TAMPA — The long-sleeve shirts, buried beneath drawers for months, are being exhumed. The morning temperatures have evolved from purgatorial to pleasant. Listen closely, and you can hear orbs bouncing and high-tops squeaking.
Yep, roundball season is here. And your resident college football team's in the spirit.
Effective picks, scurrying for loose balls, forcing turnovers and finishing at the other end — coach Willie Taggart's bunch is flourishing in all of the above. As a result, USF football has rebounded. Mightily.
"They create opportunities and they create the turnovers," Louisville coach Charlie Strong said. "And when you can create turnovers and can score on defense, you always give your offense a chance."
Winless only three Saturdays ago, USF suddenly finds itself in position for its first 3-0 start in conference play.
And while much of this two-game win streak can be attributed to Marvin Kloss' foot (6-for-6 on field goals) and Mike McFarland's hands (two blocked kicks), a bulk of the credit must go to the defense's collective nose.
For a change, the Bulls are sniffing out turnovers. Today against 18th-ranked Louisville, USF (2-4, 2-0 American Athletic Conference) will try to score a defensive touchdown for the fourth consecutive game.
"Those are things that we practice … and guys are starting to reap the benefits of that in football games," Taggart said.
"Our guys have confidence, and they're starting to look for those plays now. Before, we were hoping they'd come, and now we're looking for them and we're making them. That's been a treat to see out of our defense."
The transformation has been staggering. Whereas USF seemed downright allergic to interceptions last autumn, the Bulls' defensive opportunism has become contagious.
USF, which managed two picks in 2012, has six this year — by five players. Three Bulls — Julius Forte, DeDe Lattimore and Aaron Lynch — have accounted for the defense's three touchdowns.
That doesn't include freshman safety Nate Godwin's 75-yard return of McFarland's blocked field goal against Cincinnati.
"I really believe turnovers come in bundles," defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan said.
"And once you believe in it and practice it every day and learn to scoop and score and not just fall on the ball, once you see it happen the first time, man, things just start to fold in your direction. And I think they're experiencing that."
How did this snowball effect originate? For one, the Bulls go through the "turnover circuit" — tip drills, scoop-and-score drills, etc. — two to three practices a week.
"It's almost like second nature to us," cornerback Brandon Salinas said. "Even on incomplete passes you'll see a ball on the ground where somebody picks it up. If you're watching you're like, 'Well, that was incomplete.' For us, it's a ball on the ground."
Additionally, Taggart says the Bulls have "simplified some things" defensively since the season's outset, resulting in less thinking and more flying around. Bresnahan says it's not so much simplification as it is repetition and refinement.
"We've got a spring ball under our belt, a training camp under our belt, and then the first four or five games up until the last couple of weeks, and now we're sitting where we're starting to understand the entire concept," he said.
"And guys aren't pressing to do too much. They're just doing what they've been asked to do and doing it to the best of their ability, and good things happen that way."
Today, against the best quarterback it will face all season, that opportunism will be a prerequisite.
With USF's offense seeking its first touchdown since the Miami game, Bresnahan's unit must try to confuse Cardinals junior Teddy Bridgewater, a likely NFL first-round draft pick in the spring. In 214 pass attempts this season, Bridgewater has thrown two picks.
"He's unbelievable," Taggart said.
Then again, who would've ever believed the Bulls could become so larcenous?
"We believe in Coach Bresnahan and his plan and we're just executing it now the last two games as you've seen," defensive tackle Todd Chandler said. "Creating turnovers, creating touchdowns, it's just all coming together now."