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No quick fix in sight for USF football as season resumes

Jeff Scott’s rebuilding process has become more painstaking amid a pandemic
Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) is sacked by USF defensive tackle Blake Green (98) during last season's 20-17 Bearcats win at Raymond James Stadium. The 15th-ranked Bearcats host the Bulls on Saturday.
Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) is sacked by USF defensive tackle Blake Green (98) during last season's 20-17 Bearcats win at Raymond James Stadium. The 15th-ranked Bearcats host the Bulls on Saturday. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Oct. 2, 2020
Updated Oct. 3, 2020

TAMPA — He hit the sports trifecta during his Tuesday press conference. After congratulating the local hockey team in his opening remarks, USF coach Jeff Scott talked some football, with a baseball analogy interspersed.

“It’s kind of like being in the batter’s box and you’ve got that heavy weight on your bat,” said Scott, trying to oversee a significant rebuilding process with the Bulls (1-1).

“So you’re sitting there swinging that heavy bat. Then you take it off, get up there in the batter’s box and you rip it. So to me, this season’s kind of that year where we’re going to be swinging that heavy bat.”

Related: A closer look at No. 15 Cincinnati, which hosts USF on Saturday

History suggests the Bulls' figurative bat speed will increase in time, once the talent base is replenished, playbooks are mastered and solid practice habits become second nature. Willie Taggart’s teams heated up after some early whiffs. So did Bobby Bowden’s at FSU. Scott’s old boss, Dabo Swinney, nearly struck out with Clemson’s fan base before finding a rhythm.

All of which indicates a rebuild is a deliberate, sometimes daunting, endeavor. In Scott’s case, that task has been greatly disrupted by COVID-19. As recently as Thursday, Scott half-jokingly indicated he hoped to have 72 game-ready players — the road-trip maximum being observed by the Bulls — to put on the plane for Saturday’s contest at No. 15 Cincinnati.

“We haven’t had our starting 11 on either side of the ball yet, and we probably won’t this week, and I don’t know if we will all year long,” Scott said earlier in the week. “So that just further adds to the process.”

As that process trudges along amid a pandemic, a scenario feared by Bulls fans grows more plausible.

From a win-loss standpoint, things might — might — get a little worse before they get better.

To be sure, no one is conceding the Bulls are bound for a sequel to 2019, when they limped to a 4-8 record and never once developed any offensive continuity. But no one is denying reality either.

The rebuilding of USF football is going to take time.

“This whole year has just been crazy, so just taking it day by day it all seems so slow, like it’s moving so slow,” senior cornerback KJ Sails said. “But all that you can do is take it one step at a time...and that’s what the main focus is right now.”

Scott arrived in Tampa with eyes wide open, cognizant of the reclamation project before him. In recent years, his sparkling resume as Clemson’s co-offensive coordinator had thrust his name into the conversation for several Division I-A coaching vacancies.

Following Clemson’s 2018 national title season, he received serious overtures from Charlotte, coming off a 5-7 season. While the 49ers program didn’t require a significant overhaul, it didn’t possess the potential of a place such as USF, which had sniffed the college football summit (a No. 2 BCS ranking in 2007) and had plans for a palatial new complex in place.

When the Bulls job opened a year later, Scott opted for the program with the greater upside — and steeper uphill climb. Charlie Strong’s last two full recruiting classes (2018 and ’19) had ranked third and fifth, respectively, in the American Athletic Conference according to 247Sports. The ’20 group, which featured a lot of Strong’s fingerprints, ranked ninth.

“So it’s not liking I’m walking into some surprise and going, ‘Oh my gosh, I had no idea,’” Scott said. “I knew it was going to be a process, I just didn’t know (COVID-19) was going to further challenge that.”

Due to COVID-19 concerns, USF coach Jeff Scott again doesn't expect to have his full complement of players when the Bulls play Saturday at No. 15 Cincinnati.
Due to COVID-19 concerns, USF coach Jeff Scott again doesn't expect to have his full complement of players when the Bulls play Saturday at No. 15 Cincinnati. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

USF’s spring practice essentially was wiped out, and the summer conditioning program greatly condensed. Four non-conference games were either canceled or postponed, though two others were scheduled at the 11th hour. Scott’s initial goal was to board the plane for Cincinnati knowing his starting quarterback beyond a doubt. He doesn’t.

As a result, the Bulls rank last of the nine AAC teams that have played a game in pass efficiency (97.0 rating). Defensively, they’re next-to-last against the run (240.5 yards per game). On the plus side, they’ve been whistled for half as many penalties (nine) as they were two games into ’19, and the next turnover they commit will be their first of the year.

“(Scott’s) got a great vision of what he wants, and he shares that with us,” first-year defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said. "In his mind, he’s got a plan. On my end, I’m probably the opposite as far as I want tomorrow’s practice to be perfect.

“Yes, it’s a process, but we’re hired as assistants to get it figured out quick, and to have solutions. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen all the time, but that’s what I put on my shoulders.”

Perhaps the solutions arrive more briskly, starting Saturday. Maybe, just maybe, the 52-0 loss at Notre Dame was more aberration than harbinger. Perhaps hope — and a clear starting quarterback — emerge in Cincinnati.

In this highly surreal season (see Kansas State over Oklahoma, Mississippi State over LSU), nothing seems far-fetched.

But more than likely, Scott and Co. will have to keep reconciling patience with a profession demanding instant results. For encouragement, Scott need look no farther than across the Nippert Stadium field Saturday, where he’ll see a veritable prototype of a successful long-term rebuilding job.

Cincinnati went 4-8 in 2017 — Coach Luke Fickell’s first year — before posting consecutive 11-win seasons. The Bearcats' 2018 and ’20 recruiting classes were ranked No. 1 in the AAC by 247Sports.

“We’ve won five games in our last 20 games. I mean, we can’t hide from that,” Scott said.

“The only way that’s going to change is by changing how we do what we do, in a consistent effort every single day. And it’s going to take time. It didn’t get this way overnight and it’s not going to be fixed overnight, but that doesn’t mean we’re not working every single day to try to have the most success.”

Related: Five things we've learned about college football in the coronavirus era

USF (1-1, 0-0) at No. 15 Cincinnati (2-0, 0-0)

Nippert Stadium, Cincinnati, Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

TV/radio: ESPN+; 95.3-FM