South Florida Bulls
2014 Record: 4-8 (3-5, AAC)
Scheme: Head coach Willie Taggart made his name at Western Kentucky, utilizing a pro-style, run heavy offense to success with the Hilltoppers. When he took over the USF program from Skip Holtz, he ditched Holtz’ spread offense for his favored pro-style. Three years later, the Bulls have been so abysmal on offense (just 305 yards and 17 points per game last year) that Taggart is dumping his offense and jumping on the collective bandwagon, installing an up-tempo, spread offense for this season. If it sounds like desperation, it is. This is a make or break year for Taggart and if the offense doesn’t improve, he is done for. It is anyone’s guess what the offense will look like since this is the first year they are using the system, but Taggart has gone on record saying he wants to go super fast, running 80 to 90 plays per game. But don’t expect Taggart to get too crazy, as I would assume he’ll still lean on the ground game.
Quarterbacks: USF was pretty bad throwing the ball last year, finishing 97th in yards per game, while also completing just 49% of their passes as a team. Mike White was the main starter last year, but he decided to transfer out of the program so now there are open auditions yet again. Sadly, that is nothing new for Taggart, who has started five different quarterbacks in the past two seasons. Given the switch in offense, expect either senior Steven Bench or sophomore Quinton Flowers to emerge as the starter. But also don’t be surprised if both see time throughout the year. Bench (611 yards, 49%, 3 TD, 2 interceptions) is the slightly better passer and has more experience, but most expect Flowers, a heralded recruit who saw action in five games as a true freshman last year, to win the job. Flowers (111 yds, 40%, 2 ints, 73 yds rushing) is still raw as a passer, but he has the athleticism to make the run dimensions of this offense hum. He will make mistakes, but the smart money is on him getting the bulk of the snaps.
Running Backs: If USF has a star on this downtrodden offense, it is definitely sophomore Marlon Mack, who far and away led the team in carries, yards, and total touchdowns last year. Mack (1,041 yds, 5.2 average, 9 TD, 21 receptions) made a lot of mistakes last year, especially a fumbling issue, but he also showed promise and explosiveness and it would be a shock if the offense did not run through him yet again. Classmate D’Ernest Johnson (150 yds, 3.3 avg, 8 receptions, TD) was actually a more heralded recruit than Mack, but took longer to acclimate to the college game. If Johnson can provide anything off the bench, the Bulls could have a very good 1-2 punch.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: The Bulls will typically line up with four wide receivers at all times and they have no less than 11 options here. The problem is that none of the pass catchers on the roster exactly stand out. Rodney Adams (23 recs, 323 yds, 2 TD) is the top returner and brings experience and decent size. The coaching staff likes the potential of sophomore Ryeshene Bronson, who only played in 6 games last year but has turned heads in practice. In reality, though, the Bulls are largely banking on guys who’ve never played a snap for the team. Kentucky transfer A.J. Legree has some experience from his SEC days and is being counted on to start. Western Kentucky transfer Austin Aikens, who signed with WKU when Taggart was the coach, will also be expected to play right away. Add to that mix redshirt freshmen Tyre McCants, Stanley Clerveaux, and Chris Whitehead and you’ve got enough bodies for a rotation. True freshmen Jarvis Baxter and Chris Barr are both skinny, but fast and could be used in the slot.
Senior Sean Price (14 recs, 207 yds) is a former four-star recruit who has yet to live up to his billing, but the tight end job is basically his by default. He has one last chance to shine. The coaches like redshirt frosh Elkanah Dixon, who will be the top option off the bench.
Offensive Line: As if having question marks at several other positions wasn’t enough, the Bulls must replace three starters here and those three take 112 collective starts with them. USF returns several players with starting experience and many former 3-star recruits, but this unit is going to be a worry.
If nothing else, USF appears set at guard where seniors Brynjar Gudmondsson and Thor Jozwiak are both returning starters and top backup Dominique Threatt has seven career starts to his name as well. The interior is further bolstered by sophomore center Cameron Ruff, a top backup last year who has nice size and potential. The tackle spots are the issue. Junior Kofi Amichia, who has one career start, is the expected starter at LT, but he will be pushed by redshirt freshman Benjamin Knox. The RT spot has several contenders—little-used seniors Mak Djulbegovic and Clavion Nelson as well as JC transfer Glen Bethel, redshirt freshman Michael Smith, and true freshmen Marcus Norman and Billy Atterbury. In sum, the offensive line looks like a problem area.
Scheme: Considering how little help they got from the offense, the defense did an admirable job last season, finishing 69th in yards allowed and 66th in points allowed. New coordinator Tom Allen, who was the LB coach at Ole Miss, is installing the 4-2-5 defense that was utilized by the Rebels to try to make the USF defense better. The goal will be to counter spread offenses better while also creating some big plays on defense.
Defensive Line: This unit helped lead a pretty solid run defense last year and with four of the top six players from last year back, plus some talented freshmen, this could be a decent group yet again. That being said, the shift to the 4-2-5 puts much more pressure on the line to hold up at the point of attack by occupying blockers for the back end and it will be interesting to see if the schematic shift hurts or helps the line.
USF lost starting tackles Elkino Watson and Todd Chandler, but they’ve recruited well on the interior and that looks like the most solid part of this position group. Seniors Demetrius Hill and James Hamilton and junior Derrick Calloway all featured in at least 10 games last season and will comprise the main rotation. Calloway (30 tackles, 5 for loss, 3 sacks) boasts a nice mix of size and the ability to penetrate and make plays. Hill (25 tackles, 5 for loss, 2 sacks) is smaller, but equally disruptive. Hamilton is more of a traditional run-stuffer. The coaches are really excited about sophomore Deadrin Senat (18 tackles), who got his feet wet as a freshman last year and will see an increased role this year. USF really does not have anyone else of note at tackle so these four need to stay healthy and if they do, they form a good quartet.
There are far less proven commodities at end, but the coaches seem cautiously optimistic about the group. Senior Eric Lee is the one sure thing. Lee (28 tackles, 6 for loss) is not a big guy at just 250 pounds, but he plays the run surprisingly well. The battle to start opposite him at the BULL position (think FSU’s Jack spot, essentially an OLB who plays DE) is between sophomore Josh Black and little-used senior Zack Bullock. Black only played in five games as a freshman, but has potential. Another person in the mix is redshirt frosh Vincent Jackson, who the coaches really like. Jackson is more likely slated to be Lee’s backup, but he could move over to the BULL spot if necessary.
Linebackers: The top three tacklers from last year’s LB corps return so with only two starting spots to fill in the new scheme, this unit should be fine. Junior WLB Nigel Harris (77 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 2 sacks, 6 forced fumbles) is a playmaker who should excel in the new attacking defense. In the middle, sophomore Auggie Sanchez (66 tackles, 2 for loss) won’t wow you with many big plays, but he is fundamentally sound and won’t make many mistakes. Depth is good too with seniors Tashon Whitehurst (49 tackles, 5 for loss, 2 sacks) and LeGrande Harley (23 tackles) the top options off the bench. The coaches are also expecting former 4-star recruit Jimmy Bayes to see significant snaps after redshirting last year.
Secondary: The good news is that basically everyone who saw a snap in the secondary last year is back and a player who appeared in 11 games in 2013 is joining the fold after missing last season. The bad news is that the guys who played last year were really bad. Opponents completed an absurd 68.9% of their passes for 16 touchdowns against just 6 interceptions. USF had one of the worst pass efficiency defenses in the country and part of the switch to the 4-2-5 was to get another DB on the field to try to help this unit out. We shall see what happens.
USF does seem to have a bonafide player to build around in senior HUSKY (essentially a LB/S hybrid spot) Jamie Byrd, who led the team in tackles last year. Byrd (95 tackles, 2.5 for loss, 2 ints) will be asked to attack a lot in his new position and should excel. Junior Nate Godwin (72 tackles, 2 pass breakups) returns to man the SS spot after finishing third on the team in tackles last year. Godwin is a big hitter and solid tackler, but did not do much in pass defense last year and needs to improve. Sophomore Devin Abraham (34 tackles, 3 for loss) is expected to make a leap in his second year at FS and many around the program think he could be a star. Depth is the issue here as only junior SS Hassan Childs and sophomore FS Tajee Fullwood come off the bench with any experience, although senior Torrel Saffold returns after missing 2014. Fullwood is one player the coaches have been talking up a lot.
There are lots of bodies at CB, but this unit needs to be way, way better. Junior Johnny Ward (36 tackles, 2 ints) is the best of the bunch, bringing decent size and ball skills to the position. Junior Lamar Robbins (21 tackles, 3 for loss) is a former 4-star recruit with good size (6’2, 200) who could blossom. The coaches think sophomores Kendall Sawyer and Deatrick Nichols could take a nice leap in their second years. Redshirt freshman Mazzi Wilkins is in the mix as well.
Special Teams: Senior Mattias Ciabatti is back to punt and he is one of the best in college football. Ciabatti averaged 44.4 yards per punt, but the coverage unit often let him down and USF was in the bottom third for punt coverage. Kicker Marvin Kloss, who was very good on both field goals and kickoffs, will be missed. Sophomore Emilio Nadelman is expected to take over the kicking duties.
Schedule: When you need to have a decent season to save your job, you probably wouldn’t be too happy with this schedule. USF has road games against FSU, Navy and Maryland in the non-conference schedule as well as conference road games at East Carolina and UCF. Those will all be tough to navigate. That means that the Bulls really need to win at home early and often, but home dates with Syracuse, Memphis, Temple, and Cincinnati won’t be cakewalks.
Overall: Taggart has gone just 6-18 in his two years at USF and while it seems somewhat crazy to think he would be fired after just three years, that is the world of college football today. You don’t get five or six years to right the ship, even if you inherited a mess, which Taggart did. While Taggart is recruiting well (his past two classes have been first and second in the conference, respectively), the problem is USF lacks depth at most positions or are relying on freshmen and sophomores to carry the load. And the offense. Despite the change in scheme, which reeks of desperation, on paper USF does not have any threats other than Mack. If he goes down, the offense is in serious trouble, but it is obvious that defenses are going to stack the box and dare the Bulls to throw. I’m not sure they can with enough efficiency to win. The defense has some nice pieces and parts and should be able to field a good starting 11. Depth is unproven at DE and in the secondary, but I think the Bulls will be good enough to keep themselves in games on defense. The question really is the offense. If they are somewhat competent, I could see USF winning 4 or 5 games but given all the holes the Bulls have, I don’t see them doing any better than 5-7. Will that be enough to save Taggart’s job or will USF start over?