
: You can take this to the bank: USF won’t start four different quarterbacks in 2014. Two? Well, don’t be surprised. The Bulls exited the spring without a clear-cut starting quarterback, though the competition had been trimmed to include merely a pair of contenders: Steven Bench, the former transfer from Penn State, and Mike White, the promising sophomore who had his redshirt pulled late last season. When it came to the spring – and Bench might have outplayed White, especially during the final scrimmage – credit Taggart and new offensive coordinator Paul Wulff for ensuring that each quarterback put last season in the rearview mirror; it would have been easy to focus on the sour points, but both Bench and White seemed motivated by the opportunity to turn the page and look forward. Offense
That’s a good start. Next: USF needs to settle on a starter. Bench seems like the better dual-threat option, meaning he could blend a slightly different look into the Bulls’ existing system – not that he’s a burner by any means, let alone a truly dangerous running threat, but Bench could allow for more outside-the-pocket passing, aiding a still-questionable offensive front. White, meanwhile, holds significantly more promise than his competitor – even if this wasn’t wholly evident a season ago. Taggart has said he feels confident in each quarterback’s ability to win games, but that’s not good enough: USF needs to close the revolving door and toss its lot with one of the two options. Bench could take this thing with a strong fall camp, but I think USF needs to hand the job to White and roll with the punches. Either way, it’s not a great situation in 2014.
Mike White (14) is locked in a battle for the starting quarterback position that could have long-term repercussions for the Bulls.
With leading rusher Marcus Shaw gone, there is a great opportunity for the Bulls’ two incoming freshmen, D’Earnest Johnson and Marlon Mack, to grab major carries as rookies. They’ll be playing from behind, however, so the early odds have USF divvying up carries among a handful of fairly inexperienced holdovers – senior Michael Pierre, sophomore Darius Tice and redshirt freshman Sta’fon McCray, to name a few. Each has the body type to fit into Taggart’s desired power-run scheme, which helps, but it’s also clear that USF needs a big-play option in a change-of-pace role. Maybe that’s Johnson or Mack, though we won’t know until August. In total, you’re looking at an offensive backfield – quarterbacks and running backs – lacking in past production.
At least there’s a sense of danger at wide receiver. Five of the Bulls’ top seven receivers return from a year ago, a group paced by senior Andre Davis (49 receptions for 735 yards). In the big picture, Davis’ numbers were impressive: USF’s remaining targets combined for 117 catches for 1,267 yards, for example. So what the Bulls need is at least three and perhaps as many as five secondary targets to help carry the load. For starters, Chris Dunkley needs to translate his general athleticism into more pass-game production; he’s seemingly made that step, based on his spring results. The Bulls also need help from senior Deonte Welch, a projected starter, and a number of true freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores. Are you getting the picture? As a whole, USF’s offense has potential – there’s some serious recruiting bona fides dotting the potential two-deep – but is totally, absolutely, completely unproven.
Andre Davis was by far South Florida’s leading receiver as a junior in 2013. This season he could use some help from a potentially deep group at the position.
At the same time, an exodus of talent along the defensive front has coordinator Chuck Bresnahan leaning heavily on a 3-4 attack. The Bulls will be multiple, mind you, but the shift toward an unorthodox look should help USF replace ends Aaron Lynch, Ryne Giddins, Julius Forte and Tevin Mims – and should, in the long run, create a deeper and more unpredictable defense. In turn, USF spent much of the spring transitioning holdovers into new roles. Senior Elkino Watson (28 tackles, 9.0 for loss) will move from tackle to end, giving this defense the bigger, stronger edge defender it needs in this alignment. Junior Eric Lee and sophomore Daniel Perry have added weight to handle the outside, while the Bulls reeled in a very promising JUCO end in Demetrius Hill; he may start as a situational rusher, but Hill could be effective. But I’m concerned about the interior: USF has some size in senior Todd Chandler, junior Todd Hamilton and redshirt freshman Deadrin Senat, but translating that heft into reliable play on the nose could be difficult. It’s now or never for Chandler to fulfill his potential. Defense:
This is South Florida, after all, so there’s no shortage of athleticism on the second level. While he was slowed during spring due to injury, it’s easy to see senior Reshard Cliett (56 tackles) claiming one of the two outside spots on early downs; he could theoretically move inside on passing downs, though that hinges on whether or not USF can identify pass-rush specialists off the edge. Between Cliett, sophomore Nigel Harris (35 tackles), junior Tashon Whitehurst and four incoming freshmen – though each could also begin in the middle – the Bulls don’t lack for options on the outside. It’s been interesting to track the staff’s attempts at locating two starters in the middle, a task of increased importance given DeDe Lattimore’s departure. While the staff loves redshirt freshman Auggie Sanchez, a converted fullback, you can sense a general unease over the options at the Bulls’ disposal. It’s possible that the Bulls play or start a true freshman in the middle, whether that’s LeGrande Harley, Nick Holman or Josh Black.
South Florida linebacker Nigel Harris (57) takes down Louisville running back Dominique Brown (10) in a game last October at Raymond James Stadium.
The potential in this secondary is obvious, even if the Bulls might struggle replicating Mark Joyce’s impact at safety. For one, look for continued growth from an impressive core of sophomores: Nate Godwin, Hassan Childs, Johnny Ward and Lamar Robbins. Godwin and Childs are the likely starters at safety, though each could be pushed by JUCO transfer Jamie Byrd – an immediate contributor wherever he falls, whether at safety or nickel back. Ward and Robbins will get first crack at cornerback, but reinforcements are coming: USF’s signing class was impressive altogether but strongest in the defensive backfield. Now, this is a young group, and with this youth comes the occasional – or more than occasional – hiccups in coverage. But there’s certainly potential, room for growth and reason for optimism. By some point in 2015, this should be the best secondary in the American.
South Florida may have the nation’s best kicker in senior Marvin Kloss, a Lou Groza Award finalist in 2013 – and when it comes to longer kicks, those beyond 40 yards, there’s simply no one better. USF also returns junior punter Mattias Ciabatti, a potentially dangerous weapon in Dunkley and, thanks to this year’s recruiting class, should have more assets to blend into its underachieving return and coverage teams. When it comes to the return game, the potential is there for a significant step forward. Special Teams:
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
It’s as obvious here as anywhere else: USF has a core group of linemen, most of whom earned starting snaps throughout last season, but the key to improvement – and it’s a big key for this offense – lies in the staff’s ability to bring together a more reliable two-deep. One factor that could help the line round into form is the return of Thor Jozwiak, who went into last fall as a projected starter at guard before being sidelined with a heart condition. Now back in the lineup, Jozwiak’s size, toughness and aggressiveness should provide a substantial boost to the entire unit. About that size: USF is bigger almost across the board, thanks in large part to a dedicated approach to nutrition and lifting, and as such should be at least a touch more productive in the running game – and finding creases on the ground will help the Bulls’ starting quarterback, of course. Offensive line:
So pencil Jozwiak into a spot at right guard, a move that would push sophomore Dominique Threatt into a reserve role along the interior; thrown to the wolves as a rookie, Threatt could use this time to strengthen his overall technique and consistency. Elsewhere, don’t be surprised if it’s the status quo: USF returns a trio of 12-game starters in senior left tackle Darrell Williams, junior left guard Brynjar Gudmundsson and senior center Austin Reiter, the latter a member of the Rimington Trophy watch list, and senior right tackle Quinterrius Eatmon started every game but the season finale against Rutgers. You can look at this continuity as a bad thing, if you so choose, because this group was a train wreck for most of last fall – though the poor numbers in pass protection can be tied to the youth under center. Let’s look at this as a positive, however, as a bigger and more experienced line should pay dividends. Even then, the Bulls need to address an overall lack of depth.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
The Bulls’ schedule is brutal. Maryland, North Carolina State, East Carolina, Houston and UCF come to Tampa, which is both good and bad – because USF wouldn’t have a prayer against these teams on the road, but it’d be nice to get more winnable games inside the friendly confines. Not that the road slate is significantly easier: Wisconsin, Tulsa, Cincinnati, SMU and Memphis. To crack the six-win mark, the Bulls simply must take care of business against the slate’s winnable half; that includes must-have victories against Connecticut, Tulsa, SMU and Memphis. Connecticut:
Season Breakdown & Prediction
Let’s make one thing clear: USF could make a noticeable leap forward in several key areas – quarterback play, offensive balance, defensive consistency, special teams – and still hover outside of bowl contention. Things were awful last year, in short. At the same time, it’s obvious that Taggart and his staff have things moving ahead despite last season’s horridness; helping matters is a gifted roster, if extremely young, and the assistance found in February’s rock-solid recruiting class. Things are looking up despite last year’s 10-loss finish – but projecting USF to make a four-win improvement and reach the postseason is just silly.There are too many weak points. The Bulls’ quarterback situation isn’t good. The backfield hasn’t found its leader, let alone any degree of explosiveness. The receiver corps is too reliant on one target. The offensive line is bigger, true, and a touch more experienced, but it remains a concern. On defense, the move toward the 3-4 will come with its issues, though I can see the idea behind the transition. In total, the Bulls are too young, too unproven and too inexperienced to justify anything more than four or five wins during the regular season. In a nutshell: Continue Reading by Clicking Here
by Paul Myerberg | USA TODAY Sports
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