Strong: Bulls ‘not big enough’ at key defensive spots

The Bulls, who lost two interior defensive linemen to the NFL, are allowing nearly 250 rushing yards a game
Cincinnati running back Michael Warren II (3) runs for a touchdown during the second half of the Bearcats' 35-23 win against USF on Saturday. Warren ran for 151 yards and three TDs. (AP Photo/John Minchillo) OHJM113
Cincinnati running back Michael Warren II (3) runs for a touchdown during the second half of the Bearcats' 35-23 win against USF on Saturday. Warren ran for 151 yards and three TDs. (AP Photo/John Minchillo) OHJM113
Published Nov. 12, 2018

Two days after his team's third consecutive defeat, USF coach Charlie Strong offered his most candid assessment yet of the Bulls' maligned run defense.

It's simply not big enough. Specifically, Strong noted the Bulls (7-3, 3-3 American Athletic Conference) lack the prerequisite girth on the defensive interior and at middle linebacker, where they also are lean on experience and depth, respectively.

"When you get good on the defensive front and you have a solid team, those guys are at 295, 300, 305 (pounds)," said Strong, whose unit ranks 121st nationally against the run (247.2 ypg).

"Right now you're playing those guys who are 270, 280. When you play against a fifth-year senior and he's 300-plus, they're gonna move you outta there, and that's what's happening a lot of times with our runs. We get overpowered inside because you're not big enough."

Strong's comments seem to validate those who remain convinced interior behemoths Deadrin Senat and Bruce Hector — both now employed by NFL teams — are missed more than any of last year's seniors.

Of the six defensive tackles on USF's three-deep chart, sophomore Kelvin Pinkney (6-foot-3, 288 pounds) is the biggest. Three weigh 266 or less. By contrast, Senat and Hector were listed last season at 305 and 296, respectively.

Meantime, the three middle linebackers on USF's depth chart are listed at 226 (Nico Sawtelle), 212 (Keirston Johnson) and 210 (Antonio Grier). Four-year startingn MLB Auggie Sanchez, who graduated last year as the program's career tackles leader, was listed at 245.

"Auggie was big, and Auggie could sit down and he could take on people," Strong said.

"Sawtelle…and (WLB Khalid) McGee, those two guys are more runners. … If you get (offensive) linemen to the second level, then they can cover 'em up because they're little. So they cover 'em up, they can't find the football, and that's the issue that we have."

Barnett still questionable

Strong indicated QB Blake Barnett (shoulder), who didn't suit up for Saturday's 35-23 loss at Cincinnati, didn't practice Sunday evening.

"If we get him back, he's gonna be the guy who's gonna go and practice," Strong said.

If not, Strong said redshirt sophomore Chris Oladokun or fourth-year junior Brett Kean will start this Saturday's noon game at Temple. Oladokun started at Cincinnati before being relieved by Kean to open the second quarter, but returned and played the entire second half. They combined to finish 14-for-32 for 232 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Can’t go deep

Whether it was an indictment of Willie Taggart's final recruiting classes — or his own — is up for interpretation, but Strong said Monday his current roster doesn't possess the necessary depth to compensate for the injuries it has sustained.

"We're not good enough to lose a player and replace a player," he said. "Just say when (Randall) St. Felix went down (at receiver), we don't have enough depth yet where you can take St. Felix off the field and replace him."

A reason for this issue, Strong said, is the succession of close games the Bulls have played, which hasn't allowed the staff to give quality reps to less-experienced players. In seven of its 10 games, USF has trailed or been tied entering the fourth quarter.

"You usually find games early where you blow teams out," he said. "So when you blow teams out, you can take guys and sit 'em down and rest 'em. But we haven't been able to do it because every game has been a game for us."

Odds and ends

TV has exercised its six-day option for the Bulls' home showdown with UCF on Nov. 23, so kickoff time won't be revealed until next weekend. USF athletic director Michael Kelly has said he has been assured the game won't kick off at night. … The short-term prognosis for Sawtelle, out the last four games with a shoulder injury, doesn't sound promising. "Right now, we're going through a lot of tests with him," Strong said. "So I don't know if he will return this season, but we're hoping that we will get him maybe for another game." … RB Jordan Cronkrite needs only 18 rushing yards at Temple to become the fifth 1,000-yard rusher in program history. … The Bulls, penalized 18 times for 171 yards in the last two games, now ranks 121st nationally in penalty yards per contest (76.3).