TAMPA — If you held USF's figurative X-ray up to the August sun, the lone fracture was easy to spot.
The offensive line represented the hairline. On an otherwise hearty roster, this decimated unit seemed at depth's door. Position coach Danny Hope, who watched the same quintet start all 13 games last year, departed shortly after that breakthrough season.
So did C Brynjar Gudmundsson, LG Thor Jozwiak and RT Mak Djulbegovic. Hopes for an encore were modest — at least externally.
"I think we have the potential to be really good," coach Willie Taggart said at the preseason's outset. "Our expectation is to be better than what we were last year."
Who could have guessed Taggart's sound bite would have teeth? Entering the halfway mark of the 2016 regular season, the R-word most associated with the line has been neither regress, reboot nor rebuild.
More like repeat, or replicate.
"We're doing an excellent job man," TB Marlon Mack said. "A few guys left last year … and those guys stepping in and doing what we did last year is excellent."
Entering Saturday's Homecoming game against East Carolina, the Bulls (4-1, 1-0 AAC) are allowing 1.4 sacks per game — same as last year's iron quintet. That figure currently ranks first among American Athletic Conference schools.
Moreover, the Bulls' string of nine consecutive games with 35 or more points leads the country, as does their program-record streak of 10 games with at least 200 rushing yards. USF's rushing offense (251.4 ypg) ranks 15th nationally.
"I think they're doing a fantastic job," Taggart said Tuesday.
"I think (the 45-20 win at Cincinnati) was by far their best job. I thought the physicality in which they played last week is exactly what we're looking for with those guys up front. I really thought they got after Cincinnati up front and that's what we needed."
The explanations for this over-achievement are neither complex nor quirky. Blocking for arguably the program's most dynamic set of skill players helps. So does a productive offseason, and a full year's experience in the spread/zone-read hybrid known as the Gulf Coast offense.
Continuity doesn't hurt either.
Four linemen — senior LT Kofi Amichia, junior LG Jeremi Hall, fourth-year junior C Cameron Ruff and senior RG Dominique Threatt — have started all five games. Redshirt freshman RT Marcus Norman, who started the season opener, steps in this week for classmate Billy Atterbury (fractured leg), who has started the previous four contests.
"I think that when you look at the skill of our offense, that's a big thing," said Hiller, a coaching journeyman on his seventh school in 23 seasons.
"The offensive line, we're just guys that are just pieces to the puzzle, and what we have to do is make sure that we're taking care of our gap-assignment responsibility and let our skill guys do what they do. And so far we've been doing a good job of that.
"We've gotten better from a physical standpoint from Game 1 to Game 5, and again, that's still a work in progress and we've still got to keep getting better."
The progress is even more astounding when considering how fate has done the unit few favors.
In addition to Atterbury's injury, heralded 315-pound junior college transfer Glen Bethel remains sidelined by academic-related issues. Prior to spring practice, promising Stanford transfer (and St. Petersburg Catholic alumnus) Reilly Gibbons was forced to give up the game due to a recurring right-knee injury.
As a result, 284-pound sophomore Eric Mayes was shifted from the defensive line and currently is the backup to Norman. "Athletically, he's what we want," Hiller said. "Physically, he's just learning the grind of being an offensive lineman."
Additionally, a pair of Polk County-based true freshmen have shot up the depth chart. Davenport Ridge's Logan MacDonald is backing up Amichia, and Lake Gibson's Michael Wiggs — a center in high school — traveled to Cincinnati.
"With losing Billy, we move one guy up from the service team, and we just plug and play," Hiller said.
"That's our football team. … In the offensive line, it's gonna be guys that haven't played a lot of snaps, but they've been working since spring and they've been working through fall camp and the first five weeks of the season, so we've just got to keep going."
Perhaps all the way to January.
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.