USF begins spring football drills after winter of reckoning

Coach Charlie Strong says fans will see a bigger, faster, stronger team in 2019.
New offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell takes in his first USF spring practice.(OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
New offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell takes in his first USF spring practice.(OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
Published March 19

TAMPA ― In the immediate wake of last season’s dreadful finish, marked by offensive stagnation, shoddy tackling and inner strife, USF coach Charlie Strong knew he had to make significant changes.

Starting with Charlie Strong.

“I start with myself, then go with the assistant coaches, and the players are always last,” said Strong, whose team dropped its last six games of 2018 after a 7-0 start.

“And I had to get better because you know what happens is, you go along there and you’re winning and you let the little things slip. ... That’s what I allowed to (occur), and I can’t allow that to happen.”

A winter overhaul ― in terms of staff, scheme and strength-and-conditioning approach ― ensued. Fresh off those pivotal three months, the 2019 Bulls convened Tuesday for their first of 15 spring workouts. Some players were noticeably bigger; all presumably were bent on proving the second half of 2018 was an aberration.

When asked the team’s goal for the spring, veteran defensive end Greg Reaves said, “To re-establish our identity. Not only re-establish our identity, but get our confidence back, get our swag back.”

The re-branding begins on offense, where new coordinator Kerwin Bell ― a laminated 8-by-11 sheet of plays hanging from a lanyard around his neck ― took the field for the first time with the Bulls on a cool, overcast afternoon. Almost immediately, changes were evident.

Related: Kerwin Bell assumes ‘total control’ of USF offense

Five-foot-5 sophomore tailback Johnny Ford, who ran for nearly 800 yards last season, lined up with receivers during position drills. Strong acknowledged Ford will train at both tailback and slot receiver to maximize his athleticism.

Elsewhere, former defensive back JaJuan Cherry lined up at tailback to help fortify a position missing 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Cronkrite, sidelined this spring with an unspecified injury not expected to hinder him this fall.

Meantime, quarterback Blake Barnett appeared slightly bulkier. Barnett acknowledged he had hired a personal nutritionist, and was up to 223 pounds.

“I’d say I have the offense about as good as I can right now as far as on the chalkboard, writing it up,” said Barnett, a well-traveled graduate transfer on his sixth career offensive coordinator. “But to be able to go on the field and apply it, it’s gonna be refreshing and exciting.”

While Barnett opted for private nutritional consultant, the Bulls corporately got bigger and stronger as well, with Strong estimating 98 percent of his team added weight during the winter.

“We had an unbelievable offseason," said Strong, who added five new assistants this winter. “You’re gonna see a big increase in size, strength and speed.”

Those increases resulted from a complete strength-and-conditioning makeover. Strong said the changes included everything from diet to the times players lifted (6 a.m., 1:30 p.m. or 3:30 p.m.), to how they were divided up (skill players, larger skill players such as quarterbacks and linebackers, and linemen).

“The key thing is, during the offseason, there was a chance we had to build discipline within the program,” Strong said. "And what comes along with discipline is accountability. You’ve got to hold guys accountable, and that starts in the offseason, because it’s just the little things.

“And that’s why we ended the season the way we ended it last year, just because we weren’t a very disciplined football team, and guys weren’t responsible.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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