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Defensive rebuild one USF construction job that will stretch into 2024

The Bulls are nearing bowl eligibility despite a defense that remains a work in progress.
 
USF defensive back Daquan Evans (0) tackles FAU running back Kobe Lewis (5) during the teams' Oct. 14 meeting at Raymond James Stadium.
USF defensive back Daquan Evans (0) tackles FAU running back Kobe Lewis (5) during the teams' Oct. 14 meeting at Raymond James Stadium. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Nov. 24, 2023

TAMPA — The breakthrough season hasn’t arrived without blemish. USF coach Alex Golesh has seen the smudge, acknowledged it and even has tried lending a hand to help erase it.

Not that simple. The defense he inherited upon his arrival at USF was in too much disrepair to even contemplate a quick fix. Building trust? Fostering resilience? Developing a young quarterback? Those tasks seem complete or nearing fruition. Defense remains a different story.

“Trust me, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to help and figure it out,” said Golesh, whose unit ranks 129th of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in points allowed per game (36.8). “And I’ve got all the faith in the world in that crew to get it figured out, because the one thing I keep seeing is effort and effort and effort.”

While Golesh successfully has installed his Formula One offensive tempo that has generated 451 yards a game (18th nationally), few reasonably could have expected a similar transformation on the opposite side.

He and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando took the reins of a hapless unit that finished last in 2022 in yards allowed per game (516.6), and next-to-last in scoring (41.2 points per game), opponents’ pass efficiency (167.9) and sacks (14.0). Despite an exhaustive effort to replenish the unit via the portal and further the development of the holdovers, the project has remained tedious.

And terribly inconsistent. The inspired effort in the 17-3 loss to Alabama, when the Tide tacked on their last touchdown in the game’s final minute, hasn’t been replicated. USF (5-6, 3-4 American Athletic Conference) has allowed at least 49 points in four of its last five conference games.

“I think it’s a lot of different things, but it’s something different every week,” Golesh said. “That’s what I mean by a roller-coaster ride, and it’s not just the defense — it really isn’t. I mean, offensively, we’re certainly nowhere near where we’ve got to be. There’s things that happen in special teams.

“I think being a defensive coordinator or secondary coach in modern-day college football is a really, really tough job; I’m happy to be on the other side. But we’ve got to continue to grow there, we’ve got to continue to get better, but you could literally say that about every single aspect of our program right now.”

While the secondary — a hodgepodge of transfers, youngsters and converted receivers — has been a convenient target, the culprits transcend that unit. The lack of a consistent pass rush (20 sacks in 11 games) often has placed an added strain on the downfield defenders. So has a lack of complementary football.

In last Friday’s 49-21 loss at UTSA, the Bulls’ last three offensive possessions (excluding the final snap of the half) lasted 2:13, 1:19 and 39 seconds, virtually negating any substantial defensive rest.

Which isn’t to say Golesh totally exonerates his secondary, which has used five different starting lineups.

“It’s been a mixture of guys banged up, it’s been a mixture of us not necessarily being in the right spot at the right time,” he said. “It’s been a mixture of just not playing good football at times with bad eyes. It’s been really, really a frustrating process to get those guys right, because there is talent back there and they’ve continued to play hard.”

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The unit’s final regular-season challenge — Saturday on senior night against Charlotte — hardly seems imposing on paper. The 49ers (3-8, 2-4) rank 124th nationally in scoring (17.8 ppg) and 117th in passing offense (168.0 ypg), but took Memphis to overtime in a 44-38 loss only two weeks ago. If the Bulls can show defensive in long stretches instead of spurts Saturday against the 49ers, they’ll earn bowl eligibility.

Which comes with up to 15 extra practices. Precious additional time in a prolonged rebuilding effort.

“We’re a good enough team to win some games, and we’re a good enough team to get our tail whipped, too,” said senior nickel back Daquan Evans, the only member of the secondary to start all 11 games. “But when we’re consistent and clicking, nobody can mess with us. So that’s going to be a big thing (Saturday), staying consistent, trusting each other.”

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

No quick fixes

Though USF finds itself on the cusp of bowl eligibility, its beleaguered defense has shown only modest statistical improvement from 2022, when the Bulls finished 1-11.

2023 (through 11 games)

Category; Number; National rank

Total defense; 469.5 yards per game; 129th

Scoring defense; 36.8 points per game; 129th

Team sacks; 20.0; t-91st

Pass-efficiency defense; 149.1; 116th

Run defense; 155.9 yards per game; t-75th

2022 (through 12 games)

Category; Number; National rank

Total defense; 516.6 yards per game; 130th

Scoring defense; 41.2 points per game; 129th

Team sacks; 14.0; 129th

Pass-efficiency defense; 167.9; 129th

Run defense; 234.6 yards per game; 128th

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