TAMPA ― Even at their most buoyant, coaches are notorious for diluting their optimism with a degree of caution. Hence the reason USF defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary noted Wednesday that the Bulls haven’t scrimmaged yet this month.
But that was his only disclaimer during an otherwise glowing assessment of his unit after six days of preseason camp.
“I can honestly say I’ve been pleased so far with our defense. I think we’ve addressed some of our major issues going from last year,” Jean-Mary said after Wednesday’s practice, the latter stage of which was conducted in a steady shower.
"I think our run defense is sounder than it was last year. Guys understand where they need to be and they’re straining to get there, and I think our tackling has been probably the best thing we’ve done so far in camp.
“I know we struggled, we missed tackles last year, and we haven’t been in a scrimmage yet ... but I really believe we’re gonna tackle a lot better than we did last year.”
Not that they could get much worse.
Plagued by depth issues, greenness and shoddy technique, the Bulls allowed 247.5 rushing yards a game last season (122nd nationally), and struggled mightily on third down, with an opponent’s conversion rate of 41.4 percent (88th).
But Jean-Mary indicated Wednesday that he believes his unit possesses more “quality depth” at every level. That includes linebacker, where safety Khalid McGee and defensive end Greg Reaves had to play out of necessity for all or parts of last season.
“We really feel like we have some guys coming,” Jean-Mary said. “And our numbers are going from maybe three or four to seven or eight, and that’s a really good number as far as linebackers go.”
Jean-Mary also had high praise for the Bulls’ defensive transfers, especially defensive end Darius Slade (Arizona State), currently training at end and three-technique. Slade appeared to get some first-team reps during Wednesday’s portion of practice open to reporters.
“He’s done an unbelievable job,” Jean-Mary said. “Darius obviously does some natural things, great athlete. He’s come in and kept his head down and just bought into our system and plays hard. That’s been contagious.”
Odds and ends
Another indicator the Bulls have sufficiently addressed their defensive line depth issues: redshirt freshman Chris Carter has moved back to tight end after experimenting at defensive end the last several months. ... Jean-Mary said middle linebacker Nico Sawtelle, who missed the final six games of 2018 with shoulder and neck issues, has had no limitations so far. “So far, so good. He hasn’t complained about anything,” Jean-Mary said. ... Keep an eye on converted running back Brian Norris (6-foot-2, 227 pounds), getting second-team reps at linebacker. ... Senior defensive end Kirk Livingstone intercepted a Blake Barnett screen pass at the line of scrimmage toward the end of Wednesday’s practice. ... Defensive tackle John Waller and linebacker Antonio Grier suited up Wednesday but didn’t appear to engage in team or position drills. Receivers Stanley Clerveaux and Kelley Joiner weren’t suited up.