Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Colleges

USF Bulls change equation on defense

TAMPA — If all goes as planned, the makeover of USF football will contain aesthetic and athletic qualities this fall.

Immediately noticeable will be the gold-and-chrome helmets with matching chin straps, the nameless jerseys, maybe even the gloves — glossy and green — worn by several players. That's the style.

Slightly less conspicuous, but certainly more significant, will be the three down linemen on defense, often flanked by agile ends or outside linebackers on both edges. That's the substance.

The Bulls, adherents to the 4-3 alignment last season, are switching to the 3-4.

"Essentially, it's like a blitz every play," said junior Eric Lee, an end in the previous formation. "A lot of sliding, a lot of stunting; obnoxious things that throw off the O-line to where we can get penetration."

Coach Willie Taggart's explanation is far less technical: "It allows us to put a lot more athletes on the field."

Really, it's that simple. Unlike some in their line of work, Taggart and his defensive staff weren't trying to outsmart themselves or conform to a trendy scheme during offseason collaborations. This was neither reinvention of the wheel nor realignment of the periodic table.

To the contrary, it was common sense and common-core math: The top four defensive ends on last year's depth chart departed, and six of the February signees were linebackers. Two of the top three returning tacklers — senior Reshard Cliett and sophomore Nigel Harris — were versatile 'backers capable of playing in or out.

"We evaluate our skill set, we evaluate our recruiting class and getting a good mix of the (3-4) in there gets our athletes on the field," said defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan, also coaching the outside linebackers this season. "It gives us more versatility."

Some might suggest it maximizes it.

Defensive athleticism hardly was the issue during last season's 2-10 nightmare. Employing Bresnahan's bloodhound-type philosophy (sniff out the ball and seize it), USF forced 25 turnovers, nearly tripling its 2012 total (nine). The Bulls ranked 11th in Division I-A in recovered fumbles (13), 12th in tackles for loss per game (7.6) and 21st in total defense (350 yards per contest).

A litany of athletes remain, albeit most with a linebacker's build.

Which isn't to say the defensive front is barren. Fifth-year senior Todd Chandler (6 feet, 321 pounds), who squatted 700 pounds over the summer, is your classic nose tackle, but senior Elkino Watson (nine tackles for loss in 2013) is a traditional three-technique who also can line up outside.

Redshirt freshmen Deadrin Senat (arguably the team's strongest player), Bruce Hector (a Robinson High alum) and sophomore Derrick Calloway should fortify the interior, while Lee and junior college transfer Demetrius Hill are more traditional ends.

"What I like most about the 3-4 is how every other play, we're stunting around and moving, so nobody's really standing still," Watson said. "It kind of makes it hard for linemen to block when you're moving across their face a lot. I can be in the C-gap and have to go all the way to the A-gap one play."

Toss in a pair of edge rushers, and the Bulls will more closely resemble a five-man front most plays. Cliett, an NFL prospect fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, will be among them. So too, could juniors Tashon Whitehurst and Zack Bullock, both of whom have played in 20 college games; or even freshman Juwuan Brown of Jefferson or sophomore walk-on Kieran Pettus of East Bay.

Inside, the options are equally plenteous. Redshirt freshman Auggie Sanchez has flourished since converting from fullback in the winter, and junior transfer LeGrande Harley had two interceptions (including a pick-six) and a scoop-and-score touchdown in the same scrimmage. Other potential options include Immokalee's Jimmy Bayes, one of the freshman class's top athletes; Sickles alumnus Josh Black and senior Hans Louis, back from ACL surgery.

"We become a lot faster (in the 3-4)," Taggart said.

Style, substance and speed. Could a 3-4 exceed 2-10? All that's left is to do the math.

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