Monday, December 11, 2017
Colleges

USF spring game: Expect more bite from embattled defense

TAMPA — On USF's first day in full pads, Devon Jones-Stewart went full bore.

With spring practice still in its first week and offensive players under a protective order of sorts, Jones-Stewart, a backup senior safety, leveled slot receiver Chris Barr on a pass over the middle. The whistles hadn't stopped echoing when coach Charlie Strong jumped in Jones-Stewart's grill with an R-rated scolding.

As practice protocol goes, the hit was unacceptable. As tone-setters go, it was unmistakable.

A defense bashed and beleaguered last season is poised to do some counter­punching.

"They're blitzing a lot right now. That's good," backup quarterback Brett Kean said. "I mean, they're flying around, they're making a lot of plays, and it's good to see."

Under new coordinator Brian Jean-Mary, the Bulls will operate out of a familiar formation, employing a 4-2-5 that can transition to a three-linebacker look. But what might seem the same schematically as last fall could differ philosophically.

By all indications, Jean-Mary will dial up pressure from every nook and corner.

"It's coming from everywhere," nickel back Khalid McGee said.

"They want to be downhill and attack a lot more," middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez, rehabilitating from shoulder surgery this spring.

"They might blitz every single play, when with (Tom) Allen and Coach (Raymond) Woodie (the past two seasons) we were kind of a cover-four shell team. We're probably a little more aggressive now."

An Apopka High teammate of Warren Sapp and a Strong assistant the past seven years, Jean-Mary is a salty contrast to the stoic Woodie, the defensive coordinator who followed head coach Willie Taggart to Oregon.

In his lone season as coordinator, Woodie's unit finished 120th in Division I-A out of 128 teams last season, giving up an average 482.0 yards per game, surrendering nearly 200 rushing yards a game and allowing "gap control" to become a bleak buzz phrase around the program.

If Strong and Jean-Mary can't provide an immediate upgrade, it won't be from a lack of aggressiveness or experimentation. Audibly the most conspicuous coach on the field, Jean-Mary — "BJ" to many — has moved personnel and mixed rotations all spring.

"I've told the entire defense there's nobody that's solidified a spot," he said.

Rangy safety Malik Dixon (6 feet 3, 219 pounds) has moved to linebacker, and beefed-up redshirt freshman Mi'Cario Stanley (6-2, 274) has switched from linebacker to tackle. Some defensive backs, including Admiral Farragut alumnus Craig Watts and East Lake's Devin Abraham, have lined up at three secondary spots.

Sickles alumnus Josh Black has been an edge rusher on one play and middle linebacker the next. Up front, linemen are rotated liberally.

"I think they're used to playing a lot of snaps and surviving a lot of snaps," tackles coach Sean Cronin said.

"They're not going to have to do that with what we're going to do. We're going to rotate them and keep them fresh. And so we expect them, because we're keeping them fresh, to play really, really, really, really hard and to strain on every play."

In all likelihood, quarterbacks will be off-limits at today's split-squad game at Corbett Stadium.

When the Bulls stop dialing back, there could be no limit to what they dial up.

"I think if we had our choice, you always want to run a defense that mirrors what your head coach wants to put on the field," Jean-Mary said. "And if you remember anything about Coach Strong from his Florida days, he was always going to be an aggressive guy calling a defense. And he hasn't changed."

 
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