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Could USF football go deep in 2021? The idea is no longer a stretch

Through four spring practices, the Bulls are showing signs of a vertical passing attack.
USF sophomore Xavier Weaver (10) has shown promise as a boundary receiver during the early portion of spring drills.
USF sophomore Xavier Weaver (10) has shown promise as a boundary receiver during the early portion of spring drills. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Mar. 3
Updated Mar. 3

TAMPA — The sleek, 6-foot-4 wideout from St. Petersburg turned heads the moment he stepped on USF’s practice fields last week, marking the first time since 2017 the Bulls camp featured a proven boundary receiver.

Problem was, Marquez Valdes-Scantling was only visiting; a rangy reminder of what USF’s offense once possessed out wide. Nearly three years after this Lakewood High alumnus was drafted by the Packers in the fifth round, the Bulls still are seeking his replacement: a vertical burner with soft hands and the ability to steadily snag jump balls.

“That’s a big emphasis for us this spring — we have to get better throwing the deep ball,” Bulls second-year coach Jeff Scott said. “I didn’t feel like we were consistent enough at quarterback or receiver last year throwing the ball down the field.”

Truth is, they haven’t possessed that consistency — at least not on the boundary — in years.

Since averaging 8.1 yards per pass attempt in 2017 (the final year for Valdes-Scantling and quarterback Quinton Flowers), USF has steadily regressed in that category, averaging 6.2 yards both in 2019 (last in the American Athletic Conference) and 2020 (next to last). Moreover, no boundary wideout has led USF in receptions since 2017, when Valdes-Scantling had 53 catches.

“When you’re inefficient throwing the deep ball, it makes it very, very difficult on your offense because the defense can really get that extra hat down there in the box to help with the run game and make it a long day,” Scott said following Tuesday’s practice.

“So our offense has to be explosive down the field with some of these deep shots, and a big part of that is going to be the timing and relationship between the quarterback and our (wideout).”

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Through four spring workouts (three more than USF had in 2020), Scott indicated he has seen encouraging signs of a downfield renaissance. Four scholarship receivers are 6-foot-4 or taller, not counting 6-1 sophomore Xavier Weaver, who appears to be having a breakout camp.

“I think (5-11 junior) Latrell Williams, Xavier Weaver, (6-5 converted tight end) Fred Lloyd’s actually been stepping up at the outside position,” said veteran slot receiver Bryce Miller, whose 33 catches led USF in 2020. “And I think the quarterbacks are giving them more opportunities to make plays.”

Weaver had 10 receptions last season, when the Bulls used three different starting quarterbacks during a year disrupted greatly by the coronavirus. Lloyd, an aberration in the transfer-portal era, has been used primarily on special teams during his four seasons and has yet to make a reception in a game.

Williams, a former four-star recruit and Tennessee signee, ranked third on the team with 22 catches last year. But like Weaver, the totals are misleading due to USF’s glaring inconsistency at quarterback and the turbulent transition to a new offense due to the pandemic.

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“(Weaver) is a guy that plays longer than maybe he is,” Scott said.

“But he plays 6-3 or 6-4 just because he’s very explosive, and I think he has over a 40-inch vertical. He’s just got to continue to get stronger. But he has elite change of direction, ball skills, some things you can’t coach.

“Fred Lloyd is another young man that played tight end that we moved over to the boundary receiver. Really has that length; I think he’s getting more comfortable now after four days of practice.”

Toss in more collective consistency in the quarterback room and the return of the entire starting offensive line, and perhaps stretching the field won’t be too deep a proposition in 2021.

“I think we’re making progress,” Scott said, “but that’s a key position for us, there in the boundary.”

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