USF coordinator gives defense a ‘B’ this spring

Brian Jean-Mary said last year’s effort warranted ‘a failing grade’
USF defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary indicated his unit, which struggled mightily against the run last season, is making noticeable progress this spring. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
USF defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary indicated his unit, which struggled mightily against the run last season, is making noticeable progress this spring. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published April 10, 2019

TAMPA ― In Brian Jean-Mary’s world, September is for report cards and spring is only for progress reports.

Nonetheless, the Bulls third-year defensive coordinator indicated Tuesday his previously beleaguered unit ― to steal some academic jargon ― appears back on track.

“If I had to give it a grade, I’d actually give it a B,” Jean-Mary said, referring to the Bulls’ first 12 spring practices. “I think if you’re gonna go from where we ended last year to where we feel like we’re at right now, I think we’ve progressed.”

Not that they could’ve regressed much more.

Run stoppage, a source of pride in the system overseen by Jean-Mary and Charlie Strong, became a glaring liability as USF finished 122nd of 129 Division I-A teams in rush defense (247.5 ypg). In 2018, USF finished 21st (126.9).

That dropoff prompted Strong to re-structure his team’s entire winter strength-and-conditioning routine. This spring, the Bulls have started all 12 workouts with a fundamental period devoted to tackling, senior end Kirk Livingstone said.

“We didn’t do a good job in what we say is our No. 1 goal, stopping the run, so obviously that was anywhere from a D to an F (last year) if you want to give ourselves a grade,” said Jean-Mary, who returns a veteran front expected to feature two senior and two junior starters.

“We feel like we’ve progressed. We like where we’re at right now, but we’ve got to keep progressing.”

Other notes, quotes and observations from Tuesday’s practice:

* Jean-Mary acknowledged the Bulls remain thin at linebacker, adding that “we can’t wait for those reinforcements to get here in the fall.” Those will include three December signees and ― presumably ― Oklahoma State transfer Patrick Macon.

But as for those already on board, Jean-Mary said sophomore Antonio Grier has improved greatly, and sophomore Andrew Mims “has probably been the brightest light so far.”

He also said beefed-up sophomore Dwayne Boyles is doing “an unbelievable job,” and lauded the transition of redshirt freshman Trey Laing to outside linebacker.

* The experimental move of 320-pound sophomore Donovan Jennings from left tackle to right guard appears to be sticking. Jennings, a Gaither High alumnus who started four games last season, has swapped spots with senior Billy Atterbury.

“He’s really learning that position, he’s come a long way from Scrimmage 1 to last Saturday,” offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell said.

“And if he’s that dominant guy inside with Meech (Demetris Harris) and all them other guys and then Brad (Cecil) at center, we’re gonna have a really solid front inside to give our quarterbacks that clean pocket to throw in.”

* Bell revealed that, in addition to a written playbook, his staff also has created a video playbook for his offense. Plus, the staff issues pamphlets following each practice detailing the plays installed that particular day.

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“There’s a plethora of plays,” said quarterback Blake Barnett, who had a pair of touchdown passes to new slot receiver Johnny Ford in Saturday’s situational scrimmage at Clearwater Central Catholic. “We’re not hurting for plays. There’s endless options of what to do.”

* Bell remains high on Ford and Michigan transfer Eddie McDoom in the slot. McDoom had two touchdown catches from Plant alumnus Jordan McCloud, including an 86-yarder, on Saturday.

“They’ve been special as far as man coverage,” Bell said.

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.