(Featured image credit to David Gold, SoFloBulls.com)

As three schools prepare to leave the American Athletic Conference (AAC) for the greener pastures of the Big 12, and the AAC plans to expand to 14 football-playing schools, the remaining teams are jostling for positions to gain in the chaos. One of the teams standing out early in the process is the University of South Florida (USF), under head coach Jeff Scott.

Entering the third year of the Jeff Scott era in Tampa, Florida, USF is just 3-18 in his first two seasons. Well before Scott left his job at Clemson to take over USF, the program had been built into a successful powerhouse by Willie Taggert, who left the Bulls to coach at Oregon. He was replaced by Charlie Strong, who took a 10-2 team in three years and was fired after running the program into the ground with a 4-8 season. Scott has been attempting to pick up the pieces ever since.

Despite the rough go over the last few years, Scott it building the program back into place. Some of the national media, who looked at the record of USF, mentioned a potential firing to Scott for his performance so far. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The pieces are coming into place and Scott is rapidly, under the radar, making great strides to make the Bulls competitive again.

The pieces remaining in place

USF has a lot of positive pieces to work with. Going through the games that USF has played, I thought these players were the foundational pieces moving forward.

POSPlayerHTWTPlay StyleELIGHS RatePS#RATE
QBTimmy Mcclain6’1″190Athlete33 star (0.8430)PS#714
RBJaren Mangham6’1″215Downhill Bruiser23 star (0.8858)PS#225
ZWRXavier Weaver6’0″178Possession23 star (0.8206)PS#2816
Slot WRJimmy Horn Jr5’9″160Quick Slot33 star (0.8581)PS#1696
LBDwayne Boyles6’3″227Downhill Box Defender13 star (0.8685)PS#2255
*LBAntonio Grier6’0″222Field General12 star (0.7953)PS#3076
ROVERVincent Davis Jr5’11”180Zone Defender13 star (0.8502)PS#2756
CBDaquan Evans5’11”180Run Support Nickel23 star (0.8434)PS#2825
CBChristian Williams6’1″195Versatile Zone24 star (0.9328)PS#316
*Denotes uncertainty to their return to the program (NFL Draft). All high school rankings are from 247Sports Composite.

Seriously, these players create a solid foundation

Offensively, there are some decent pieces in place. Timmy Mcclain, at quarterback, just might be the weakest point of what they have. He took strides last season, but looks to be limited as a passer while just as dynamic as a runner. The strong power running in Jaren Mangham, who scored 15 touchdowns last season, adds a good dynamic. Between Xavier Weaver and Jimmy Horn Jr at the receiver spots, USF has good hands and speed to work with. It’s worth mentioning that USF should return four starting offensive linemen in 2022 with a combined 10 seasons of starting experience.

Defensively, it’s a lot of the same. USF has a very promising back end in the linebackers (Antonio Grier, if he comes back, and Dwayne Broyles) and secondary. The biggest issue that the Bulls had in 2021 was the lack of penetration and depth in their defensive line. This unit collected just 9 sacks, 3 by Antonio Grier.

What USF has given up so far – Is it anything to worry about?

The quarterback battle seems to be decided – for now – with Timmy Mcclain holding down the spot. Katravis Marsh and Jarren Williams have both entered the transfer portal. Outside of those players, there hasn’t been too much of an impact to the team.

POSPlayerHTWTELIGHS RatePS#RATE
QBKatravis Marsh6’5″19833 star (0.8558)PS#625
QBJarren Williams6’2″21523 star (0.8614)PS#4JC5
RBLeonard Parker6’0″19033 star (0.8330)N/A5
XWRDemarcus Gregory6’3″20423 star (0.8791)PS#834
Slot WRBryce Miller5’9″1801Not RankedN/A4
EDGEJamari Stewart6’3″20543 star (0.8615)PS#1345
EDGEStacy Kirby6’3″25213 star (0.8730)N/A5
All high school rankings are from 247Sports Composite.

The one loss that was somewhat obvious was Bryce Miller, who was pretty much beat out by the freshman, Jimmy Horn Jr. To me, that’s the biggest impact that USF has faced in players leaving for the transfer portal.

The reliable tight end, Mitchell Brinkman, has graduated and will pursue his NFL hopes. He was a great safety valve that helped their offense in times of need. Defensively, the main loss is nose tackle Blake Green, the one bright spot on their defensive line. Green finished second in the team in both tackles-for-loss (5.5) and sacks (2.5).

USF is hammering the transfer portal early

At this current time, South Florida is ranked second in the country on 247Sports transfer portal rankings. We had discussed before the season started just how important it would be to watch the Tennessee Volunteers strategy of utilizing the transfer portal to replace depth. It worked – Tennessee was a fiercely competitive team in the SEC. It’s no surprise to see a program like USF, looking to build depth, utilizing the same strategy with the NCAA’s transfer portal waiver this year, awarding teams seven additional scholarships that can be used exclusively on the transfer portal in addition to the 25 they are allowed per year.

USF isn’t just building depth, they’re securing valuable players out of the portal. Remember, our transfer grading system is NFL-based and how we expect players to transition to the NFL level. Let’s take a look at the guys they’ve added so far.

Attacking the transfer portal for key pieces and immediate impact

POSPlayerHTWTELIGFormer SchoolPlay StylePS#RATE
RBMichael Dukes5’11”1903ClemsonDownhill SpeedsterPS#626
ZWRKhafre Brown6’1″1702North CarolinaSpeed ThreatPS#386
RGMichael Lofton6’3″2913UCFRun MaulerPS#3174
DTClyde Pinder6’2″2954North CarolinaVersatile Gap DefenderPS#678
DTNick Bags6’3″2753Temple3-Tech Gap DefenderPS#2957
DT James Ash6’3″2814Wake Forest3-Tech Gap DefenderN/A6
OnLBJames Gordon6’1″2203MinnesotaField GeneralPS#1475
CBAamaris Brown6’0″1753Kansas StateVersatile BoundaryPS#2595
SRay Thornton6’2″1953ClemsonHybrid Zone PS#1147

The Bulls have had my attention most of the season with the way they’ve recruited the higher profile defensive linemen. Clyde Pinder is a huge get, as is Nick Bags and James Ash. All three could be legitimate NFL prospects. Adding speed on offense in Khafre Brown (the brother of NFL receiver Dyami Brown) and running back Michael Dukes from Clemson helps add weapons to what’s already in USF.

Building a program leaning on sustaining long term success

USF is working the ways that they can with regular recruiting – the depth won’t be built exclusively through the transfer portal. A transfusion of youth is needed as well, which USF is already adding very quickly.

POSPlayerHTWTHometownPlay StyleRatingPOS#State#RATE
OffLBJhalyn Shuler6’1″200Coffeyville, KSVersatile Tackler3 star (0.8639)CC-2CC-47
RUSHEddie Kelly6’4″265Winter Garden, FLVersatile RUSH3 star (0.8416)1571725
XWRJahvon Thomas6’3″190Tampa, FLPhysical3 star (0.8416)1751745
QBGunnar Smith6’4″180Lake Mary, FLModern Dropback3 star (0.8405)841824
All High School rankings are from the 247Sports Composite

Immediate expected impact from these fresh recruits

  • Jhalyn Shuler comes from Coffeyville Community College. A 3-star recruit in high school, Shuler held offers from East Carolina, Southern Miss, Coastal Carolina, and UConn. However, he opted to take the JUCO route. He is an extremely explosive tackler who stood out on the field at Coffeyville as the most explosive, athletic playmaker on the field. Shuler fits in the defense immediately (if Antonio Grier goes pro) and will be the long term starter at the position.
  • Eddie Kelly can fit into the scheme immediately as well. A versatile linebacker capable as both a pass rusher and dropping into coverage, Kelly is a perfect fit for the team’s LEO position – a RUSH edge who fits in their 3-man fronts as a potential pass rusher.
  • Wide receiver Jahvon Thomas is a two-sport high school standout athlete (basketball and football). He doesn’t have as much speed, but is immensely physical and overall very athletic. Thomas should be able to use his size to continue to dominate in the AAC. He adds size to the boundary and should play very quickly.

What USF has done on offense

Bringing speed will be the biggest change to the USF offense. Jeff Scott likes to stretch the defense with vertical type concepts but have multiple checks if the defense overcommits to the deep ball. The issue so far is that USF hasn’t had the speed or the accuracy downfield to force defenses to take the deep ball away. I think that once speed becomes an issue, the defense will play to it more.

One of the concepts that the Bulls like to use is an overload tactic that stretches vertically. This formation is stacked heavy to the far side of the hashes. USF runs a switch concept with the receivers, a very clever zone beater designed to force the safety to make a choice on who he will cover. They run the slot receiver out of the backfield in motion behind the switch to get downhill movement from the defense. If those options are taken away, the running back should be one-on-one running to the outside. Here is what it looks like:

Incorporating the run/pass option

The other element that USF wants to run is the run/pass option. That utilizes the mobility of their quarterback and allows him to take what the defense is giving him. This concept is one that the Bulls use often and it’s the same concept that helped Clemson dominate the ACC for more than half a decade.

This is why players are excited right now to come to USF – this dynamic offense that utilizes their strengths and lets them make plays. It’s exactly what Clemson ran successfully in Scott’s years there as their offensive coordinator. The issue has been personnel, this scheme requires speed to make the defense hesitate.

Those pieces are coming together offensively. Former Clemson running back Michael Dukes has been in this system now for three years and he’s very familiar with it. Putting Khafre Brown or Jimmy Horn as the receiving option could be lethal for the USF offense with this concept.

The Clemson-style schemes incorporated into the defense

Jeff Scott brought with him to USF a lot of the created confusion on the backend that Clemson uses – disguised coverages. It’s not something that a lot of colleges can do effectively as the scheme requires a lot of time and discipline to implement. That’s been one of the issues with USF so far throughout the Scott-era. When a defender vacates an area, it has to be filled. That’s the way the system works. Because it’s heavy zone, it’s easy for players to get their eyes caught somewhere else and try to make a big play while leaving a zone vacated.

Take this cover three for example. The Bulls show a very unorthodox cover three look playing three deep defenders just eight-to-ten yards off the line of scrimmage. At the snap, there is so much movement that when the quarterback tries to go through his reads, the entire picture he has in his mind of coverage has changed. That forces the quarterback to doubt himself for an extra second as he tries to process the coverage. In theory, a good pass rush collects a pressure and even a sack if the coverage holds up downfield.

Mixing looks and fronts on defense

Another thing that USF does extremely well, even while playing base coverage, is mixing looks and fronts from snap to snap. One play, they’ll line up in a four-down-linemen set, and the next play they’ll show a three-down linemen set. Observe this from the game against Florida:

USF first shows this four-down look on second down. It’s a run down – they’re playing to the run. They stuffed Florida for no gain on second down. The very next play, a third and long, they switched their front to a 3-4 front.

The 4-3 front is a stronger front to play against the run. It helps fill run gaps better and helps the linebackers find the holes with free access to stop the running back. A 3-4 front is better against a pass and allows you to be more versatile with your underneath coverage – especially in zone coverage.

Playing with this style of depth and diversity is very difficult and requires a lot of personnel adjustments throughout the game. The packages are more effective when the same players can move around the field and use versatility to play different roles. That’s the importance of USF’s RUSH and ROVER positions. A good RUSH end can play both in a three-point stance as well as upright. The ROVER fits in as an additional linebacker when needed.

Most of college football is trying to adjust to this style of defense. Several former defensive coordinators, Dave Aranda and Matt Campbell namely, have spent time going to Clemson and learning this system and how to implement it. Players love playing in these schemes and it’s putting them in the pros.

The future is bright in USF under Jeff Scott

Let’s take a second to recap everything going on at the USF program:

  • USF is using a successful offensive scheme that college players learn with relative ease that stresses the defense.
  • USF is using a defensive scheme that the rest of college football is trying to catch up with.
  • The Bulls are recruiting heavily out of the transfer portal and bringing in young but experienced players to fill needs and depth.
  • The roster is coming together quickly and in a hurry – filled with long term depth and talent.

USF was competitive in several key games this season against very good group-of-five teams. They lost to Houston in a shootout, 54-42. The Bulls gave BYU a fight on the road in a very late game, 35-27. The loss to UCF, 17-13, was only because of a crazy finish.

This team has the pieces coming together so well that the sky is the ceiling for the Bulls. They’re going to be fiercely competitive in 2022 and could end up as the front runners for the AAC in 2023.

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By John Vogel

NFL Draft Analyst. Dad.

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