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After difficult season, optimism is on the rise at USF

Determined to put a 1-8 season behind them, team leaders set the tone with group chats and player-led practices.
USF head coach Jeff Scott, in white with gray cap, greets his players during the first week of fall practice. Energy and hope at USF was infinitely higher than it was at the same time a year ago.
USF head coach Jeff Scott, in white with gray cap, greets his players during the first week of fall practice. Energy and hope at USF was infinitely higher than it was at the same time a year ago. [ SCOTT PURKS | Scott Purks, Special to the Times ]
Published Aug. 12, 2021

TAMPA — The list of challenges for the USF football team last year was long and horrible.

First-year head coach. Pandemic. No spring practice. Basically, no summer. Players opting out because of the coronavirus. Outbreaks wreaking havoc on the roster and schedule. Players dismissed for disciplinary reasons.

By the end of the season, USF was down to about 60 players and using kickers and a couple of dressed-out graduate assistants to fill out practice squads.

The final record, 1-8 and 0-7 in the American Athletic Conference, fit the situation.

It was — in the biggest sense of the word — a mess.

Through it all, head coach Jeff Scott stuck to his message of “changing the culture.”

In that respect, at least, the Bulls are starting to see some positive signs..

During the first week of fall practice, a sense of purpose was evident, , from the sparkling new locker room, to the full practice field, to maybe most telling thing of all: players working together in their “off hours” when the coaches are not around.

It started in January with a group of leaders called the “Bull Council,” which includes players such as offensive lineman Brad Cecil, tight end Mitchell Brinkman, safety Mekhi LaPointe and quarterback Cade Fortin.

Beginning with group chats, they organized a system of “player practices” complete with itineraries and agendas, separated into groups by position. They met at least three times a week for a few hours and drilled plays and formations between heavy-duty physical workouts.

No coaches were around, because they are not allowed to attend offseason practices.

“Everyone (on the Bull Council) was immediately on the same page, because we all wanted to turn this thing around,” Cecil said. “I think the younger guys saw that the leaders were together, and then everybody bought in. Everybody on the team showed up for the player-led workouts.”

This time last year?

“You could look out there (to the practice field during player-led workouts), and maybe two guys would be out there,” said Scott, who acknowledged that the pandemic figured into that scene. “It’s completely different.”

That includes the execution in the early fall practices.

“This year when we came into camp we were running these plays instead of really learning them, because we’ve been running these plays all year (in the player-led workouts),” Brinkman said. “Now, it’s attention to detail and fine-tuning. Huge difference.”

Brinkman said he understands teams across the country also held player-led offseason practices. The difference comes in their efficiency and focus. “We did a good job,” Brinkman said.

Another notable difference can be seen in the players’ overall waist sizes (smaller), muscle size (larger), strength (increased) and speed (faster).

“The physical change has definitely been big throughout the whole team,” Cecil said. “Some guys lost as much as 6 to 8 percent body fat. Dropping pounds of fat and adding pounds of muscle.”

Will it be enough against a scheduled that opens with North Carolina State and is followed by Florida and a host of other major challenges?

Scott said he continues to keep his focus on simply getting better every day.

“What I’ve seen this week, after all the work the guys did on their own in the offseason, helps confirm what I’ve been feeling, which is that we are headed in the right direction,” Scott said. “Last year, the coaches were more like managers. Managing practice. Trying to get enough guys out there. This year is completely different. We’ve built up momentum, and now we’ll keep it going.”

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