Regardless of how you feel about his tenure at Texas, Charlie Strong has proven that he is a good coach. He has a 63-39 all-time record, which accounts for a .618 winning percentage. As one of the highest profile hires of last offseason, Strong made his return to the American Athletic Conference with an already loaded USF team. He was able to do quite a bit with the roster he was handed, leading the Bulls to a 10-2 overall mark, a No. 21 final AP ranking and a 46-39 win over South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl.
Strong’s next task is recapturing the same magic with a roster that features far fewer holdovers from the Willie Taggart era and far fewer star players than a year ago. The list of departing players is lengthy for the Bulls, who will no longer have quarterback Quinton Flowers, running backs D’Ernest Johnson and Darius Tice along with defensive standouts like Bruce Hector, Deadrin Senat, Deatrick Nichols, Devin Abraham and Auggie Sanchez.
Strong and his staff did plenty during the 2018 recruiting season to make sure the Bulls are on the right track in the wake of losing so many contributors. Its a tall task, since those guys led a two-year stretch which featured a 21-4 record and two bowl wins. Still, the Bulls had the No. 2 recruiting class in the AAC in 2018, trailing only Cincinnati, and as of posting are sitting at No. 3 for the 2019 class. So even if there are a lot of questions to answer this season, the future, both in the short and near-term, is... strong.
When Do They Play Cincinnati?
The Bearcats and Bulls will celebrate Veterans Day by playing a football game on Nov. 10 in Cincinnati.
What They Do Well
Strong has built a reputation as a defensive-minded coach and his first year in USF only added support to that claim. The Bulls were the best defensive team in the conference, ranking 28th in the country in defensive S&P+, while putting two defenders on the All-AAC first team (Senat and Sanchez) and leading the way in points (23.5 PG) and yards (.359.8 PG) allowed.
Like many great defenses, the Bulls put unrelenting pressure on their opponents. They finished the year with 36 sacks and 101 tackles for loss, ranking second to Temple in both categories. They had three sacks alone against UC, a team they smashed 33-3. The loss of Hector, Senat and Mike Love, who combined for 18 sacks, means the defensive front needs players to step up, but Greg Reaves (14.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks) already led the team in tackles for loss and will be a force.
As for its ability to force turnovers, which was solid enough, USF might not have Abraham and his five interceptions back, but cornerbacks Mazzi Wilkins (3 INT, 9 passes defended) and Ronnie Hoggins (2, 8) will make opposing offenses wary of letting the ball fly.
Defense wasn’t the only phase of the game in which USF excelled. In fact, the Bulls ranked higher in offensive S&P+ (27th) than in defensive. Flowers powered the attack, throwing for 2,911 yards and 25 touchdowns and rushing for 1,078 and 11 more. He got plenty of help with making USF one of the best rushing offenses in the AAC, as both Johnson (796 yards, 7 TDs) and Tice (943 yards, 11 TDs) were exceptional runners. With the trio gone, and no starting quarterback named as of yet, the backfield will look entirely different. We’ll just have to see if that equates to a drop in production, but its likely that it will, at least at first.
USF’s strengths on special teams in 2017 were on field goals and punt returns. Unfortunately, primary punt returner Tajee Fullwood and all-conference placekicker Emilio Nadelman are no longer on the roster, although Nadelman is on the staff as a graduate assistant.
What They Don’t Do Well
USF’s worst enemy was itself last year. The Bulls were called for 111 penalties, or just a few more than nine per game. That cost them 86 yards on average and earned them the last place ranking in the AAC. Only Oregon was penalized more among all the teams in the country.
Other weaknesses are more nitpicks than anything else. The Bulls weren’t the best when it came to kick and punt return coverage, but they also blocked their fair share of kicks when the tables were turned. The offensive line also missed some spots occasionally, which led to 81 tackles for loss allowed, the second-most let up in the AAC.
Players to Watch
Greg Reaves, DE/LB
Reaves is great, no matter what position he plays.
Juwuan Brown, DE
Someone else is going to have to get some sacks and Brown seems like the next guy in line. The senior had 3.0 sacks and 5.0 tackles for loss last year and will team with Kevin Bronson to form a nice foundation for the defensive line.
Mazzi Wilkins, CB
Wilkins is very good. He had three interceptions and nine passes defended last year and is the top returning player on the roster in both categories.
Ronnie Hoggins, CB
Hoggins didn’t have superior numbers compared to Wilkins but he is another corner that will lock opposing wideouts down.
Nico Sawtelle, LB
Sawtelle is a linebacker who can do just about anything. He had 4.5 tackles for loss (54 total) and even added two interceptions last year. He finished fourth on the team in tackles and the three guys ahead of him are no longer on the team.
Khalid McGee, LB
McGee enters his senior season following a year when he managed 38 tackles (3.5 for loss).
Marcus Norman, OL
Norman was named to the All-AAC second team in 2017 and will be a critical part of USF’s revamped offensive efforts.
Tyre McCants, WR
McCants (36 receptions, 686 yards, 7 TDs) is now the No. 1 wideout on the team in the wake of Marquez Valdes-Scantling’s departure. Darnell Salomon (32 receptions, 512 yards, 5 TDs) should get more targets as well.
Mitchell Wilcox, TE
Wilcox actually ranked fourth on the team in receptions last year (17, 158 yards, 2 TDs) and could get his named called a bit more in 2018.
It hasn’t been that fun to play USF recently for the Bearcats. They have lost each of the last three meetings with an average margin of defeat of 31 points. UC still leads the all-time series 8-7, but its looking less and less likely that that will continue.
Would This Be Better as a Basketball Game?
Thankfully the Bearcats can always return the favor come basketball season. Cincinnati has beaten USF by double digits in four-straight games and has won nine-straight in the all-time series, which it leads 32-8. It appears that finding a competitive balance in either sport may be years away from happening.
There’s a narrative you could craft where the Bulls regress heavily because of all the roster turnover. Parallel to that regression would be a meteoric rise for the young Bearcats. If both things come to pass, then this meeting could herald a changing of the guard. Unfortunately, Strong is too good a coach and USF’s roster still has lots of talent, so the expectation should be for another good Bulls team. UC will keep this game closer than the previous three meetings, but the Bulls will still win.