USF preview: Washington, Webster stepping up
We continue our positional previews for USF football at cornerback, a position where the Bulls have had great success in the NFL Draft, with four corners taken in the last four drafts. The latest on that list was Mistral Raymond, whose absence leaves a question mark in an otherwise experienced, veteran secondary. We'll have a feature next week on senior Quenton Washington, who inherits Raymond's role as the team's most dependable cornerback, but it's just as important for USF that junior Kayvon Webster continue his maturation in his first season as a full-time starter.
"Quenton, he was the only one I felt good about going in (to spring workouts)," defensive backs coach Rick Smith said last week. "Kayvon has made the same progress since the end of last season to now that Quenton made last year from the end of spring to the end of the season. I don't know -- the light went on. ... (Raymond shifting from safety to cornerback last fall) enabled us to be decent and give Kayvon time to grow up. He was spoiled, too. He came in here kind of like he was a prima donna. He's working as hard or harder than Quenton. Those two guys have caught on fire. I feel solid about those two guys."
Again, we'll have a lot more on Washington next week -- he's put himself in position to be another draft pick with a remarkable transformation over the past year, mentally, physically and as a leader as well. Webster has 10 starts over the past two years, some due to injuries and others when USF opened a game in the nickel defense, but he only has one interception in those two season, one area ripe for improvement this fall. With limited proven depth behind him, he'll be on the field much more, and with the Big East moving to more pass-oriented offenses, Webster's ability to step up as a starter is a huge factor for USF's defense.
Smith handles the two corner positions differently -- there's the boundary corner, who is more likely to be alone in coverage on the short side of the field, and the field corner, who plays on the wide side but has help from the safeties. Walk-on Ernie Tabuteau, a transfer from Miles College who joined the team in spring and was one of the surprise stars, enters the fall as the No. 3 cornerback, with junior George Baker, fast but unproven, as the most likely to line up as the other top backup. ("Hell, he played 220 plays last year and didn't kill us," Smith says.)
"George is a great athlete, a phenomenal athlete," Smith said. "Being a phenomenal athlete doesn't make you a great football player. Skinny (Raymond) was a great football player, but really he was an average athlete. He played on instinct and heart. George is a thinker. 'Just play, George.' George is where he needs to be. He'll be the backup field corner. Ernie's my backup boundary corner. I feel good about that."
"The fifth one? Flip a coin," Smith says in gauging his depth entering the fall. Who else could see playing time at cornerback? Smith said he isn't counting on Ricardo Dixon or Spencer Boyd because both have been limited by injuries -- Dixon has had shoulder and back problems, while Boyd was limited by a hamstring after moving back over from a trial run at receiver last fall. One option is true freshman Kenneth Durden, who has a good chance to play immediately and prepare for a larger role down the road, much like safety Mark Joyce did last fall.
"Kenneth Durden's going to get a shot to be the fifth corner," Smith said. "Now Kenneth's about 165 pounds. He's won the triple jump two years in a row in the state of Georgia, he's a hell of an athlete, starts on the basketball team. Being here and eating three meals a day, lifting, I feel like maybe by the season, he'll be over 170."
If there's one area where USF's cornerbacks can be significantly better in 2011, it's in coming up with interceptions. USF's corners totaled three picks last year -- one each for Washington, Raymond and Baker -- and that's considerably down from the heyday of 2007, when Trae Williams had six, Mike Jenkins had three and Jerome Murphy had two. That was 11 picks from corners that season, and USF has totaled 11 in the three seasons since (and Murphy had six of those in 2008-09).