Notes: Smith expecting plenty of nickel in 2012
I've sat down with six of USF's nine assistant coaches in the last two weeks, getting great insights into where players stand going into preseason camp, now just 11 days away for the Bulls. I'm behind in blogging all these, but I'll start back up with defensive backs coach Rick Smith, who has shown himself to be commendably frank about his players in the past two seasons.
-- There's a good battle between JaQuez Jenkins and Jon Lejiste for one of the starting safety spots alongside Mark Joyce, though Smith said he expects a lot of nickel defense with all three safeties on the field and Jenkins in the nickel.
"The top two in the spring were of course Joyce and Jenkins, and it'll be that way when we start. Lejiste understands that," said Smith, who had Lejiste limited through spring drills as he recovered from a wrist injury. "Jon has had a really good summer. He's lost weight. He was about 202 and I asked him to get down to 192 and he's there. I thought last year the kid got too big. I'd rather him be quick and strong and in shape. He's done a great job getting in shape. It'll be interesting to see who wins that battle. We're going to play so much nickel, and when Jenkins goes to nickel, we're a better football team and Jon will come in at strong safety. .. Coach (Chris) Cosh loves nickel anyway. I think the three safeties will be on the field most of the time."
So unless opponents are lining up with run personnel -- like two backs and a tight end -- expect the nickel to be the base defense, with two linebackers on the field with the five defensive backs.
-- After spring drills, junior Fidel Montgomery had the inside track on the starting cornerback job opposite Kayvon Webster, ahead of redshirt freshman Kenneth Durden. Don't count out senior George Baker, who has not been dependable enough to keep the trust of USF coaches, but had a solid spring. "George Baker was amazing in the spring. We've got our fingers crossed that he comes back and has a good fall. ... Baker will probably line up (as a starter) the first day, bracketed (even) with Fidel, then Durden. We'll have those three over there."
Baker will need to show coaches he knows where to be in the pressure of game situations, something he struggled with when called upon last season. "He had a different look in his eye (in spring). He didn't panic when he did mess up, took everything in stride," Smith said. "Just a whole different mental makeup. I think he finally realized 'This is my last year. I've got to concentrate more. I've got to focus more.' Now do we trust him yet? No. I don't trust him yet to do it right. Are you willing to put your job on the line and have him be your starter?"
-- Who's next at safety after the top three entering camp? Senior walk-on Ernie Tabuteau, in good shape to earn a scholarship this fall, would be the top backup to Joyce. Tabuteau also dropped weight to 190 and is moving well after being limited by back problems last season. Another walk-on, Navy transfer Trevon Griffin, would be next, and he's live this season after sitting out last fall as a transfer. He'll dress, travel with the team and be a regular on all the special-teams units. Redshirt freshman Chris Garye isn't ready yet to get on the field, Smith said.
-- Smith said freshman corner Chris Bivins, recovering from ACL surgery that kept him out of spring drills, is "way ahead of schedule." He said Holtz has asked that Bivins be held back in summer workouts. "We don't want to take any chances. We're depending on him."
-- On freshman Jalen Spencer's recovery from a broken leg last fall: "It's amazing what they did for him. He came here completely 100 percent. He's had no problems with his injury." He could stay at corner, or could be moved to safety. "When SuperBull ended (last summer), Chris Bivins, who is a very confident young man ... Chris said 'Who is that guy?' I said it was a kid I've offered out of Pensacola. 'He's better than I am,' (Bivins said). I said 'For you to say that, he must be pretty good.' They've become pretty good friends."
-- New walk-on that could help on special teams is junior college cornerback Antonio Hughes, who was once a three-star prospect out of Jacksonville First Coast. Played in Minnesota at tiny Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College. He's awaiting a correction to a grade in one class but is otherwise set to go to Vero with the team. "The biggest thing about Antonio is that he works hard every day," said FDL coach Keith Turner, who had Hughes as a receiver his first year in 2010.
-- Don't expect anything from corner Ricardo Dixon, whose career has been marked by a parade of injuries -- two shoulders, a knee and back problems. Smith said a medical scholarship (ending his playing days, but keeping him from counting toward the limit of 85) is possible.
"He's trying to go through conditioning with the team. He's really struggling physically to get through conditioning," Smith said. "I'm 64 years old. He can't stay up with me in the weight room. I worry about putting a kid on the field in Division I football that can't stay up with a 64-year-old man. ... I just worry about the kid getting hurt again. I would be concerned for his physical well-being. It's not all his fault, all the injuries has put him behind. How much more can a body take? I don't seem him as a factor. I wish he had worked as hard in rehab as Chris Bivins."