TAMPA — One of the most encouraging signs for USF’s future came Tuesday during the Bulls’ first practice of the spring.
Ajou Ajou, a transfer receiver from Clemson, caught a hitch and was tagged, but coach Jeff Scott didn’t blow the whistle. Jaren Mangham, one of the brightest spots from last year’s team, ran over to Ajou to tell him to burst ahead until the rep was over.
It wasn’t much on its own — 15 meaningless yards six months before the first game. But Scott loved it.
“That’s what it looks like right there,” Scott said, “where your returning guys are telling the new guys, ‘This is how we practice. This is the standard.’ Those are the signs that you look for as a coach when you’re trying to see that improvement.”
The Bulls, obviously, are looking for a lot of improvement after going 2-10 in Scott’s second season. That’s why the roster is filled with players like Ajou — talented transfers who joined USF for a fresh start.
Ajou was a top-500 national recruit from Clearwater Academy International who had eight catches over two years with the Tigers and is poised to become a big part of the Bulls’ offense. Calvary Christian alumnus Mike Lofton (UCF) and Derrell Bailey (Virginia Tech) are working with the first-team offensive line. Scott said Jatorian Hansford (Missouri) is “what we’ve been looking for” at defensive end, and that Plant City High product DJ Gordon (Minnesota) has performed well at linebacker.
It’s not a shock to Scott or anyone else that so many transfers have stood out through two days of spring ball. But it’s noteworthy, if not somewhat surprising, that the returning players have embraced the experienced newcomers, because that camaraderie does not always happen.
Before the portal era, coaches were often reluctant to bring in too many transfers for fear of poisoning the team chemistry or culture. Scott came from a school, Clemson, that notoriously avoided transfers, so he didn’t know what to expect. It would be reasonable to expect veterans who have waited their turn to be skeptical of transfers coming in to compete with them for snaps, if not starting jobs.
“I thought this spring would be a little rough kind of figuring all that out — two blended families that kind of go through a little time there,” Scott said. “But it’s happened quicker.”
Scott points to another example. When Gordon intercepted a pass Tuesday, senior linebacker Antonio Grier was right there to celebrate with his new teammate.
“That’s not what you expect when you’re bringing in some talented guys that have played good ball at other places,” Scott said.
It appears to be happening at USF, however, for a few reasons. The culture Scott has instilled is competitive, but super senior center Brad Cecil said the competition is uplifting rather than malicious.
“Here, we compete to better each other, not to beat someone out and make someone not play,” Cecil said.
That mentality is best for the team, but it also benefits returners individually. The Bulls spent Scott’s first two seasons without much depth, especially on defense. At one point during 2020, Scott said his defense had 34 players practicing. This spring, the Bulls have 67.
Limited rotations last fall meant more snaps for the main contributors. It’s fair to wonder whether a deeper bench would have changed the fourth quarter of losses to Tulsa, East Carolina and UCF. That’s why Scott said some of the players most excited about the additions are the returning defensive starters.
“They’ve got some help,” Scott said, “and they’re not having to do it all on their own.”
Scott said he sees more maturity on the practice field than he has in the past. It’s hard to explain or quantify, he said, but “when you see it, you recognize it.”
Scott said he does not expect to release a depth chart until the week of the opener against BYU. Timmy McClain and Katravis Marsh have been taking the snaps with the first team at quarterback, though Scott said it’s not a 50-50 split.
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