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What will USF’s offense look like under Kerwin Bell?

The first full screening of the first-year coordinator’s system comes Friday night
New USF offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell (center) is expected to unveil  a system featuring both pro-style and spread concepts Friday evening against Wisconsin. [ALLIE GOULDING  |   Times]
New USF offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell (center) is expected to unveil a system featuring both pro-style and spread concepts Friday evening against Wisconsin. [ALLIE GOULDING | Times] [ ALLIE GOULDING | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Aug. 28, 2019
Updated Aug. 29, 2019

TAMPA — To this point, USF offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell’s system hasn’t completely manifested itself to Bulls fans.

They’ve seen only snippets. The system has teased them in YouTube clips and tantalized them in spring intrasquad action. Players have raved about it, albeit in generalities.

“I cannot express the word excited enough for this upcoming season,” quarterback Blake Barnett said early in preseason camp, “just because of the options that we have.”

But what exactly are those options?

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Will Bell roll out a replica of the system that led Valdosta State to last year’s Division II national title with him as head coach? Has he rummaged through the mountain of material collected while playing professionally for 11 coordinators and added tweaks? Has the former Gator Spurrier-ized his scheme even more, with a greater emphasis on timing routes?

We’ll get answers Friday, when the Bulls host No. 19 Wisconsin.

“I had so much time over the summer, I felt like I may have prepared too much or put too much in,” Bell said Wednesday. “And I wanted to make sure when we came out of this week that we were comfortable in what we were doing.

“So we might have simplified a little bit just because we’re a first-year offense. But I want these guys to be able to play fast. I want them to be able to line up and go with a great tempo. And I think we’ve done that.”

At its core, Bell’s system in his first year under head coach Charlie Strong is expected to feature a pro-style passing game with spread concepts interspersed.

The primary objective is to get the ball to playmakers via swing passes, short routes, jet sweeps, etc., and allow them to flourish in the open field, which in turn should create opportunities in the running game.

“But then when we want to drop back and throw the football, we do it on a professional level,” Bell said at his introductory news conference in January. “I’ve always said that, to me, that’s where we separate ourselves from everybody else. A lot of spread teams, I don’t think, can drop back and throw the football on an NFL-type, professional-type level. And that’s what we will bring to the table.”

Look for the passing game to be steeped in timing routes, with the quarterback releasing the ball to a certain spot before the receiver is out of his breaks. Deep 50-50 balls to rangy receivers remain plausible, but not likely prevalent.

“Timing’s a lot different, and route depth,” senior tight end Mitch Wilcox said. “We all need to be in the right areas at the right time, and that (goes) for the quarterback, the line, the protection. It all works together.”

If Bell’s previous teams are any indication, a premium is placed on speed and shiftiness. Though Wilcox and 1,000-yard tailback Jordan Cronkrite certainly will be showcased, the offense’s cornerstone very well could be 5-foot-5, 180-pound converted tailback Johnny Ford in the slot.

During Valdosta State’s run to a 14-0 record (averaging 7.9 yards per play) last fall, sophomore Kenny Benjamin (5-7, 178) emerged as the Blazers’ top receiver, with 40 catches, seven touchdowns.

In Bell’s final season as the head coach at Division I-AA Jacksonville in 2015, running back Ulysses Bryant (5-6, 195) totaled more than 1,000 yards — including 38 catches for 691 yards — for the 9-2 Dolphins.

“We want receivers (who) don’t have to be great tall guys who can just jump ball and do that all day,” Bell said.

“We want guys who can get in and out of routes, get to the areas of the field that we’re trying to focus on, and then once they catch it, be explosive playmakers.”

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Now, after all the teasing and talking, comes the unveiling on a national stage.

Perfect timing, you might say.

“Somebody says, ‘Is this offense going to be as explosive as what we had at Valdosta State (last year)?’ That was our third year there,” Bell said Wednesday.

“This thing don’t just happen overnight, but I really believe that we’re going to get better and better as the year goes. We’ve got enough talent to just continue to improve, and I really believe these kids want it.”

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.