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USF counting on transfers to fortify defense

Four Division I-A transfers started for the Bulls in the season-opening loss to Wisconsin.
USF defensive end Darius Slade (42) and middle linebacker Patrick Macon (55) tackle Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor (23) during the first quarter of last Friday's season opener.
USF defensive end Darius Slade (42) and middle linebacker Patrick Macon (55) tackle Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor (23) during the first quarter of last Friday's season opener. [ ALLIE GOULDING | Times ]
Published Sep. 6, 2019

TAMPA ― He was doing classwork, in a cubicle on the second floor of the Selmon Athletics Center, when the call he had been waiting four months for finally came.

New USF cornerback KJ Sails picked up the phone. Charlie Strong was on the other end. The NCAA finally had made a ruling on Sails’ petition for a hardship waiver that, if granted, would allow the North Carolina transfer to play in 2019. Strong’s voice sounded grim.

“He kinda messed with me a little bit,” Sails said. “I was like, ‘Ah man, I didn’t get cleared?’ And he’s like, ‘Nah, you’re in, you’re in.’ So I was like, ‘Dude!’”

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With that, Sails ― an East Bay High alumnus ― went across the hallway to Strong’s office and hugged his new coach.

And the final piece of the 2019 Bulls defense ― refurbished via veteran transfers ― was complete.

“I’m just blessed to be here,” Sails said.

Like every other facet bedecked in green and gold, USF’s defense mostly languished last Friday against Wisconsin, though it arguably produced the evening’s lone bright spots.

Despite consistently being placed in unfavorable situations (Wisconsin’s average starting field position was its own 43), the Bulls totaled 11 tackles for loss (including three sacks), forced a fumble and held the Badgers to 6 or fewer yards on six possessions.

Accounting for most of those encouraging snapshots was USF’s quartet of transfers.

“When you look at those four guys, what they added to our defense was really good,” Strong said.

Sails had a tackle for loss and fumble recovery. Safety Devin Studstill (Notre Dame) had five tackles. Defensive end Darius Slade (Arizona State) had three. A fifth transfer, late camp arrival Ryan Thaxton (Tennessee), added two off the bench at defensive end.

But all were outshined by middle linebacker Patrick Macon, who never got on the field in two injury-marred seasons at Oklahoma State. In his Division I-A debut, Macon had 15 tackles (including a sack), the most by a USF player in a game since 2013.

“He played very ferocious,” senior defensive end Greg Reaves said.

Collectively, the group brings an infusion of size and savvy to a unit that lacked both in 2018, when the Bulls simply couldn’t stop the run (allowing 247.5 yards per game) and finished 104th nationally in total defense (446.6 ypg).

“Those four weren’t 100 percent during the game; nobody on defense was,” defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary said.

“But they were able to bounce back and provide that veteran leadership that we probably didn’t have last year. They’ve been a positive even in practice. They’re starting to get a lot more vocal because they’re comfortable with their teammates now also.”

Sails, Slade and Studstill played in a combined 66 games at the Power Five level before arriving in Tampa. And though Macon didn’t log live action at Oklahoma State, he provides a sturdy middle presence (6-foot-3, 244 pounds) the Bulls sorely lacked in ’18.

“He’s got a good body on him, he’s heavy,” Strong said. “He can sit down and work behind his pads.”

Locally, the most familiar of the group is Sails, who evolved into a four-star prospect at East Bay.

He was limited to four games (allowing him to take a redshirt year) as a junior in 2018, then watched the coach who signed him (Larry Fedora) get fired in late November after a 2-9 season.

Less than three months later, he was floored by tragedy twice in less than two weeks.

Sails’ great-grandmother, Loretta Hardy, passed away Feb. 6 at age 82. Eleven days later, longtime friend Takiya Fullwood ― 18-year-old younger sister of former Bulls defensive back Tajee Fullwood ― was fatally shot at a party in Tampa.

By late March, Sails ― father of a 2-year-old son ― informed new Tar Heels coach Mack Brown he wanted to transfer. He settled on USF mostly to get closer to his family, then applied for a hardship waiver that would allow him to play in ’19 instead of sitting out a year.

The wait lasted nearly four months.

RELATED: What’s it like to be in the transfer portal? ‘It’s a lot’

“The hardest part was just thinking like, ‘Wow, is this gonna work out for me? What if it doesn’t happen?’” Sails said.

“Just second-guessing myself, and then thinking about my grandmother who passed away, and then Takiya also. People who I love dearly, just thinking about them and wanting to play for them. It was the biggest thing for me. I had to play for them.”

His short-term future in limbo, Sails flourished in preseason camp, to the point where Strong put him at No. 2 on the cornerback depth chart for the Wisconsin game despite still having no ruling from the NCAA on the waiver application.

The afternoon of Aug. 28, slightly 48 hours before the Bulls kicked off against Wisconsin, the word finally came down: waiver approved.

“I cried a little bit,” Sails said.

Sails started against the Badgers. So did Studstill. And Slade. And Macon.

“Honestly, they’ve brought a lot,” Reaves said. “They came from highly-touted programs. They’ve brought honestly a lot of leadership, a lot of maturity in positions where we needed that. Just a lot of depth.”

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

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