TAMPA — Chuck Bresnahan has a specific model for USF's new defensive identity, one with little in common with last year's unit.
"We need to be a fast-playing, physical team that creates turnovers. That's the biggest thing we're going to emphasize," the defensive coordinator said.
The last part of that — creating turnovers — was a major problem last year. The Bulls had just two interceptions all season, both in the fourth quarter of a win against Connecticut. The Bulls tied for last place out of 120 Division I-A programs in three key categories: interceptions, total takeaways (nine) and turnover margin (minus-19).
"A lot of bad things happen for the offense when the defense is running to the football," coach Willie Taggart said. "Chuck is doing a great job of stressing that to our players: Every single play, run to the ball. You see big guys like (defensive tackles) Luke Sager and Elkino Watson running to the ball. That's scary. If (an opponent) cut-back runs into those guys, that's not right."
The turnover drop-off was especially frustrating because just a year earlier, USF had forced 34 turnovers with Mark Snyder as defensive coordinator.
With that in mind, USF isn't holding anything back in setting lofty goals for total takeaways this season.
"We're trying to get 58. Fifty-seven was the high, in 1970," said linebacker Reshard Cliett, pointing to Tennessee's NCAA record, which has stood for 43 years. "They're stressing it. It's a new year, new day. I feel like we can do anything."
Bresnahan remembers something he learned 15 years ago, when he was the Raiders defensive backs coach, from then-coordinator Willie Shaw, whose son David is now Stanford's head coach and worked with Taggart on the Stanford staff from 2007 to 2009.
"He was a big believer in turnovers, and he preached that 85 percent of interceptions came off tips and overthrows, not off great plays," Bresnahan said. "So the combination of man and zone coverage is essential. We could have great lockdown corners like I had in Oakland and play man coverage 70 percent of the time, but you've got to play some zone if you want to create those plays."
Bresnahan has a good history of creating turnovers as a coordinator. In his first year running Oakland's defense in 2000, the Raiders forced 37 takeaways, ranked third in the NFL in turnover margin and won the AFC West with a 12-4 record. In his first year as Cincinnati's coordinator, the Bengals led the NFL with 44 takeaways and 31 interceptions, also best with a plus-24 margin, and won the AFC North with an 11-5 record. Five times in his seven NFL seasons as a coordinator, his defense ranked in the top eight in the NFL in takeaways and interceptions.
"It's not that I'm doing anything different. We're preaching and practicing it, and we're getting the guys to buy into it," Bresnahan said. "If you really buy into it, they're competing with each other to make those plays. I don't concern myself with not getting them. I concern myself with not getting enough."
Taggart said to get the change his team needs in takeaways, there has to be a change in mentality, an aggressiveness that must permeate the entire defense.
"Turnovers come when guys play with fanatical effort. Just crazy for the ball," he said. "When that ball's in the air, rather than knock it down, 'I want that ball. That's my ball. He threw it in my area, it's my ball.' We keep trying to stress that."