TAMPA — In a media setting, their dispositions appear to collide.
USF coach Jeff Scott, an engaging conversationalist who seemingly could stay upbeat amid a locust swarm; and dour defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer, a self-proclaimed “bad interview.”
“I’m an eternal pessimist ’til we’re celebrating in the locker room after a game,” said Spencer, 56. “And then after about two hours I’m a pessimist again ’til the next week.”
Whatever public persona works.
At this stage, Bulls fans likely would accept Debbie Downer if she could design a scheme to consistently stop the run. In 2018 and 2019, USF ranked 122nd (247.5 yards per game) and 114th (208.6), respectively, in run defense, allowing 17 individual 100-yard rushing efforts during that 25-game span.
Enter Spencer, a Georgia native with a gray goatee who oversaw a staggering defensive transformation last season at Florida Atlantic in his lone year with the Owls.
“He really wants us to play fast,” junior middle linebacker Andrew Mims said. “That’s his biggest emphasis, fast and with effort. He emphasizes it every day: effort, effort, effort.”
Though he’ll have to customize a game plan for The Citadel’s triple-option in Week 1, Spencer is expected to lean heavily on his “30-float” scheme going forward. Generally noted for three down linemen and tons of movement on the back end, the system helped FAU lead the nation in takeaways (33), interceptions (22) and turnover margin (plus-21) in 2019.
It also helped the Owls improve from 89th in 2018 (189.0 yards per game) to 39th (136.7) nationally against the run.
“It’s very unusual, very unique,” Spencer said.
Though a three-down formation at its core, Spencer said the system has proven productive with four linemen. Bulls senior Mike Hampton said it leaves himself and fellow veteran cornerback KJ Sails in man coverage “95 percent of the time.”
“We’ve got the ability to change it per drive or change it based on what’s working,” said Spencer, whose journeyman coaching career includes seven seasons (2011-17) as coordinator at Oklahoma State.
“It’s very multiple. That advantage is, to an offense we’ve got two totally different defenses. The disadvantage is, we have to learn two totally different defenses. So we have to be great as coaches, and even out the reps.”
All early signs appear favorable, as they generally do this time of year. Players insist Spencer has infused vigor and accountability into the unit. New line coach Da’Quan Bowers — the former Buccaneer — has brought NFL credibility; and safeties coach Wes Neighbors — also a Spencer colleague at FAU — has helped greatly with the installation of the scheme.
“All 11 to the ball,” junior middle linebacker Antonio Grier said.
“Missed tackles, we do (five) up-downs right then and there. Guys that are not running to the ball, we do up-downs right then and there. So the biggest thing this year probably would be accountability.”
Yet no amount of passion or uplifting player sound bites can atone for depth. The pessimism Spencer betrays to the cameras has some validity when assessing the roster.
Graduation gutted the defensive-end depth chart, and questions remain about the line’s interior. While the linebacker corps — led by Grier, Mims and fellow junior Dwayne Boyles — has been hailed this preseason, the fact remains USF hasn’t been consistent in the middle since Auggie Sanchez’s departure after the 2017 season.
Additionally, Michigan graduate transfer Devin Gil, who played 39 games for the Wolverines and was expected to add linebacker depth, has opted out.
“I still think we’re extremely thin in a couple of spots, and the biggest thing I guess negative, or that we have to work on and we have to really stomp on the gas is, just develop more of a toughness (throughout) the group,” Spencer said.
“Fighting through some pain and fighting through some fatigue, we’re just pushing ’em to do that. Any great defense I’ve ever been around, you have that element, and that’s something you have to work on constantly and something we’re working on right now.”
The Citadel at USF
Raymond James Stadium, 1 p.m. Sept. 12
Streaming/radio: ESPN+; 95.3-FM, 620-AM