TAMPA — USF's offense broke its huddle on a hot Sunday afternoon in Vero Beach this month, and defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan yelled out an alert to his players. "BIG! BIG! 22 PERSONNEL!" he shouted, referencing an alignment with two running backs and two tight ends.
The offense lined up with a tight end on each side and a fullback in front of the running back. But just as the defense reacted, the offensive players shifted simultaneously, leaving two tight ends on the left and a back lined up in the slot on same side. The defense adjusted quickly. But seconds later, receiver Andre Davis, who lined up on the right side and drew single coverage after the presnap commotion, caught a pass.
This is the offense USF fans will be introduced to tonight as the Willie Taggart era opens against McNeese State at Raymond James Stadium. There is an NFL-level commitment to misdirecting and confusing defenses, which can't trust that initial read because it's rarely how the Bulls will line up at the snap.
"We're going to shift and motion a lot. It's something we believe creates our edge," said offensive coordinator Walt Wells, who coached under Taggart in the same offense at Western Kentucky. "Some teams are tempo and speed. We're more the other way, misdirection and things like that.
"You don't see it much in college at all. Before we played them last year (Alabama defensive coordinator) Kirby Smart said, 'Man, y'all are so hard to get lined up to.' That's what we want to create."
The offense's intricate play calls are typically 10 to 12 words with multiple options before the ball is snapped. If a defense isn't lined up ideally, a shift can be called to prompt a defensive move that might create a vulnerability to be exploited.
If you hear USF quarterbacks yell "KILL! KILL!" under center, it's a signal of which play will actually be run.
It has been a work in progress during spring, summer and preseason workouts, gradually mastering what once looked and sounded like pure chaos to USF players.
"This spring, it was really eye-opening," sophomore starting quarterback Matt Floyd said. "That first day, they put in motions and shifts and stuff, we were just all, 'How the heck are we supposed to do this?' Now the plays, you say them and everybody knows what to do.
"We're still working out some kinks. But that's what's going to happen with a relatively new offense and as we keep adding more stuff to it here and there."
The challenges for opposing coaches are scout teams can't easily simulate the complexity of the shifting and defenses don't have much time to figure out the best ways to read the offense's ever-changing looks.
"They work year-round on that," said North Texas coach Dan McCarney, a former USF assistant who went 1-2 against Taggart's Western Kentucky teams. "It's second nature. They communicate well. They get lined up, give you lots of looks. And you basically get five or six days of preparation getting ready for that team.
"All it takes is one guy just a little off where he needs to be defensively, they're going to take advantage of that. And you didn't see many pre-snap penalties, which you can see when you get all the formations and smoke and mirrors before the ball's snapped. It's a good system."
While proud of the level of fluency in the offense, USF's coaches gave credit to summer voluntary workouts, during which the quarterbacks not only threw passes to work on timing, but led players through play calls, through the shifting and motion to get the entire offense on the same page.
"They did a great job in the summer bringing the kids together, going through all those things … by themselves," Wells said. "It's a tribute to our kids working hard all summer and trying to learn our system."
That understanding allows the offense to create mismatches.
Say Taggart wants to get a favorable matchup for tight end Sean Price and knows a defense wants a specific player covering him. The more pre-snap shifting the Bulls do, the harder it is for defenses to maintain man-to-man coverage. If they play a zone, USF can shift into an ideal alignment and try to find the seams.
"They may move two guys, and the defense may move seven," said former Florida International coordinator Todd Orlando, whose defense kept Western Kentucky in check last season but lost 14-6. "It's not just one shift. It's a shift then a motion; a whole bunch of stuff going on.
"You really have to work it in practice. You jump back and forth, and people line up a certain way. Next thing you know, you have leverage on them and you can run the ball, throw the ball based on that. It causes some difficulties from a matchup standpoint."
So it's one thing for an offense to want to establish a tone; for example physical running setting up play-action passing. Taggart takes it another step, aiming to manipulate the opponent into lining up in a way that opens the door for the play he wants to run.
"What we try to do is not let anyone dictate what we want to do," Taggart said. "We want them to be in this defense. Let's shift the formation to get them where we want them to be so we can be successful. It's pretty fun. You'll see some things you probably haven't seen before. We think outside the box. It's fun, especially when it works."
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected]tampabay.com.