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Jeff Scott: USF quarterback derby candidates ‘underperforming'

The Bulls coach hopes a clear starter emerges before the Oct. 3 conference opener
USF quarterback Noah Johnson (0) dives for a touchdown in the second quarter during the Bulls' season-opening win against the Citadel on Sept. 12.
USF quarterback Noah Johnson (0) dives for a touchdown in the second quarter during the Bulls' season-opening win against the Citadel on Sept. 12. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Sep. 22, 2020

TAMPA — To swipe some quarterback vernacular, Jeff Scott faces a tight window as it pertains to arguably the biggest decision of his USF coaching tenure to date.

And it’s only getting tighter.

From the season’s outset, Scott has made it clear his goal is to have one of his quarterbacks distance himself as the clear starter once the Bulls head to Cincinnati for their American Athletic Conference opener on Oct. 3. On Tuesday, he reiterated that objective.

But 11 days from that self-imposed deadline, no one in this three-player — or is it four-player? — derby has pulled away. To the contrary, recent performances and the pandemic have conspired to make Scott’s decision even tougher.

“To me, the two biggest positions that are underperforming are quarterback and wide receiver,” Scott said Tuesday, three days after a trio of quarterbacks combined for 125 passing yards in a 52-0 loss at No. 7 Notre Dame.

“We have talent at both of those positions, and we as coaches have got to get more out of them. I truly believe we have the potential to be explosive in our passing game, and that’s the challenge right now.”

Related: A closer look at Florida Atlantic, which hosts USF on Saturday

Through two games, USF’s quarterbacks — third-year sophomore Jordan McCloud, graduate transfer Noah Johnson, and to a lesser degree, rookie Katravis Marsh — have gone a collective 30-for-54 (55.6 completion percentage) for 227 yards, a touchdown and no picks.

By comparison, UCF sophomore Dillon Gabriel threw for nearly twice as many yards (417) and four times as many touchdowns in a 49-21 romp of a Power Five program (Georgia Tech) on the road. No Bulls quarterback has thrown for even 70 yards in a game, and exactly one pass play — a Johnson completion to Latrell Williams on Saturday — has covered more than 20 yards.

Pass protection, a convenient culprit in 2019, doesn’t appear to be the issue this year. Scott said his makeshift offensive line — missing two projected starters — appeared to have the best day of any position group, accounting for only one of Notre Dame’s two sacks.

“That was probably the silver lining from the game this past weekend,” Scott said.

Yet USF (1-1) still didn’t reach the Irish red zone until the fourth quarter.

“It was a little bit of (the quarterbacks), a little bit of the wideouts not being where they’re supposed to be, and just overall too inconsistent in our passing game,” Scott said.

Related: If USF's game at Florida Atlantic transpires, so could history

As the lack of steadiness continues, the chorus calling for North Carolina transfer Cade Fortin grows louder.

Fortin, who bypassed three Power Five programs (Kansas, Vanderbilt or Syracuse) to sign with Scott in December, has been listed as “unavailable” the first two games. No reasons are given for the absence of players on the unavailable list, though presumptions come easy in the COVID-19 climate.

“Whenever Cade is allowed to come back, he will be given an opportunity to play,” Scott said Tuesday.

“Along with Katravis Marsh. Katravis is a talented freshman, very strong-armed, who’s really been improving in practice. So those two young men will get opportunities at some point. And then we need Jordan and Noah to continue to work and continue to improve.”

Because the window isn’t getting any wider.

USF (1-1) at Florida Atlantic (0-0)

Saturday, FAU Stadium, Boca Raton, 6 p.m.

TV/radio: CBS Sports Network; 1250-AM