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Bulls are bigger and stronger, will they be better?

After last season’s collapse, USF appears to enter 2019 with more size and senior leadership
USF players like  defensive end Kirk Livingstone, left, changed their mind-sets from a year ago to get stronger mentally and physically, to help stave off another late-season collapse. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
USF players like defensive end Kirk Livingstone, left, changed their mind-sets from a year ago to get stronger mentally and physically, to help stave off another late-season collapse. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Aug. 29
Updated Aug. 30

TAMPA — Veteran USF receiver Stanley Clerveaux remembers the day coach Charlie Strong, sullen but stoked following his team’s collapse last fall, threw down the gauntlet for 2019.

It was early January, a couple of weeks after the Bulls’ sixth consecutive defeat, an unsightly 38-20 loss to Marshall in the Gasparilla Bowl. The air outside was crisp.

Strong’s message to his players — transform your bodies — was crisper.

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

“He came in the meeting room and said, ‘Listen, guys, this offseason I’m going to work you. So don’t complain or nothing,’ ” Clerveaux recalled.

“ ‘I’m going to work you, and just give me everything you got.’ And the tone basically around the players was like, ‘All right, we know what time it is, so let’s just go get it done.’ ”

Armed with those clear, concise marching orders, the Bulls set about collectively to get bigger — or in a few cases, leaner — and stronger.

“It was just about changing our mind-set from last year,” senior defensive end Kirk Livingstone said, “and then also just eating more and being stronger.”

Undersized players had an extra daily meal shoehorned into their diets. Some developed a new mind-set toward weight lifting, the weight room becoming an obsession instead of an obligation. Workouts already specifically tailored to position groups were refined.

“We started running less and being in the weight room (more),” strong safety Nick Roberts said. “Our main focus was to eat better, and we had to drink a shake after every workout.”

The result: On paper, and on first glance, the Bulls are brawnier across the board.

“We’ve increased in weight,” Strong said. “We’ve increased in where we’ve gotten a lot stronger with each position. The offensive line, we got a lot bigger and stronger. Even with our skill guys, you look at the weight that they’ve put on, but that’s what we needed to do.”

Will the Bulls’ win percentage grow in direct proportion to their muscle mass?

And perhaps more important, are they mentally stronger as well?

Expect USF defensive back Mike Hampton, at right breaking up a pass thrown to East Carolina wide receiver Trevon Brown, to be more physically imposing this season. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Answers will arrive briskly. USF will try to avoid matching the program’s longest losing streak, seven games, in tonight’s season opener at home against No. 19 Wisconsin, which brings bona fide candidates for the Rimington Trophy (best collegiate center, Tyler Biadasz) and Heisman Trophy (tailback Jonathan Taylor).

But gauging USF’s physical progress on this game alone might be unfair, considering Wisconsin could possess the best offensive line and ball carrier the Bulls will encounter this season.

But they do appear better equipped, in mind and body, for this challenge than they did a year ago.

Three of the Bulls’ four starting defensive linemen added between 10 and 17 pounds. Weakside linebacker Antonio Grier (6 feet 1, 222 pounds) and strongside linebacker Dwayne Boyles (6-3, 227) added 12 and 17, respectively.

Sophomore center Brad Cecil (6-4, 307) put on 17 pounds. Sophomore Donovan Jennings (6-5, 328) gained 6 pounds and slid from tackle to guard. Right tackle Marcus Norman (6-6, 315) added 14 pounds and increased his bench press from 18 reps of 225 pounds to 25 reps.

Junior cornerback Mike Hampton, listed at 168 pounds at the start of 2018, ate as many as five meals a day (heavy on black beans, white rice and chicken) and is listed at 190. He also increased his 225-pound bench press from 10 reps to 15.

“In practice it shows,” said Hampton, a Hillsborough High alumnus. “I’m getting off blocks, off tight ends and receivers, so it really shows.”

Similarly, veteran leadership seems more fortified.

Strong often bemoaned the lack of assertive voices in his huddle and locker room last season, but he now appears to have plenty of them.

Strong often bemoaned the lack of assertive voices in his huddle and locker room last season, but he now appears to have plenty of them.

Projected to start tonight are nine seniors, some of whom have started multiple seasons and evolved into voices of reason and respect. They include Norman, Livingstone, fifth-year senior tight end Mitch Wilcox and senior defensive end Greg Reaves. Teammates even have noted that second-year starting quarterback Blake Barnett has grown more vocal.

RELATED: Now, Blake Barnett has the ingredients to lead USF

Perhaps not coincidentally, the preseason camp by all accounts was far more efficient than last year’s, when Strong often could be seen blasting his team during its post-practice huddle.

“Each day we have come out and have not wasted a practice at all,” he said.

“I just love how they’ve come out with the attitude of, ‘We’re going to go to work today.’ We know what our focus is, we know it’s all about preparation, and it’s all about our desire and just the passion of what we have.”

Now, fans wait to see if the gains in pounds, preparation and passion lead to prosperity.

“I keep saying it,” Strong said, “but I do, I just like the place that we’re in.”

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

Mass appeal

Collectively, USF’s projected starting defensive front seven, charged with neutralizing Wisconsin’s behemoth offensive line and tailback Jonathan Taylor tonight, has added significant size.

DE Greg Reaves; 6-2, 248 in 2018; 6-2, 242 in 2019

DT Kevin Kegler; 6-2, 284 in 2018; 6-2, 294 in 2019

DT Kelvin Pinkney; 6-3, 288 in 2018; 6-3, 305 in 2019

DE Kirk Livingstone; 6-4, 263 in 2018; 6-4, 275 in 2019

MLB Patrick Macon; 6-3, 244 in 2018; 6-3, 245 in 2019

SLB Dwayne Boyles; 6-3, 210 in 2018; 6-3, 227 in 2019

WLB Antonio Grier; 6-1, 210 in 2018; 6-1, 222 in 2019

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