Sunday, December 17, 2017
Colleges

USF Bulls defensive line falls short of acclaim

TAMPA — There's noise in the system at USF these days, albeit with a beat. Everything from rap to the Red Hot Chili Peppers emanates from a loudspeaker during individual drills at the outset of most Bulls practices.

It's powerful, pulsating, even a bit piercing. Yet one wonders if the Bulls defensive linemen can hear it for all the static they've been getting.

Four games in, the Bulls have totaled three sacks, tied for 117th out of 123 Division I-A teams ranked. Only two linemen have managed a double-digit tackle total. The next fumble the unit forces will be only its second of the season.

Yet the group is rife with seniors (Julius Forte, former Armwood High standout Ryne Giddins, Tevin Mims) and a ballyhooed sophomore (Aaron Lynch). Only two years ago, when the Bulls limped down the stretch of a 5-7 season, the defense still totaled 39 sacks. So what gives?

"It's a work in progress," Forte said.

Such is the mantra that resonates throughout USF's camp as resoundingly as that practice soundtrack. Like the Bulls' other components, the defensive line is acclimating to a new staff and new schemes. Improvement is arriving incrementally.

And coaches insist the line is not nearly as behind the curve as numbers suggest.

"I wouldn't single out the defensive line. It's a unit sport, where you've got to have 11 guys playing the same defense," said defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan, whose unit appeared to regress — statistically, anyway — in last week's 49-21 loss to Miami.

"When you look at the big plays that happened (against UM), we hit their quarterback on two of the touchdown plays. We're hitting him as he's releasing the ball, and they're creating the big play because of speed and not quite being in the right place at the right time.

"But the D-line had no fault in that. I mean, we had three guys unblocked to the quarterback."

If fairness dictates assessing the defense as a whole, the line must share in the positives.

USF is 47th nationally in total defense (364.3 yards per game) and has forced eight turnovers — one off its total of 2012. Forte has one of the team's four picks, which doubles the Bulls' total for all of last season.

And the paltry sacks figure? Coach Willie Taggart has an explanation.

"In a lot of these games, we've been behind early, so a lot of these teams don't have to throw the football," he said. "So you're not getting those opportunities to get the sacks like you want."

The stats concur. Miami attempted 10 passes in the second half, compared to 22 in the first. Florida Atlantic threw five after intermission; Michigan State tried 11.

But if teams are running more, especially later in the game, reason would suggest the tackle totals should be higher for the front four. Yet Mims (19) is the lone lineman among the team's top nine tacklers, and he's doubtful for tonight (leg).

Lynch, who earned freshman All-America honors (33 tackles, 5.5 sacks) two seasons ago at Notre Dame, has nine total stops and no sacks. Giddins, who tallied 44 tackles and 5½ sacks in 2011, has six and two, respectively, this season.

"I think Aaron is frustrated because I think he wants the numbers that everybody else wants, and he's got to understand they're going to come if he keeps playing hard," Taggart said. "I think sometimes he gets frustrated because he can be a split-second from a sack."

Maybe — just maybe — the Bulls will shave time off those fractions of a second in their American Athletic Conference opener against 3-1 Cincinnati.

From a speed standpoint, the Bulls match up better with the Bearcats. New Cincinnati quarterback Brendon Kay, who replaced injured starter Munchie Legaux, isn't believed to be quite the dual threat of his predecessor.

Maybe USF's time is tonight. Or maybe the refrain persists: Give it time.

"I've said in prior interviews Bresnahan is an evil genius," Forte said.

"His defense can be complex, but he tries to make it simple as possible so we can get it and play fast with it. I think he's been doing a very good job with that. We've been playing fast but like I said, it's still a work in progress."

Joey Knight can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3350. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Bulls.

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