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As daunting stretch looms, who will lead these Bulls?

With so many youngsters starting, USF is lacking an assertive veteran voice in the locker room
USF linebacker Josh Black (55), a Sickles High alumnus, is among only a handful of Bulls seniors who have started regularly this season. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)

TAMPA — Dissension was percolating on this unseasonably warm December morning. A team in transition appeared on the verge of coming totally undone.

The full-padded scrimmage period, closing out USF's final on-campus practice before the 2016 Birmingham Bowl, was intensifying. By this point, Willie Taggart already had bolted for Oregon and Charlie Strong — hired as his replacement — hadn't yet arrived. Receivers coach T.J. Weist was running the team.

And the team was running off the rails. At least on this particular day.

Two players began shoving each other. Another was ordered off the field. Then another mini-skirmish ensued. At that point, reporters were asked to leave the practice area, but not far enough to where they couldn't hear junior middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez light into the teammates huddled around him at midfield.

To paraphrase, Sanchez told his peers — in clear, colorful language — it had no chance against South Carolina if such nonsense continued.

USF defeated the Gamecocks in overtime, 46-39. Sanchez tied for the team lead that frigid day with nine tackles.

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"I can remember when I took the job here and I went to the Birmingham Bowl," Strong recalled, "and I can remember Auggie was a junior and Q (Quinton Flowers) was a junior, and we had some seniors on that team, and (Sanchez and Flowers) did all the talking.

"It was kind of different for me, the first time hearing juniors talk like that and lead the team."

What Strong wouldn't give to have a similar voice on his current squad, one that can step forward in a rough stretch and command a rapt audience. A guy not afraid to jump in some grills when a red-zone possession dissolves in a sea of penalties, or to stoke the defense after it surrenders a 73-yard touchdown run.

That voice hasn't materialized.

"We don't have a bell cow to kind of lead us," second-year defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary said. "And it's nothing against our guys, and it's not an excuse, it's just not the nature of the team this year."

As a result, the unranked Bulls (7-2, 3-2) seem somewhat rudderless as they prepare to navigate the most perilous stretch of the season. Only six to eight seniors have been starting regularly this year, and of that handful, none are really wired — or accustomed — to speaking out when the situation warrants.

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"I wouldn't say there's one specific (leader)," senior slot receiver Tyre McCants said.

"I think each position group has one guy that is that vocal point of that position, whether it be receiver, running back, quarterback, and so on. You just won't be able to, I guess, just point to like, 'Oh there he is.'"

Yet in previous years, pointing out the veteran presences and dominant personalities was easy.

Sanchez, Flowers, nickel back Deatrick Nichols, safety Devin Abraham, nose tackle Deadrin Senat and even kicker Emilio Nadelman all finished their careers with 35 or more starts. By their junior years, most of those guys already had assumed leadership roles.

"Those guys had a total different mentality than this group of guys," Strong said. "Q was gonna do something like, 'Hey, it's third down, I'm gonna go get the first down. If the guy isn't open I'm gonna pull it and I'm gonna go move around and there's gonna be a first down.'"

By contrast, the Bulls' lineup in Saturday's 41-15 loss to Tulane featured 13 first-year starters. Of the seven seniors who started, only five had been regular starters before this season.

"So now all of the sudden, just say you're a senior and you're talking to me and I'm a junior, but you're just starting for the first time and I'm a junior and I've played a lot," Strong said. "So I'm looking at you like, 'Hey, we're equal.'

"Whereas with that group last year, they knew who the guys were, and they knew who led the team. And they knew when those guys spoke, everybody's gonna listen and everybody else get out of the way."

Alas, this team's issues transcend leadership. Tackling and gap integrity remain glaring concerns (USF ranks 123rd nationally in run defense), and the Bulls' 77.8 penalty yards a game ranks last in the American Athletic Conference.

Three different times during his weekly press conference Monday, Strong said he wasn't making excuses for the Bulls' ghastly two-game skid. Moreover, Strong has said if effective voices aren't emerging in his locker room, it's on the coaches to assume that role.

But a coach's voice can lose resonance over the grueling course of a summer and fall. Sometimes, players need a kick in the pants from a veteran peer.

"We're all different, we all lead in different ways, and we do our best to lead the team," said defensive end Josh Black, a senior starting for the first time this season.

"The last two weeks just wasn't us, so the seniors this year, we've just got to show them that we still have those guys that can lead this team in the right direction."

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

A loss of leaders

A look at the veteran presence of USF's current team to the one that prevailed in last season's Birmingham Bowl.

Birmingham Bowl, 2017
Senior starters: 12 (four offense, six defense, two special teams)
Total career starts: 367
Notable seniors: QB Quinton Flowers (holds 42 school records), RB/KR D'Ernest Johnson (school-record 4,186 career all-purpose yards), LB Auggie Sanchez (school-record 388 career tackles), DT Bruce Hector (18 career sacks), DB Deatrick Nichols (11 career interceptions) (Note: WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling didn't start the game)

Tulane game, 2018
Senior starters: 7 (three offense, four defense)
Total career starts: 134
Notable seniors: WR Tyre McCants (third at USF with 1,777 career receiving yards), DB Ronnie Hoggins (seven career interceptions)

USF vs. Cincinnati, 7 p.m. Saturday, Nippert Stadium
TV/radio: ESPNU; 820-AM, 98.3-FM