VERO BEACH — USF defensive coordinator Mark Snyder prides himself on creating defenses with multiple looks and strengths. That flexibility might best be seen in senior Curtis Weatherspoon, a small but quick linebacker who has been working as the starter on the strongside during the preseason.
"He's going to be on the field in a bunch of different roles for us; special teams … and on defense," Snyder said last week. "He's going to wear a bunch of hats. He's the utility guy."
Weatherspoon played his high school football in Valdosta, Ga., then came to USF last year from Massachusetts and tiny Dean College, a junior college with an enrollment of about 1,000. He has a size normally associated with a safety — 6 feet, 218 pounds — but made a name for himself as a 207-pound blitzing outside linebacker at Dean.
He was the Northeast Conference defensive MVP in 2009 after recording 19 tackles-for-loss, including nine sacks.
He got a taste of major college football last season at USF, recording 19 tackles. Most came early in the season against nonconference opponents, though four came against West Virginia.
When Jacquian Williams (a sixth-round pick of the Giants) graduated, it opened a window for a new strongside starter. And Weatherspoon's jack-of-all-trades flexibility has him ahead of redshirt freshman (and converted safety) Reshard Cliett.
"Wherever he needs me to help the team, that's where I'm going to go," said Weatherspoon, whose varied skills make him a candidate to stay on the field in nickel situations. "We're all trying to compete; to do the best we can to get better and help each other out."
USF doesn't have the luxury of an easy opener this season (a trip to Notre Dame instead of the I-AA opponents it faced at home from 2006-10). That means the defense will have to be ready without the benefit of a few tuneups. Weatherspoon came to Tampa with a reputation for being a quick learner. His coach at Dean, Todd Vasey, called him "the smartest player I've had in 26 years of coaching football."
Linebacker might be USF's strongest position with young stars in junior Sam Barrington and sophomore DeDe Lattimore and a tough run-stopper in Michael Lanaris. But against pass-heavy teams such as West Virginia and up-tempo offenses such as Pittsburgh, Weatherspoon's ability to get to quarterbacks quickly will be an asset.
"I've got to get him his reps because he has to go to a different position in one package and those kinds of things," Snyder said.
USF struck gold with a first-year senior starter in Williams last season (team-high 71 tackles, 11 for loss). But Weatherspoon is staying humble about possibly playing such a role in his final season with the Bulls.
"I'm happy I get to compete with all the guys, to try to earn a spot," he said.
"We're all competing, but we're all doing a great job."
Times writer Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com.