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Little time to think, or blink, in USF's new offense

South Florida Offensive Coordinator Sterlin Gilbert during spring practice at the USF Frank Morsani Football Practice Complex in Tampa, on Wednesday, March 8, 2017.
South Florida Offensive Coordinator Sterlin Gilbert during spring practice at the USF Frank Morsani Football Practice Complex in Tampa, on Wednesday, March 8, 2017.
Published Apr. 1, 2017

TAMPA — A play was whistled dead, and bustle came to life.

Officials scurried to spot the ball as USF offensive players darted to their respective spots. On the sideline, Bulls staffers hoisted yellow, square flash cards while coaches hollered out signals. Some were repeated by players, just to be sure all were on the same vigorous wavelength.

On the opposite side, defensive coaches exhorted their guys to get lined up, fast. The quarterback, Quinton Flowers, stood in the shotgun formation and glanced quickly both ways. Then, roughly 25 seconds after the previous play had ended, center Cameron Ruff snapped the ball.

A tad too plodding, first-year coach Charlie Strong suggested afterward. Seems one team's frenetic is another's first gear.

"We'd like to go faster and I think we will once they … learn what they're doing," Strong said. "They're gonna go a lot faster."

More than halfway through the first spring of the Strong era, a few distinct characteristics of new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert's system have surfaced: The Bulls want to run downhill and throw downfield. They want to flex their tight ends and feature their rangy wideouts. They want to spread you and pound you.

And they want to do it all as fast as humanly possible.

"About the time the running back is down the field we're right behind him, getting on the ball," Ruff said.

Vintage Gilbert orchestrates each play like a Wall Street trader, with shouts and urgent hand signals.

"Sterlin comes from that Baylor tree, and they've kind of mastered the tempo," running backs coach Shaun King said. "So how we get the play in and all that stuff, they've been in it a long time."

Gilbert has served as offensive coordinator at three schools (Bowling Green, Tulsa, Texas) in the past three years, and each has ranked 12th or better in Division I in plays per game. His 2015 Tulsa team ranked first (86.3).

And while plays per game isn't a tell-all gauge of offensive proficiency (USF had 43 touchdown drives of two minutes or less in 2016), it conveys one indisputable fact: Gilbert's teams don't dawdle.

"You get the signal one time," Flowers said, "and that's it."

It's a philosophy learned at the foot of former Baylor and Houston coach Art Briles, whose 2014 Bears team ranked first nationally with 90.3 plays per game. In each of Briles' last five seasons at Baylor, the Bears finished in the top five in Division I-A in scoring.

"It's just … a process and understanding it and knowing 'fast,' which is what we say," said Gilbert, a graduate assistant for Briles at Houston in 2005. "So those guys will get better as this thing goes."

Like his mentor, Gilbert has made an art of keeping the offense's nuances concealed. (It's believed he doesn't even use a playbook.) But Strong has opened practices to media this spring, affording a look at the system's alignments and rhythms.

On its surface, it resembles Willie Taggart's "Gulf Coast" offense: Flowers operates out of a single-back set, with tight ends sometimes doubling as H-backs. Wideouts are dispersed to the far ends of the line of scrimmage, with smaller slot guys inside.

But whereas Flowers often dashed around the edge or dished off to jet-sweep extraordinaire Rodney Adams in Taggart's system, Gilbert's scheme appears more committed to inside running lanes.

"It's a lot more power," fifth-year senior running back Darius Tice said.

"Physical and fast are probably the first two words that come to mind" when describing the offense, Gilbert said.

If it parlays into the program's first conference title, another adjective ultimately might be used.


Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.