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USF’s offensive front a woe-line no more

The Bulls’ resurgent offensive line has helped spark a two-game win streak
USF quarterback Jordan McCloud (12) runs past BYU defensive lineman Zac Dawe (99) for a touchdown behind Bulls guard Demetris Harris during the second half of Saturday's 27-23 triumph at Raymond James Stadium. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
USF quarterback Jordan McCloud (12) runs past BYU defensive lineman Zac Dawe (99) for a touchdown behind Bulls guard Demetris Harris during the second half of Saturday's 27-23 triumph at Raymond James Stadium. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times] [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Oct. 16, 2019

TAMPA ― For now, no one can ascertain for sure whether the recent strides made by USF’s offensive line represent baby steps or a breakthrough.

Do the 556 total rushing yards churned out in victories against Connecticut and BYU call for raw glee or restrained optimism? Considering the Huskies and Cougars rank 115th and 123rd in Division I-A, respectively, against the run, perhaps the latter is in order.

Then again, the Bulls failed to run for even 100 yards at Georgia Tech (127th) in Week Two, so maybe this resurgence is worth some rejoicing. But regardless of how much credence one lends the unit’s recent efforts, what can’t be disputed is the fact it’s making some degree of forward progress.

Which sure beats foundering.

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“I think now that we’ve caught our stride, I believe now we’re starting to jell more together,” fifth-year senior right tackle Marcus Norman said.

“We know what we’re doing, we’re making the holes, and then the running backs are just finding the ones we make and running right through ‘em.”

The turnaround couldn’t be more timely. USF (3-3, 1-1) travels Saturday to Navy (4-1, 2-1), which leads the American Athletic Conference and ranks ninth nationally against the run (86.0 ypg).

Bulls coaches fully expect the Midshipmen to load the box, forcing banged-up redshirt freshman quarterback Jordan McCloud to beat them through the air. The challenge could be the offensive line’s greatest since Wisconsin on opening night.

Difference is, it appears far more suited for such a challenge now than it did then, when USF managed 26 rushing yards on 23 attempts and allowed four sacks in a 49-0 humiliation.

“We’re just putting our hand in the dirt and coming off the football,” coach Charlie Strong said.

“They know the only way we’re gonna win, they’ve got to move the football and we’ve got to run the ball. It’s just being physical and aggressive, and they’re just taking it upon themselves like, ‘Hey, we’ve got to go get it done.’”

The transformation hasn’t been sparked by any personnel changes. The same quintet ― Norman, fellow fifth-year senior Billy Atterbury, and sophomores Brad Cecil, Demetris Harris and Donovan Jennings ― have started every game.

The only tweak occurred after Georgia Tech, when Atterbury moved from left tackle back to right guard, swapping spots with Jennings. Atterbury had made 23 consecutive starts at right guard the previous two years, and Jennings started four games at left tackle as a rookie in ’18.

Otherwise, the most glaring adjustment has been in level of aggressiveness, first-year offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell said.

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“We showed ‘em on film that leaning on guys is not blocking guys,” Bell said. “Stomping your feet and just hoping you’ve got ‘em in a position where you’re leaning on them don’t mean you’re blocking them.

“We want to see you expand the hole, and you do that by moving your feet in a drive mode. That takes a lot of effort, it takes a lot of energy, and those guys have been willing. They’ve committed to playing hard every play.”

The results: senior tailback Jordan Cronkrite, held to 76 rushing yards in USF’s first four games, has collected 307 in the last two. Senior backup Trevon Sands, who managed 13 yards on the ground in the first four, has 127 since.

“We’re moving the line of scrimmage, we’re controlling the line of scrimmage,” Bell said. “And when you do that, and you’ve got the kind of backs we’ve got, now we can be successful in the run game.”

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