USF coaches see brighter days for beleaguered defense

The Bulls' greenness has been exposed several times this season
USF coach Charlie Strong, center, and defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary, left, have taken heat this season for a defense that has allowed five opponents to run for more than 200 yards. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
USF coach Charlie Strong, center, and defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary, left, have taken heat this season for a defense that has allowed five opponents to run for more than 200 yards. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
Published Nov. 1, 2018|Updated Nov. 1, 2018

TAMPA — For a few nonchalant moments with reporters Wednesday, USF's Brian Jean-Mary was not a defensive coordinator. No terse responses to tough questions, no evasive double-talk. Nary a trace of arrogance.

Nothing defensive at all. To the contrary, when asked about the effect of losing three of his linemen from the 2017 team to the NFL, Jean-Mary inserted levity.

"We're not gonna make any excuses. Trust me, I remember those guys," Jean-Mary said. "I like to text 'em sometimes and say, 'I apologize for anything bad I ever  said to you last year.'"

The response elicited a chuckle, offering momentary reassurance that even while existing beneath a perpetual heat lamp, Division I-A coaches can lose a game and not lose perspective.

Which isn't to suggest keeping things in their proper context has been easy. One needn't have a doctorate in zone blitzing to see the Bulls (7-1, 3-1 American Athletic Conference) have struggled mightily on defense this season.

Houston racked up 682 total yards on them in last weekend's 57-36 defeat. Not counting the game's final play, the Cougars faced third and 6 or longer 10 times, converting nine of them. Five of USF's seven opponents have run for 200 or more yards.

But as he wades through that statistical flotsam, Jean-Mary envisions a day when things will go far more swimmingly. It remains in the distance.

Bottom line: Defensive sturdiness (or the lack thereof) starts up front, and the Bulls graduated three linemen — tackles Deadrin Senat and Bruce Hector, and end Mike Love — employed by NFL teams.

Also gone from that team: the four-year starting middle linebacker (Auggie Sanchez), a three-year starting corner/nickel back (Deatrick Nichols) and a safety (Devin Abraham) who made 37 career starts.

"You're mixing young guys with older guys, but the older guys, some of them weren't starters, so this is the first time they're starting," Coach Charlie Strong said last week. "It's not that we're looking for excuses because we have some good talent, but it's not like we're walking out there with a seasoned team."

The transition on the line has affected the back end, which on Saturday featured a freshman linebacker (Dwayne Boyles), two redshirt freshman safeties (Mekhi LaPointe and Nick Roberts), and a converted defensive end (Greg Reaves) making his second career start at middle linebacker.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Houston quarterback D'Eriq King had four touchdown passes of 27 or more yards.

"I always say to myself, and I have to keep reminding myself, this is an investment," said Jean-Mary, whose unit ranks 121st nationally against the run (233.6 ypg).

"And I've said that to anybody that will listen, I think this is the makings of something very special on the defensive side of the ball. And we're not there yet."

Not by a long shot. Saturday's defeat represented a microcosm of USF's defensive shortcomings.

On one long TD throw, the Bulls tried to bring pressure and failed, paying for it on the back end. A safety was woefully out of position on another. On yet another, Jean-Mary lined up 6-foot-3 safety Jaymon Thomas as a corner against 6-2 Cougars receiver Courtney Lark in an attempt to neutralize Lark's ranginess.

Lark outran him for a 30-yard touchdown catch. "Give them credit, they saw a kid out there that didn't play a lot of corner and they attacked it," Jean-Mary said. "We still liked the matchup, we just didn't execute."

And Bulls fans won't soon forget King's 36-yard scoring run on fourth-and-7, during which he broke no fewer than four tackles. All of which indicates youth isn't the lone culprit here. The Bulls haven't tackled especially well (especially in space), and the strategy has backfired from time to time.

"We have some inexperienced guys, but still it's on us as coaches and really me as a coordinator, to find the best way to get the most out of those young kids," Jean-Mary said.

"We know they're gonna make mistakes, we have to do a better job of putting them in position where people can cover up for 'em, because that's just part of growing up as a football player."

In this case, growth occurs only in stretches, not spurts. The process calls for patience, trial, error.

And sometimes, laughter.

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

USF vs. Tulane, 3:30, Raymond James Stadium
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More green than gold
A look at USF's 2018 defense compared to last season's
Category; 2017; 2018
Senior starters; 6; 4
Sacks per game: 3.0; 2.75
Run defense; 126.9 ypg; 233.6 ypg
Scoring defense; 23.5 ppg; 29.6 ppg
Yards per play allowed: 4.8; 5.7