Whitehurst, Bullock like competition for strongside job
VERO BEACH -- USF coach Willie Taggart stresses the value of competition at all positions, and while his team still has several starting jobs up for grabs, none might be more emblematic of a battling Bulls preseason than at strongside linebacker.
There, sophomores Tashon Whitehurst and Zack Bullock are fighting not only for a starting role, but to make a case to keep a third linebacker on the field in situations where a fifth defensive back might replace them.
"Competition breeds success," said Bullock, who had seven tackles as as a freshman, mostly on special teams. "That definitely helps. It makes me keep my game up, and it helps him keep (Whitehurst) up as well, knowing we're going up against each other for a starting position."
Both have good size, combining long arms with lighter, quicker body types -- Bullock, 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, impressed USF coaches on special teams last year when he caught a Bulls punt on the fly downfield, showing off his speed. Whitehurst, 6-3 and 205 pounds, also turned heads on special teams. Coordinator Stu Holt, after watching a punt block Whitehurst had as a freshman against Florida State last season, called it " one of the best collegiate plays I've ever seen."
Add starting weakside linebacker Reshard Cliett, a converted safety who is 6-2 and 220, and the Bulls will have elite speed in the middle of the field, complementing both the pass rush and the pass defense. Whitehurst and Bullock were slowed by injuries this spring, but have shined as they returned healthy this month.
"We've been flying around, all of us. It's way better than the spring," said Whitehurst, who has recovered fully from a hip flexor. "Learning a new defense, we've gone over everything. We took tests, went over it all summer, watched film together. Now I know everything, I see everything. It's much easier than before."
Bullock likes Chuck Bresnahan's defense, saying that a year ago, the linebackers always read the same thing from their opponents -- the guards -- but he said this defense has more complex keys, to its benefit. Whitehurst, who's from Gainesville, reached out to USF tight end Sean Price, who's from Ocala, and the former high school rivals helped each other stand the basics of reading each other's positions and tendencies.
Both linebackers came on in the second half of their freshman seasons -- each had one tackle after seven games, but they combined for 20 in the final five games with expanded roles. Whitehurst had eight of his 15 tackles in USF's win against Connecticut, where he started in place of suspended senior Sam Barrington.
Whitehurst also had a key fumble recovery in the fourth quarter against the Huskies, and those kinds of splash plays are what Taggart is looking for as he decides who his starter will be.
"It's going to be a hard decision. Tashon and Zack are both doing good things," he said. "I talk about how we want the ball as a defense, want turnovers. Today, Zack strips the ball from guys and getting a turnover. It's something I hadn't seen in this training camp. We've gotten interceptions, but we hadn't had a lot of forced fumbles. That was really exciting to see, taking what we're talking about and going out on the field and doing it."