VERO BEACH — USF coach Willie Taggart stresses the value of competition at all positions, and while his football team still has several starting jobs up for grabs, none might be more emblematic of its battling preseason than strongside linebacker.
There, sophomores Tashon Whitehurst and Zack Bullock are fighting not only for a starting role but to make a case to keep a third linebacker on the field in situations where a fifth defensive back might replace them.
"Competition breeds success," said Bullock, who had seven tackles as a freshman, mostly on special teams. "That definitely helps. It makes me keep my game up, and it helps him (Whitehurst) keep up as well, knowing we're going up against each other for a starting position."
Both have good size, combining long arms with lighter, quicker body types. Bullock, 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, impressed coaches on special teams last year with his speed when he caught a punt on the fly downfield. Whitehurst, 6-3, 205, blocked a punt against Florida State last season as a true freshman. After watching it, special teams coordinator Stu Holt called it "one of the best collegiate plays I've ever seen."
Add starting weakside linebacker Reshard Cliett, a converted safety who is 6-2, 220, and the Bulls will have elite speed in the middle of the field, complementing both the pass rush and the pass defense.
Whitehurst and Bullock were slowed by injuries in the spring but have shined as they returned healthy this month.
"We've been flying around, all of us. It's way better than the spring," said Whitehurst, who has recovered fully from a hip flexor. "Learning a new defense, we've gone over everything. We took tests, went over it all summer, watched film together. Now I know everything, I see everything. It's much easier than before."
Bullock likes Chuck Bresnahan's defense, saying that a year ago the linebackers always read the same thing from their opponents — the guards — but he said this defense has more complex keys, to its benefit. Whitehurst, who's from Gainesville, reached out to USF tight end Sean Price, who's from Ocala, and the former high school rivals helped each other understand the basics of reading each other's positions and tendencies.
Both linebackers came on in the second half of their freshman seasons. Each had one tackle after seven games, but they combined for 20 in the final five games with expanded roles. Whitehurst had eight of his 15 tackles in a win against Connecticut, where he started in place of suspended senior Sam Barrington.
Whitehurst also had a key fumble recovery in the fourth quarter against the Huskies, and those kinds of splash plays are what Taggart is looking for as he decides who his starter will be.
"It's going to be a hard decision. Tashon and Zack are both doing good things," the coach said last week. "I talk about how we want the ball as a defense, want turnovers. Today, Zack strips the ball from guys and gets a turnover. It's something I hadn't seen in this training camp. We've gotten interceptions, but we hadn't had a lot of forced fumbles. That was really exciting to see, taking what we're talking about and going out on the field and doing it."