USF’s defense offers favorable first impression. Can it make a lasting one?

The unit recorded three interceptions on the first day of spring drills, Alex Golesh said.
New USF coach Alex Golesh talks with defensive backs Christian Williams (4) and Aamaris Brown (9) during Monday's spring practice.
New USF coach Alex Golesh talks with defensive backs Christian Williams (4) and Aamaris Brown (9) during Monday's spring practice. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Mar. 7

TAMPA — Overseeing his inaugural spring practice as a head coach, USF’s Alex Golesh knew well enough not to micro-manage. Even as he observed the defense, Golesh let his staffers handle the scheme, stances and spacing.

Spirit was another matter.

“I was over there as a hype guy, and I’m always going to be a hype guy,” Golesh said Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the conclusion of that initial workout.

“I commended those (defensive) guys after practice how they took the field. For 24 consecutive periods, there was an intent every time they took the field. That’s the only part that I was over there (Monday) hammering away at them, like, ‘You’ve got to walk like a dude before anybody thinks you are a dude. You’ve got to act like a dude before anybody thinks you are a dude.’”

This is how one sets about transforming a hobble into a swagger.

A program founded a quarter-century ago on rugged defense was historically porous in 2022, ranking last in Division I-A in yards allowed per play (7.42) and per game (516.6). The reclamation project began in earnest Monday, leaving a favorable first impression on the head coach and others.

“I could see a difference,” sixth-year left tackle Donovan Jennings said. “They attack the field with a different kind of passion and a different kind of energy than I’ve seen before.”

Golesh, coordinator for a Tennessee offense that ranked fifth nationally in passing (326.1 yards per game) last season, watched the defense record three interceptions during team periods Monday. That’s half as many as the 2022 Bulls totaled in 12 games.

Whether that takeaway tendency spills over into September is anyone’s guess. But the picks — and collective zeal that accompanied them — offered bright spots to a unit absolutely famished for them.

“We’ve got to continue to infuse talent on both sides of the ball,” Golesh said. “But I thought (the defensive guys) ran around with their hair on fire, really, really excited to play defense. And that’s how you win.”

Related: USF approves $22 million to design Bulls' on-campus football stadium

Nine defensive players who started at least seven games last season are back, a number that doesn’t necessarily foster optimism when considering the Bulls ranked 130th of 131 Division I-A teams in points allowed (41.2 per game).

Only six defensive players were added during the late and early signing periods, but that was more indicative of a glaring roster imbalance (i.e. seven scholarship offensive linemen) that Golesh inherited. Moreover, he could add more players when the spring transfer-portal window opens in April.

But while the roster remains in flux, the guys currently on board seem to have warmed up to a new defensive staff featuring veteran coordinator Steve Orlando and line coach Kevin Patrick — who served on Jim Leavitt’s inaugural Bulls staff.

Junior defensive lineman Rashad Cheney, who missed five games last season with a broken left ankle, said Patrick “taught us so much” on the white board during his initial meeting with the linemen. As for the system Orlando’s implementing?

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“It’s very aggressive,” Cheney added. “(Orlando’s) mentality is, he’s going to get people, man. He’s a very hard-coaching dude, very demanding. But it’s our job to also do what he wants. I feel like this is one of the best defenses that I’ve ever played in.”

Meantime, optimism remains far more measured among the fan base, and with good reason. But for at least a day, the USF defense again had passion, purpose, even picks.

All of which seemed to be missing for most of last fall.

“One thing I can say, just being with Coach Golesh for these past few months, man, he makes us want to run through a brick wall for him,” Cheney said. “The energy he brings, the swag he brings, it’s like, how can you not get young guys to really ... go along with that process?”

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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