USF spring game: 5 things we learned

The Bulls make a dazzling first impression before a crowd of 3,700
Plant High alumnus Jordan McCloud (12) finished 17-for-25 for 228 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in Saturday's USF spring game. [ALLIE GOULDING | Times]
Plant High alumnus Jordan McCloud (12) finished 17-for-25 for 228 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in Saturday's USF spring game. [ALLIE GOULDING | Times]
Published April 13, 2019|Updated April 13, 2019

TAMPA ― While spring games aren’t generally known for indelible moments, Kerwin Bell created one out of the gate Saturday.

On the opening play of USF’s intrasquad contest, the Bulls’ new offensive coordinator put tight end Mitchell Wilcox on the left side of a two-tight formation and sent him over the middle, where quarterback Blake Barnett found him quarantined near midfield for a 75-yard touchdown.

“We didn’t do that too much last year,” said receiver Randall St. Felix, noting the painfully obvious. “So it felt good to get it out there on the first play.”

The play’s message ― unstated yet undeniable ― was that Bell intends to exploit the middle of the field, a widely perceived shortcoming of the system employed by predecessor Sterlin Gilbert.

Here are five other takeaways from Saturday’s game, a 73-36 “victory” by the offense on a searing afternoon at Corbett Stadium:

1. Pace isn’t paramount for this offense. Whereas Gilbert orchestrated a breakneck, Baylor-style tempo, Bell will turn the tempo down a notch. The Bulls didn’t huddle Saturday, but they didn’t sprint to the line of scrimmage after every dead-ball whistle, either. Bear in mind, the players still are learning what Barnett has called a “very complex” offense, which also may account for the measured pace.

2. No QB quandary exists this year. Unlike the ’18 spring game, which didn’t feature the eventual starting quarterback (Barnett), the depth chart behind center appears set. Barnett (8-for-16, 135 yards, one TD, one INT) and redshirt freshman Jordan McCloud (17-for-25, 228 yards, one TD, one INT) appear set at No. 1 and 2, though redshirt freshman Octavious Battle had a solid day (8-for-12, 146 yards, two TDs, one INT).

3. Senior Greg Reaves again is living on the edge. Moved to linebacker out of necessity last season, Reaves has returned full-time to defensive end, where he had five tackles and three sacks Saturday. Meantime, 181-pound sophomore Vincent “Smoke” Davis (three tackles, two for loss) has asserted himself as Ronnie Hoggins’ replacement at nickel. “Smoke is one of the hardest hitters on the team and that’s coming from one of the smaller guys,” Reaves said. “You don’t have to worry about a running back getting to the second level and just barely getting taken down. Smoke is gonna give it to 'em.”

4. The refurbished offensive line still needs work. Though Strong put limitations on his pass rush (no more than five rushers at a time), the Bulls consistently got in the backfield, especially off the edge. The quarterbacks were “sacked” a combined 15 times (though plays were whistled dead when the QB was touched), and Bell could be heard telling his offense protection will be an offseason focus. Nonetheless, the coaches appear ready to move forward with a starting unit featuring left tackle Billy Atterbury, left guard Demetris Harris, center Brad Cecil, right guard Donovan Jennings and right tackle Marcus Norman.

5. Keep the optimism and/or pessimism in check. If history has taught us anything, spring is a slipshod harbinger of September. The defense wasn’t permitted to be exotic Saturday, and Bell likely kept chunks of his playbook concealed. What the announced Corbett crowd of 3,700 observed were some splash plays, a few kinks in protection and pass coverage, and players generally performing with high energy in a semi-live setting. “I told our coaches that we’ve got to come out here with an identity and we’ve got to come out here knowing who we are,” Bulls coach Charlie Strong said. “I felt like we got that accomplished.”

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Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.