2016: Willie's Bullies

USF Football is Awesome, New Norm in Tampa?

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USF Mascot Rocky the Bull does the DAB II vs WKU Miami Beach Bowl 2015 (1124x944)
Photo Credit: USF Athletics

Suddenly, USF is good.

1. The new normal?

A funny thing happened in the AAC last year.

Early on, three up-and-comers stole headlines. Memphis beat Ole Miss and started 8-0. Temple beat Penn State, started 7-0, and brought ESPN College GameDay to town for a game against Notre Dame that it nearly won. Navy and its record-setting quarterback started 9-1, also with only a loss to Notre Dame.

The AAC emerged as the conference for thrilling Group of Five action, finishing with Houston’s two-touchdown win over Florida State in the Peach Bowl.

But at the end of the regular season, a completely different team was the hottest in the conference.

It seemed like Willie Taggart was done in Tampa-St. Pete. His first two years had resulted in excellent recruiting and a 6-18 record. Recruiting will buy you time, but only so much. A 1-3 start to 2015 made it feel like doom was on the way, that Taggart’s long-term role would be bringing in talent with which his replacement could win. I didn’t feel good about the title of my 2015 USF preview — “It’s bad” — but … it was bad.

USF had shown brief signs of life, though. The Bulls were tied 7-7 at halftime with Florida State before falling victim to Dalvin Cook’s 266 rushing yards, and they went up 10-0 on a Memphis team at its peak before falling late. There was nothing appealing about an 18-point loss to Maryland, but there were hints of quality play. And the hints became shouts when Syracuse came to town.

USF beat the Orange and SMU by 24, took down an emerging UConn on the road, won at ECU, then kicked things up one more gear. They finished the regular season beating Temple by 21, Cincinnati by 38, and UCF by 41.

Even with a bowl loss to WKU — the season’s best mid-major per the S&P+ ratings — USF finished in the S&P+ top 50 for the first time since 2011, Skip Holtz’s second year. The defense was solid (46th in Def. S&P+) after a year in the wilderness, and the offense was legitimately interesting (50th in Off. S&P+) for the first time since ranking 44th in 2008, Jim Leavitt’s second-to-last year.

This was a USF renaissance, and a month into the season we didn’t really know it was coming. It just sort of happened.

Sudden gains are tricky to interpret. From a stat standpoint, you tend to get better projections from an extended period of time — on average, a look at five-year recent history (perhaps weighted for recency), for instance, probably tells you more about a program’s baseline health than a nine-game sample from last season.

But if your sudden gains come from a depth chart coming of age, or a quarterback emerging, why would five-year history play much of a role? The team we saw late last year, with running back Marlon Mack and quarterback Quinton Flowers creating a devastating backfield, and receiver Rodney Adams creating big plays, and linebackers Auggie Sanchez and Nigel Harris getting into the backfield, and devastating corner Deatrick Nichols making plays near and far from the line of scrimmage … well … that’s the team we could see again. This breakthrough didn’t happen with a bunch of seniors.

USF has major questions in the trenches, where three starters are gone on each side. But if quality recruiting helps to prevent too much of a breakdown, the pieces are in place for the Bulls to do a late-2015 impression for much of 2016.

2015 Schedule & Results

Date 2015 Opponents [@/vs.] Opp. F/+ Rank Final Scores (Win/Loss) Win Expect. vs. Vegas
9/5/15 FAMU N/A 51- 3 [W] 100%
9/12/15 @ FSU 12 14-34 [L] 4% +8.0
9/19/15 @ Maryland 76 17-35 [L] 3% -11.0
10/2/15 Memphis 41 17-24 [L] 14% +2.0
10/10/15 Syracuse 85 45-24 [W] 100% +18.5
10/17/15 @ UConn 80 28-20 [W] 60% +11.0
10/24/15 SMU 106 38-14 [W] 100% +12.5
10/31/15 @ Navy 21 17-29 [L] 16% -4.5
11/7/15 @ ECU 73 22-17 [W] 80% +9.0
11/14/15 Temple 45 44-23 [W] 99% +24.0
11/20/15 Cincinnati 72 65-27 [W] 100% +40.5
11/26/15 @ UCF 128 44-3 [W] 100% +41.0
12/21/15 vs. WKU 15 35-45 [L] 18% -7.5

2. The switch flipped

Thanks mostly to a romp over FAMU, USF’s early-season numbers were at least decent. But against two ACC teams and Memphis, the Bulls still didn’t look the part of a breakthrough candidate. Playing well for a quarter or a half isn’t the same thing as challenging for 60 minutes.

But after a rough couple of games against FSU and Maryland, quarterback Flowers figured things out against Memphis.

He completed 17 of 26 passes for 199 yards and a 134.7 passer rating; at that point, his season-long passer rating was 112.4. Over the next nine games, it would rise to 166.0. He still wasn’t a high-efficiency passer, but his mistakes diminished (he had four INTs in the first four games, and four in the final nine), and the play-action potential of this offense skyrocketed. The effects were obvious.

Average Percentile Performance (first 4 games):

39% (~top 80) | Record: 1-3 | Yards per play: USF 5.5, Opp 5.1 (+0.4) — without FAMU: Opp 6.0, USF 4.7 (-1.3)
Average Percentile Performance (next 8 games):

73% (~top 35) | Record: 7-1 | Yards per play: USF 6.8, Opp 5.3 (+1.5)

Flowers was an impressive get for Taggart and company a few years ago, a nearly four-star recruit. His output as a true freshman wasn’t particularly inspiring — 8-for-20 passing with two picks. But freshmen become sophomores. And with a little help from the offense, the defense was able to tighten its grip.

3. The next box to check: passing downs success

Despite a below-average pace, South Florida finished the season with 77 gains of 20-plus yards, 25th in the country. That was a massive improvement of 2014’s total of 45 (107th). A lot of this sudden explosiveness came because of the ground game, but Flowers’ ability to get the ball downfield was huge. He averaged 14.1 yards per completion, which, when combined with his and Mack’s explosiveness, gave USF’s offense the personality of a coil, ready to spring out at any moment.

Now just imagine what the Bulls could do with a bit more efficiency and a bit more success on passing downs.

Young quarterbacks are not typically efficient quarterbacks, and Flowers was still quite young last fall. But the next step in his development will be learning how to keep the chains moving once behind schedule. That he and Mack gained at least five yards on 45 percent of their carries meant that he wasn’t facing TOO many passing downs, but the explosiveness aspect of this offense was still far ahead of the efficiency aspect.

On third-and-4 or more, Flowers completed just 38 of 77 passes (49 percent) for 422 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. Only half of the 38 completions went for a first down. If you could stop USF on first down, you were almost certainly going to stop the Bulls on third.

Quarterbacks with this level of mobility do not always improve too much when it comes to passing downs passing. We’ll see if Flowers can become an exception.

4. From potential to production

Flowers’ emergence as a dual threat in the backfield, helped both Mack and the USF offensive line. Mack was still a 1,000-yard rusher as a freshman in 2014, averaging 5.1 yards per carry, but he gained at least five yards only 32 percent of the time. USF’s run game was woefully inefficient.

The combination of an extra year of experience for Mack, a mobile quarterback (Mike White and Steven Bench combined for 22 non-sack carries and 55 yards in 2014), and an extra year of experience for the line made all the difference in the world. USF rose from 126th in Adj. Line yards to 31st, from 125th in Rushing S&P+ to 18th. And despite Flowers’ sophomore limitations, the Bulls also improved from 112th in Passing S&P+ to 58th.

This was a rising tide, and Mack benefited more than anybody. In only seven more carries, he gained 340 more yards.

That Flowers returns next to Mack is unquestionably a good thing, but there are at least a few questions to answer up front. USF must replace the center-guard combination of Brynjar Gudmundsson and all-conference Thor Jozwiak, plus right tackle Mak Djulbegovic. (The Great Names quotient up front is really taking a hit this year.) Juniors Jeremi Hall and Glen Bethel are formerly well-regarded recruits who have waited for their turn in the starting lineup, and USF’s massive improvement last year came despite losing three different starters up front. So turnover doesn’t have to be the end of the world. But it’s at least a question the Bulls have to answer. And if the answer is satisfactory, the offense will roll.

5. All the continuity you could want

If the running game is up to snuff (and I assume it will be), USF has even more passing weapons this year. Losing high-efficiency tight end Sean Price hurts, but every wideout targeted with a pass last year is back, and NC State transfer Marquez Valdes-Scantling is a newly eligible, big-bodied option.

In the spring, the presence of Valdes-Scantling moved Rodney Adams to the slot; that’s an interesting development, as Adams was devastating from a wide position last year. Of 215 players with at least 65 targets last year, Adams was one of only 11 to combine 18-plus yards per catch with a success rate of at least 49 percent.

Adams was an incredible threat on the right side of the field; we’ll see if this slot move sticks, or what his slot presence can do for wideouts Valdes-Scantling, Ryeshene Bronson, etc. And we’ll also see if USF can find a role for the latest star recruit in the receiving corps, big-bodied four-star freshman Darnell Salomon. Continue Reading by Clicking Here

By Bill Connelly | SB Nation

SoFloBulls Blog by Matthew Manuri

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