Continuing our series of opponent previews for this fall, today we take a look at the USF Bulls. The Jackets travel to play South Florida in Tampa on September 8, in a game slated for a noon kickoff on ABC/ESPN2.
Year one of the Charlie Strong experiment saw the Bulls put together a 10-2 season, including a 7-0 start. Losses to Houston and UCF ruined the undefeated season, but Strong’s squad rebounded to defeat Texas Tech in the Birmingham Bowl for a nice consolation prize.
Fortunately for Tech, Strong and his staff have many holes to fill in year two. Gone is second team all-conference quarterback Quinton Flowers, along with star running backs Darius Nice and D’Ernest Johnson and top receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling. In fact, of the ten players USF placed on a postseason all-AAC team or honorable mention last season, only offensive tackle Marcus Norman returns. Strong and his staff were able to ink the second-ranked incoming recruiting class in the AAC, but it is to be seen how quickly the freshmen can contribute.
Let’s take a closer look at what Tech figures to see from the Bulls on each side of the ball.
At Quarterback, USF does not have an obvious candidate to replace Flowers. Junior dual-threat Brett Kean was the backup last year, but he was pushed in spring practice this year by sophomore pocket passer Chris Oladokun. The arrival of Arizona State transfer Blake Barnett this fall adds another element, and the starter really could be any of the three as the competition figures to rage on through fall camp. Kean is suspended for the first four (under appeal to be reduced to two) games of the season because he didn’t come to USF to play school, so whether his appeal is granted or not, he won’t be the starter when the Jackets head down to Tampa in week 2.
Nice and Johnson combined for over 1,700 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns last season, so replacing both at RB figures to be a tall task. Trevon Sands is the leading returning rusher after totaling only 111 rushing yards last year. Fortunately, Florida transfer Jordan Cronkrite is eligible to play this fall after rushing for over 300 yards in two seasons in Gainesville, and will likely take over the starting job. Sophomore Elijah Mack should also be in the mix for carries.
At receiver, Valdes-Scantling departs for the Green Bay Packers (5th round pick) after leading the team with 53 receptions for 879 yards last season, but the cupboard won’t be bare for whoever wins the quarterback job. Tyre McCants, Darnell Solomon, and DeAngelo Antoine combined for 79 catches last year, and all three return. In addition, the Bulls return starting tight end Mitchell Wilcox who caught two touchdowns last season. McCants, Solomon, and Wilcox all come in over 210 pounds, and their size and physicality figure to give a lot of DBs problems.
On the offensive line, Strong’s bunch return three starters in tackles Eric Mayes and Marcus Norman and guard William Atterbury, but lose first team all-AAC guard Jeremi Hall and starting center Cameron Ruff. The Bulls have very little experience behind Hall and Ruff, and this fall redshirt freshmen Demetris Harris and Jean Marcellus could replace them, with sophomore Michael Wiggs another candidate.
The Bulls lost a lot on offense, but took even heavier losses on the front six of their 4-2-5 defense. Up front, gone are all-AAC defensive tackles Deadrin Senat and Bruce Hector, with Senat being chosen in the third round of the NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons. Also gone is starting end Mike Love. Senat, Hector, and Love combined for 18 sacks and 34 tackles for loss last season, and replacing that kind of production is awfully hard. This fall the Bulls will return starting end Greg Reaves (14 tackles for loss), and seniors Josh Black and Juwan Brown along with freshman Stacy Kirby figure to be in the mix for playing time at the other end position. At tackle, the Bulls will likely turn to two of senior Kevin Bronson and sophomores Kevin Kegler and Kelvin Pinckney Jr, all of whom saw playing time sparingly last season.
At linebacker, USF loses all-AAC first team pick Augie Sanchez, who was absolutely the heart and soul of the defense for the Bulls in 2017. He led the team with 85 tackles, including 10.5 tackles for loss. Returning opposite him is junior Nico Sawtelle, who may slide over from his wide-side position to fill Sanchez’s hole in the middle. The other starter could be a number of guys, with senior Khalid McGee and sophomore Andre Polk Jr. the favorites coming out of the spring.
Without question, the most experienced unit of USF’s defense this fall will be the secondary. All-AAC picks Deatrick Nichols at nickel and Devin Abraham at safety both depart, but the Bulls return three senior starters in Ronnie Hoggins, Mazzi Wilkins, and Jaymon Thomas. In addition, the boys from Tampa return senior Nate Ferguson and sophomores Natron Culpepper and Donelle Thomas. All three saw action last fall. Ferguson is the odds-on favorite to start at nickel, and Culpepper is the front-runner to replace Abraham at safety.
Every major specialist for the Bulls in 2017 has since departed. All-conference kicker Emilio Nadelman is gone. Punter Jonathan Hernandez is gone after averaging 43.4 yards a boot in 2017. The return man was RB D’Ernest Johnson, and he’s gone too.
Johnson will likely be replaced on both return teams by speedy WR Tyre McCants, who returned a few kicks last season with moderate success. At kicker, the Bulls will turn to senior Jake Vivonetto, a transfer from John Carroll of Division III. As John Carroll’s kicker two years ago, Vivonetto made seven of nine field goals with a long of 43 yards and 25 of 26 extra points. At punter USF turns to freshman Trent Schneider, originally from Australia. Last season Schneider punted for Santa Barbara City College in California, where he averaged 38.6 yards per punt. (and didn’t use a year of college eligibility apparently)
USF was above average in efficiency in only two special teams last year- punt return and place kicking. With those and others likely to take a step back, USF could really struggle on special teams this season.
It is a blessing that Tech plays USF so early in the season. The talent is in place for USF to take another run at a double-digit win season in the AAC, but experience is sorely lacking many places on the roster. With only a tune-up game against Elon before the game against Tech, USF’s new faces should still be getting acclimated when the Jackets roll into Tampa. On paper Kean seems like the best quarterback of the three, so his absence for our trip to Tampa could be important. Since he won’t be playing, whomever is the quarterback will be facing his first FBS defense in DC Nate Woody’s group. Tech’s experienced offense should be able to move the ball on USF’s mostly new front six, and I believe the game will come down to how well our young secondary handles USF’s physicality at receiver and tight end. I’ll take Tech 34-28, with Benson and Marshall having monster games on the ground.