In the immediate wake of the 2018 Gasparilla Bowl, USF coach Charlie Strong, his voice raspy and emotions raw, gave an unabridged assessment of his reeling team.
"I'm telling you right now, we're going to clean up this whole program," said Strong, who had just watched the Bulls lose their sixth consecutive game. "A lot of guys will be leaving. We need a good washing."
Fast forward 11 months, and Strong remains on message.
Even as his program remains on the skids.
“We’ve got a ways to go, and I told our guys that in the offseason, it’s got to be a whole new change,” Strong said late Friday night following the Bulls’ embarrassing 34-7 loss at UCF.
“There’s got to be a different attitude. The guys that want to be here, they need to be here. We’ve got to go to work, and we’ve got to get it done.”
With that, a fan base collectively rolls its eyes.
Strong’s 2018 and 2019 postmortems remain one of the few consistencies for a maddeningly inconsistent program. Saturday, the formal dawn of USF’s offseason, came and went with no announcement from athletic director Michael Kelly on the fate of his beleaguered coach.
The only public statements were issued through cyberspace: Fans and former players expressed varying degrees of dismay, while current Bulls conveyed unwavering support of Strong.
At least one of the current players, redshirt freshman Jordan McCloud, concurred with Strong that a locker room culture change is needed.
“We’ve just got to be more committed to our goal,” McCloud said immediately following Friday’s game.
“I felt like as a team, we had so many ups and downs, and we’ve just got to be all focused every game, every snap, every play on what we want to do, and that’s (win a) conference championship.”
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McCloud is among 16 starters from Friday’s game (eight offense, eight defense) with eligibility remaining, though any coaching change potentially could prompt an exodus to the transfer portal.
If stability prevails, logic indicates the offense will be better in 2020, only because it can’t be worse.
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The Bulls (4-8, 2-6) failed to score a first-half touchdown in six games this season, and were shut out four times in the opening half. Their 330.9 yards per game almost certainly will rank last in the American Athletic Conference, and their 5.1 yards per play also will reside near the league basement.
Rarely did Kerwin Bell’s pro-style scheme ever click. When injuries weren’t sabotaging the depth chart, protection breakdowns disrupted rhythm. The suspensions of slot receiver Johnny Ford (totaling eight games) didn’t help.
“I do believe that this is a great offense,” said outgoing senior tight end Mitch Wilcox, whose role as a blocker increased as his reception total decreased (from 43 catches in 2018 to 28 in 2019). “I think Coach Bell is an unbelievable coach. What he’s got up in his head is amazing.”
Defensively, progress was noticeable. Though still vulnerable vs. the run (208.6 ypg), USF averaged two takeaways a game and boasted one of the AAC’s better pass defenses (189.5 ypg).
As for special teams, ace punter Trent Schneider (46-yard average) has another year of eligibility, but a reliable kicker must be found somewhere. Since the start of 2018, USF has converted one field goal longer than 40 yards.
But the way Strong continues to see it, USF’s primary issue transcends skill or schemes.
“You’ve got to put in the work, and it’s got to come each and every day. And they got to understand, if you want to be a part of something special, you’ve got to work to be a part of it,” he said.
“If you see all the great teams, it’s all about work each and every day. … It can’t be when I feel like working, it’s got to be like, ‘I’ve got to work like that all the time.’”
So what exactly does the future hold? Culture change or coaching change or both?
A fan base awaits.
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls