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USF football getting some answers, questions remain

Bulls center Cameron Ruff, right, blocking Deadrin Senat, appears to be a lock to start but the line is mostly unsettled.
Published Jul. 29, 2017

TAMPA — Amid a couple of brief downpours, USF staged its first padded practice of the preseason (shorts, shoulder pads, helmets) Saturday on the northern fringe of campus. Here are five observations from the 21/2-hour workout.

1. Upgrade? Perhaps. Overhaul? No

Due to the plethora of spread-style offenses it will face, and its depth shortage at linebacker, the Bulls defense still will operate primarily out of a 4-2-5 (i.e. nickel) formation.

On Saturday, one variation of the first team featured six players from the bay area, including cornerback Mazzi Wilkins of Plant, lining up opposite senior Deatrick Nichols. By most accounts, Wilkins — a junior — has sparkled the first week, and nearly picked an underthrown Quinton Flowers deep ball Saturday.

"It's (Wilkins') time," Nichols said. "It's his time to work. It's his time to put (a hand) in the envelope and get something good out of it."

2. Fierce competition up front

The most interesting preseason position battles appear to be occurring along the offensive line. On Saturday, the starting unit featured left tackle Grant Polk, left guard Jeremi Hall, center Cameron Ruff, right guard Michael Wiggs and right tackle Marcus Norman.

Ruff and Hall appear the only first-team locks, though Polk has been coming on. Meantime, converted tackle Billy Atterbury continues taking reps as a pulling guard, while freshman Demetris Harris (6 feet 3, 280 pounds) is getting steady second-team work at right tackle.

3. Freshmen sightings

While the Bulls' experience (16 returning starters) and depth at most spots has led to the presumption they'll have to rely on fewer freshmen this season, a number of rookies took significant reps Saturday.

In addition to Harris up front, Auburndale speedster Chauncy Smart -— the reigning Class 3A state champ in the 100 meters — is returning punts. Additionally, Tampa Catholic alumnus Bentlee Sanders and Orange Park's Nick Roberts took reps in the secondary, and Jacksonville linebacker Keirston Johnson may be needed right away to shore up linebacker depth.

"We go (starters), twos, threes and a lot of the freshmen are getting a lot of reps," coach Charlie Strong said. "But as we get closer then we'll start … trying to figure out who we need and who's gonna play for us."

4. Valdes-Scantling hurt in awkward fall

The scariest moment of the preseason occurred midway through Saturday's practice, when 6-5 senior receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling remained on the ground after landing awkwardly during a one-on-one drill. Valdes-Scantling exited on his own power, noticeably favoring his right leg, and remained sidelined the rest of the day.

"He's fine," Strong said. "I'm not exactly for sure what happened to him, but he'll be fine."

At least two others — defensive end Josh Black (unspecified injury) and quarterback Chris Oladokun (illness)— didn't attend Saturday's workout.

5. Kean observation

Four weeks remain until the season opener, but third-year sophomore Brett Kean almost certainly would be the backup to Flowers if the season began today. Though Oladokun ultimately could shake things up, Kean has the edge in experience (18-for-26 for 129 yards in 2017) and appears to have added velocity in the offseason.

His touch isn't bad either. On Saturday, he found freshman Randall St. Felix on roughly a 40-yard streak route, with St. Felix diving for the catch in single coverage.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com.

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