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USF defense adopts 'Bull Shark' mentality

TAMPA

The moment preseason camp commenced at USF 13 days ago, dog days were supplanted by dorsal ones. A once-maligned defense resumed its quest to evolve from porous to predatory.

"We go by a new name, we go by the Bull Sharks," senior safety Jamie Byrd said shortly after that Aug. 6 practice. "I feel like we smell blood, and we're going to attack. We're going to let you know that."

Message to USF's marketing team: You're gonna need a bigger billboard.

In an effort to maximize their athleticism and neutralize the plethora of spread offenses in their league, the Bulls — under new coordinator Tom Allen — are refining a 4-2-5 alignment installed in the spring.

At its core, it's a paradox: rife with moving parts and multiple looks but simplistic enough for players to perform instinctively without overthinking.

"It's just an attack mentality defense and I love it," redshirt freshman "stinger" (aka, weakside linebacker) Jimmy Bayes said. "And everybody around me is buying into it."

TCU's Gary Patterson is widely credited with originating the system. Question is, will the Bull Sharks' version possess the teeth of the original, or are their fans about to be subjected to repeated screenings of Jaws: The Revenge?

"I feel like we're a lot faster," sophomore free safety Tajee Fullwood said. "We can move around a lot more, especially having three safeties on the field; we all can cover and tackle at the same time. It's better for us."

USF fans can only hope so. Depth deficiencies up front last year forced former coordinator Chuck Bresnahan to switch from an alignment with four linemen and three linebackers to a 3-4 base formation that yielded grim results. When not vulnerable against the run, the Bulls appeared confused in coverage.

USF surrendered 589 total yards — one shy of the program record — on Sept. 13 in a 49-17 loss to N.C. State, then allowed a record-tying 590 in a 34-17 loss Oct. 24 at Cincinnati. The 403.1 yards allowed per game were most by a Bulls defense.

Enter Allen, who learned the 4-2-5 primarily at the foot of veteran Ole Miss coordinator Dave Wommack.

"I would say that the concepts are simple, but we want to create multiplicity," said Allen, who cut his coaching teeth locally at Temple Heights Christian School and later at Armwood High. "We want to be multiple."

The front end of the defense appears conventional: four down linemen with two linebackers situated primarily inside. One end will line up on the strong side (i.e. tight end) while the other serves as a hybrid rush end/outside linebacker. Most of the adjustments come in the coverage schemes.

Two cornerbacks are complemented essentially by three safeties: a strong safety (rover) who can cover a slot receiver, a nickel back (husky) capable of covering an inside receiver or providing support in run stoppage, and a free safety. How they line up depends on the offensive look (three- or four-receiver sets, etc.).

The philosophy maximizes the area (secondary) in which the Bulls clearly are deepest. When an offense goes conventional in an effort to establish the run, Allen says the Bulls will revert to a traditional 4-3 look.

But even when the formations fluctuate, the mantra does not: The Bulls will swarm — or swim, in the spirit of the bull shark — to the ball.

"I think if you're going to have a good defense, then you've got to get all 11 to the ball every snap," Allen said.

"It doesn't matter what you do, what system you run, if you don't do that, you're not going to be very good. If you do that, and get those kids to play that way every single snap, I think great things happen."

If the preseason is any harbinger of the regular one, fans have reason for guarded optimism. In most scrimmage periods, the defense has prevailed.

Given its own point system (for interceptions, turnovers on downs, etc.), the defense edged the offense Saturday in the first extended scrimmage of the preseason, coach Willie Taggart said.

In that two-hour session, Allen's unit surrendered three touchdown passes but forced five turnovers (including four interceptions) and gave up no TDs in extensive red-zone work.

"Ah man, we looked great," Byrd said. "I just think we just need to keep coming along, keep making these plays and showing what the Bull Shark defense is."

Indeed, its development will be a critical story during a season in which the Bulls can ill afford a feeble fish tale.

"We've created this whole identity of Bull Shark defense, and bull sharks are one of the most feared predators in the ocean," middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez said.

"Nobody preys on them, and we want to prey on everyone else. So that means we're going to run to the ball, we're going to rake the ball out, we're going to strip 'em, we're going to hit 'em, we're going to intercept 'em. We're going to come after 'em with any type of turnover we can. That's part of the plan for sure."

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

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