Daunt­ing stretch looms for Bulls

The Bradenton Herald - - Sports - BY JOEY KNIGHT

Dis­sen­sion was per­co­lat­ing on this un­sea­son­ably warm De­cem­ber morn­ing. A team in tran­si­tion ap­peared on the verge of com­ing to­tally un­done.

The full-padded scrim­mage pe­riod, clos­ing out USF’s fi­nal on-cam­pus prac­tice be­fore the 2016 Birm­ing­ham Bowl, was in­ten­si­fy­ing. By this point, Wil­lie Tag­gart al­ready had bolted for Ore­gon and Char­lie Strong – hired as his re­place­ment – hadn’t yet ar­rived. Re­ceivers coach T.J. Weist was run­ning the team.

And the team was run­ning off the rails. At least on this par­tic­u­lar day.

Two play­ers be­gan shov­ing each other. An­other was or­dered off the field. Then an­other mini-skir­mish en­sued. At that point, re­porters were asked to leave the prac­tice area, but not far enough to where they couldn’t hear ju­nior mid­dle line­backer Aug­gie Sanchez light into the team­mates hud­dled around him at mid­field.

To para­phrase, Sanchez told his peers – in clear, col­or­ful lan­guage – it had no chance against South Carolina if such non­sense con­tin­ued.

USF de­feated the Game­cocks in over­time, 46-39. Sanchez tied for the team lead that frigid day with nine tack­les.

“I can re­mem­ber when I took the job here and I went to the Birm­ing­ham Bowl,” Strong re­called. “And I can re­mem­ber Aug­gie was a ju­nior and Q (Quin­ton Flow­ers) was a ju­nior, and we had some se­niors on that team, and (Sanchez and Flow­ers) did all the talk­ing.

“It was kind of dif­fer­ent for me, the first time hear­ing ju­niors talk like that and lead the team.”

What Strong wouldn’t give to have a sim­i­lar voice on his cur­rent squad, one that can step for­ward in a rough stretch and com­mand a rapt au­di­ence. A guy not afraid to jump in some grills when a red-zone pos­ses­sion dis­solves in a sea of penal­ties, or to stoke the de­fense af­ter it sur­ren­ders a 73-yard touch­down run.

That voice hasn’t ma­te­ri­al­ized.

“We don’t have a bell cow to kind of lead us,” sec­ond-year de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Brian JeanMary said. “And it’s noth­ing against our guys, and it’s not an ex­cuse, it’s just not the na­ture of the team this year.”

As a re­sult, the un­ranked Bulls (7-2, 3-2) seem some­what rud­der­less as they pre­pare to nav­i­gate the most per­ilous stretch of the sea­son. Only six to eight se­niors have been start­ing reg­u­larly this year, and of that hand­ful, none are re­ally wired – or ac­cus­tomed – to speak­ing out when the sit­u­a­tion war­rants.

“I wouldn’t say there’s one spe­cific (leader),” se­nior slot re­ceiver Tyre McCants said.

“I think each po­si­tion group has one guy that is that vo­cal point of that po­si­tion, whether it be re­ceiver, run­ning back, quar­ter­back, and so on. You just won’t be able to, I guess, just point to like, ‘Oh there he is.’”

Yet in pre­vi­ous years, point­ing out the vet­eran pres­ences and dom­i­nant per­son­al­i­ties was easy.

Sanchez, Flow­ers, nickel back Deatrick Ni­chols, safety Devin Abra­ham, nose tackle Dead­rin Se­nat and even kicker Emilio Nadel­man all fin­ished their ca­reers with 35 or more starts. By their ju­nior years, most of those guys al­ready had as­sumed lead­er­ship roles.

“Those guys had a to­tal dif­fer­ent men­tal­ity than this group of guys,” Strong said. “Q was gonna do some­thing like, ‘Hey, it’s third down, I’m gonna go get the first down. If the guy isn’t open I’m gonna pull it and I’m gonna go move around and there’s gonna be a first down.’”

By con­trast, the Bulls’ lineup in Satur­day’s 41-15 loss to Tu­lane fea­tured 13 first-year starters. Of the seven se­niors who started, only five had been reg­u­lar starters be­fore this sea­son.

“So now all of the sud­den, just say you’re a se­nior and you’re talk­ing to me and I’m a ju­nior, but you’re just start­ing for the first time and I’m a ju­nior and I’ve played a lot,” Strong said. “So I’m look­ing at you like, ‘Hey, we’re equal.’

“Whereas with that group last year, they knew who the guys were, and they knew who led the team. And they knew when those guys spoke, ev­ery­body’s gonna lis­ten and ev­ery­body else get out of the way.”

Alas, this team’s is­sues tran­scend lead­er­ship. Tack­ling and gap in­tegrity re­main glar­ing con­cerns (USF ranks 123rd na­tion­ally in run de­fense), and the Bulls’ 77.8 penalty yards a game ranks last in the Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence.

Three dif­fer­ent times dur­ing his weekly press con­fer­ence Mon­day, Strong said he wasn’t mak­ing ex­cuses for the Bulls’ ghastly two-game skid.

More­over, Strong has said if ef­fec­tive voices aren’t emerg­ing in his locker room, it’s on the coaches to as­sume that role.

But a coach’s voice can lose res­o­nance over the gru­el­ing course of a sum­mer and fall. Some­times, play­ers need a kick in the pants from a vet­eran peer.

“We’re all dif­fer­ent, we all lead in dif­fer­ent ways, and we do our best to lead the team,” said de­fen­sive end Josh Black, a se­nior start­ing for the first time this sea­son.

“The last two weeks just wasn’t us, so the se­niors this year, we’ve just got to show them that we still have those guys that can lead this team in the right di­rec­tion.”


USF coach Char­lie Strong’s team faces a daunt­ing stretch to close the reg­u­lar sea­son, and only six to eight se­niors have been start­ing reg­u­larly this year.


South Florida de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Brian Jean-Mary helms a young unit that is look­ing for an on-field leader.

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