Incumbent Mike White, above, still seeking his first victory as a starter, held off a challenge from junior Steven Bench in the preseason. Based on observation and sound bites, both possess more command of the offense than they did a season ago. One has to presume coach Willie Taggart will devise some packages to use Bench's mobility. What to do with promising freshman Quinton Flowers? Taggart won't discuss redshirt scenarios.
Sophomore Darius Tice, right, the Bulls' top returning rusher (35 carries, 141 yards) likely gets the initial handoff, but there's uncertainty about the second. Four-star freshmen Marlon Mack and D'Ernest Johnson have impressed coaches with their physicality, especially in blocking, this preseason. Redshirt freshman Sta'fon McCray also is in the mix.
Senior Andre Davis, on the cusp of several USF career receiving records, should get far more passes than last season. Look for the tight ends, particularly slimmed-down junior Sean Price, to become more prominent cogs in Taggart's West Coast, power-based system. Toledo transfer Rodney Adams, a rangy vertical threat, has dazzled coaches in preseason camp.
The entire unit returns, roughly 15 pounds heavier per man. Also back is 320-pound LG Thor Jozwiak, who missed 2013 with an irregular heartbeat. Will the added girth equate to greater physicality up front? And can this unit drastically cut down on pre-snap penalties? False starts were a big reason USF committed the sixth-most penalties (102) in Division I-A last season.
To maximize their personnel, and compensate for the loss of the top four ends from last year's depth chart, the Bulls are switching to a 3-4 look. Senior Todd Chandler, a 320-pound behemoth who can squat 700 pounds, is the classic nose guard. He'll remain on the interior, but fellow tackle Elkino Watson possesses the versatility to play anywhere along the line.
Senior Reshard Cliett, the top returning tackler (56), anchors the unit and will be among the litany of edge rushers in USF's 3-4 scheme. The inside is led by 220-pound sophomore Nigel Harris, who added 30 pounds after his strong rookie season (35 tackles), and converted FB Auggie Sanchez. Another edge rusher, junior Tashon Whitehurst, could be poised for a breakout year. Junior transfer LeGrande Harley had a pick-six and a scoop-and-score in the same August scrimmage.
Probably the team's deepest unit. At one point in November's UCF game, four freshmen were in the secondary. They're all back, led by S Nate Godwin (49 tackles, one INT). Converted WR Chris Dunkley has excelled since moving to corner, and freshman nickelback Devin Abraham of East Lake has taken first-team reps since Day 1. Pasco High alumnus Jamie Byrd, a junior college transfer, gives USF another headhunter at safety.
For all the buzz about their overall increase in strength, the Bulls flex the most figurative muscle at kicker and punter. Groza Award (top U.S. kicker) finalist Marvin Kloss will try improve on his career year (11 field goals of 40-plus yards), and junior Mattias Ciabatti (average 40.2 yards per punt) might have been the only player in camp whose starting job wasn't challenged. Walk-on Alex Salvato likely replaces graduated long snapper David Burdetsky.
Joey Knight, Times staff writer