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Are the Bulls starting to grasp the Kerwin Bell offense?

USF’s new offensive coordinator said mastering his system takes time. How much time?
USF offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Wisconsin Friday, Aug. 30, 2019, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
USF offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Wisconsin Friday, Aug. 30, 2019, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]
Published Sep. 25, 2019
Updated Sep. 26, 2019

TAMPA — The Kerwin Bell offense arrived in Tampa not only with a history of dazzle, but a disclaimer.

His elaborate pro-style system takes time to master.

“Just learning a whole new offense is always hard, especially when you have so many plays,” USF junior receiver Eddie McDoom said. “And (Bell’s) offense is so dynamic. So there’s always big plays here, he’s always changing something here, just so it can be a lot better.”

But how long will that grace period continue?

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The Bulls (1-2) totaled 459 yards in a 55-16 romp of Division I-AA South Carolina State two Saturdays ago, though the turnover-prone Bulldogs — USF had a school-record eight takeaways — hardly represent a reliable measuring stick for offensive progress.

Saturday’s American Athletic Conference opener against SMU should more accurately indicate whether the Bell system — which totaled one touchdown against Wisconsin and Georgia Tech in the first two games — is starting to click among the Bulls.

If it’s not, how much longer will it take?

History says that varies.

“The big thing about this system is, there’s just so much to think about,” said Bell, whose team averaged only 3.7 yards a play and went a combined 7-for-29 on third down in losses to the Badgers and Yellow Jackets.

“There’s so many personnel groups, so many plays. We run different plays every week. That’s just who we are. That’s what Coach (Charlie) Strong wanted when he brought me here, so now these guys have got to get to the point where they’re not thinking.”

In Bell’s first season as head coach at Valdosta State, the offensive players clearly were overthinking at the outset of 2016. They had only 270 yards in a 16-7 season-opening win against Albany State, going 4-for-15 on third down.

The following week against North Alabama, they totaled 369 yards but went 1-for-9 on third down in a 44-19 loss to the eventual Division II runnerup.

From there, however, the Blazers won seven of their last eight, scoring 37 points or more seven times.

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By contrast, Bell’s inaugural Jacksonville University team needed more time to acclimate to his system, scoring 10 or fewer points in three of its first five games en route to a 3-8 finish in 2007.

In 2008, the Dolphins, a nonscholarship program,― averaged nearly 31 points a game and went 9-4.

“This is pro style; this is a complex system,” Bell said. “We’re just not eight or 10 plays; we’re not staying in one formation. The receivers don’t stay on one side of the field; they have to move around, they have to think, they have to really use their mind.

“A lot of times you overthink, then you play slower, you play a little timid. When you start seeing it free flow … and guys just go and react, that’s when the system can be really good.”

Fortunately for Bulls fans, Bell said he has begun seeing it flow more freely.

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An early bye week last weekend afforded Bell and his players more repetitions and refinement. The insertion of redshirt freshman Jordan McCloud — whom Bell says has the “it” factor — as starting quarterback also could accelerate the unit’s grasp of the playbook.

“When the play’s called, we line up fast, we play off reaction. And I’m starting to see that,” Bell said.

“I started to see that before the last game. I really saw it this off-week. … You can tell, when the play’s called, there’s no thinking. They just go line up and they go play. Then you play faster and you play looser, and you go make the plays that are there.”

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.