Veer-and-variety: USF mixing things up on offense

The Bulls appear to have diversified their offense in Year Two of the Charlie Strong era
OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times 
USF running back Duran Bell Jr. (22), questionable for today's Illinois game with an ankle injury, is among six Bulls with at least nine carries this season.
OCTAVIO JONES | Times USF running back Duran Bell Jr. (22), questionable for today's Illinois game with an ankle injury, is among six Bulls with at least nine carries this season.
Published Sept. 14, 2018

TAMPA — In a prior September, the situation facing USF —fourth and 1 from Georgia Tech's 9-yard line — would have screamed for a halfback dive.

This time, with his team leading by four and fewer than three minutes remaining, Charlie Strong screamed for something else.

"I said to (offensive coordinator) Sterlin (Gilbert), 'Man, we need seven here, we don't need three. We've got to get seven. Let's go for it,'" the Bulls' second-year coach said. "And I said, 'If anything, get a ball to (Tyre) McCants. He'll get us 1 yard, they're not gonna knock him back.'"

Seconds later, quarterback Blake Barnett took a shotgun snap and flung a short screen pass to McCants. The 240-pound slot receiver snagged the ball near his own sideline at the 11, then plowed forward 6 more yards before two Tech defenders finally brought him down.

The gamble proved not only decisive (Barnett scored the next play) but symbolic, illustrating the obvious shift in Strong and Gilbert's offensive philosophy.

Less than 11 months after their ghastly four-point home loss to Houston, when they twice were stopped on fourth-and-1 runs inside the Cougars 30, the Bulls no longer seem bent on asserting power-run principles.

Instead of going strictly downhill, they've gone diverse.

"Coach Gilbert gives us a chance to play football right now," junior receiver Darnell Salomon said. "He gives us a chance to make space, do what we've got to do, and he knows that we've got potential to make big plays."

In only eight quarters, Bulls fans have seen offensive wrinkles that revealed themselves rarely — if at all — in 2017.

Toss sweeps. Jet sweeps. Heavier doses of short passes. And a larger offensive ensemble.

"You're gonna see a little bit different things that go on to help us be successful," Gilbert said. "Just kind of going on with what makes us successful, what gets us going, what gets us first downs, and those are the things we've been able to do."

The result: USF has 574 passing yards, 155 more than it had through two games last season. Its completion percentage (64.9) also is better (55.2). And while their 367 rushing yards are 101 fewer than they collected the first two games of 2017, the Bulls' yards per attempt (4.5) is significantly greater (3.8).

Strong says the evolution is based on his personnel.

At its core, Gilbert's veer-and-shoot system — operated at a breakneck tempo — attempts to spring big runs with the pass, with receivers running vertical routes to keep defensive backs deeper. So far this season, Gilbert has shown it can be as flexible as it is fast-paced.

The backfield features scatbacks (i.e. Johnny Ford, Duran Bell) to complement its north-south power runners (Jordan Cronkrite, Trevon Sands, Elijah Mack).

And whereas the focal point of last year's passing game was the quintessential downfield threat (Marquez Valdes-Scantling), this year's top target (McCants) can snag a shorter throw and churn out big yardage after the catch, sometimes dragging defenders along the way.

"Not taking anything away from (2017 backs) Deuce (D'Ernest Johnson) and (Darius) Tice, but they were just two different backs than these guys," Strong said following the Bulls' 34-14 season-opening win against Elon.

"So you'll see the ball on the perimeter because…we have to take advantage of our speed. And we have enough guys where we can run."

The arrival of Barnett also explains the schematic shift. Though no one's ready to suggest he'll approach the iconic status of predecessor Quinton Flowers, the 22-year-old graduate transfer is a purer passer. Whereas Flowers periodically struggled on short and intermediate routes, Barnett so far has proven more efficient.

He enters Saturday's game against Illinois second in the American Athletic Conference, and 26th in Division I-A, in completion percentage (69.2). His five touchdown passes have been to five different players.

"Just a different skill set," Gilbert said, "and just being able to try to play to a lot of his strengths (based on) what he's done in the past and what he's capable of doing."

Only an autumn ago, many USF observers never thought they'd see a veer-and-variety like this. Perhaps some players didn't either.

"Yes," Salomon says with a grin when asked if he likes the fresh philosophy. "I really do."

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

USF (2-0) vs. Illinois (2-0)
Where/when: Soldier Field, Chicago, 3:40 p.m.
TV/radio: Big Ten Network; 820-AM