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Bulls secondary brimming with Hillsborough talent

No fewer than four Hillsborough County products could get significant playing time in USF's secondary
USF defensive back Mike Hampton (14) tips a pass intended for Texas Tech receiver T.J. Vasher (9), leading to an interception by safety Jaymon Thomas (not pictured) during the first half of the Birmingham Bowl last December. Hampton, a Hillsborough High alumnus, is projected as a starting cornerback this season. (Times file photo)
USF defensive back Mike Hampton (14) tips a pass intended for Texas Tech receiver T.J. Vasher (9), leading to an interception by safety Jaymon Thomas (not pictured) during the first half of the Birmingham Bowl last December. Hampton, a Hillsborough High alumnus, is projected as a starting cornerback this season. (Times file photo)
Published Aug. 13, 2018

Based on the daily scrimmage periods open to media, the Bulls appear poised to brandish a predominantly Hillsborough County secondary in 2018.

Senior Mazzi Wilkins (Plant) and sophomore Mike Hampton (Hillsborough) appear set at the starting cornerback spots. Additionally, redshirt freshman FS Mekhi LaPointe, who led the state with 10 interceptions as an Armwood junior in 2015, has been lining up alongside veteran starter Jaymon Thomas in some packages.

"He went down today (with a seemingly minor injury) but he should be back," Thomas said. "Mekhi's young, and Mekhi's got a good body frame, Mekhi can move. He's got time to develop and he picks up the defense pretty quick so that's pretty good."

Meantime, redshirt freshman S Bentlee Sanders (Tampa Catholic) appears to be having a breakthrough spring, highlighted by a red-zone interception in Saturday's scrimmage.

"I see a young Devin Abraham (in Sanders)," Thomas said. "Devin Abraham was always coming out of nowhere making picks."

Though coaches continue mixing and matching within the defensive rotation, the first-team secondary during the portion of Saturday's scrimmage featured Wilkins, Hampton, LaPointe, Thomas and nickel back Ronnie Hoggins.

"At the end of the day, we want the best guys out there, but it is exciting because it shows that we've got talent in our area," Wilkins said.

"We want to put on for Tampa; that's always what we talk about. There's always a feud in the locker room with Dade County, Duval County and Hillsborough County, so that always feels good."

MONDAY HIGHLIGHTS: The offense and defense both came up with a handful of big plays about which to chirp during the open 11-on-11 period Monday.

But no one chirped louder than Coach Charlie Strong, who unleashed a brief tirade on his team during the post-practice huddle. Strong didn't address reporters afterward, but called out his team early last week for a lack of energy, and reiterated Saturday the Bulls must develop mental toughness.

Related: USF football wants success with no mistaken identity

During live action, RB Duran Bell (Hillsborough) caught a short Blake Barnett swing pass and darted up the right sideline for a gain of roughly 25 yards, setting up a short Barnett touchdown run. QB Brett Kean hit Ryeshene Bronson for a 10-yard TD on a corner route, and later had a 4-yard TD pass to TE Frederick Lloyd.

The third entrant in the quarterback derby, redshirt sophomore Chris Oladokun, scrambled to his left on an apparent run-pass option and found freshman Zion Roland (Admiral Farragut) uncovered for a 15-yard TD.

But Hoggins also picked Barnett in the end zone, and freshman Jordan McCloud made an ill-advised throw into the end zone that was picked by fellow rookie Eugene Bowman.

Additionally, Thomas blocked consecutive field goals.

"I went through my gap," Thomas said. "If Ronnie and Mazzi did their job, it was gonna open right up for me and I came right through."

D-LO ON DEFENSE: Junior Deangelo Antoine, who has 19 career catches primarily as a slot receiver, has moved to safety and apparently made an early impression.

"That boy can cover ground," Wilkins said. "He can really get sideline to sideline using the speed he has and acceleration. … He can tackle. That was probably the one thing that surprised me the most. A guy coming from the offensive side of the ball to the defense, he's not scared to put his nose in there."

Antoine becomes the latest offensive player to experiment on the other side, joining receiver-turned-cornerback Chris Barr and Wharton alumnus DeVontres Dukes, who dabbled at safety in the spring before moving back to receiver.

ODDS AND ENDS: Offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert said Barnett, Kean and Oladokun were "pretty equal" in Saturday's scrimmage, and all remain in the mix for the starting job. … Veteran Mitch Wilcox and fellow TE Jacob Mathis were held out of scrimmage action Monday. We expect Strong to update their status later in the week. Others rehabbing Monday were LaPointe, DB Donelle Thomas and DE Marquies Price. … The Bulls continue raving about the all-black alternate uniforms unveiled Saturday. "That's my favorite right now," WR Darnell Salomon said. "I hope we wear them black jerseys at least more than one time."