usfbulls

And in that corner… The South Florida Bulls

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After eight long months, it’s finally time to talk about football again, as the season kicks off with Skip Holtz and his South Florida Bulls. While I’ve done my best to keep everybody up-to-speed on USF and the dangers they present, what better time to kick off this season’s “And in that corner,” than now.

Joining us is Ken DeCelles from the USF blog Voodoo Five. (Or as the guys there call it, one of the few college blogs on the internet not run by law students.) If you’ve got a few dozen spare hours on your hands, they’ve gone one-by-one through the Bulls roster, giving you the skinny on every player. (Here’s their entry on RB Darrell Scott. We had enough debate over ranking the top 20. I can’t imagine what the whole 85-man roster would’ve looked like.)

With that level of dedication in mind, Ken was nice enough to take some time and answer some questions I had about Skip Holtz’s squad.

Inside the Irish: It seems like the Bulls offense will go as B.J. Daniels goes. What kind of day do you think he’ll have on Saturday? What do the Irish need to do to make him struggle?
It just depends on how Daniels does on the ground. It took a while last year for Holtz and OC Todd Fitch to mold the offense around Daniels’ skill-set, but towards the end of the year we saw some pretty exotic option attacks that helped spring our passing game. If our running game forces a safety into the box, it could open up our passing game.

The Irish need to keep Daniels in the pocket if they want Daniels to struggle. Daniels has always been uncomfortable when he’s forced to stay in the pocket. If the Irish defensive line can keep contain on the edge or Diaco keeps an ILB in as a spy to keep Daniels from breaking a couple runs loose it could force B.J. into a bad decision or two.

ITI: Notre Dame is coming off an 8-5 season and people in the mainstream media seem to think the Irish have a chance at a BCS game. What’s the ceiling for USF? How good is this team now and how good will it be by the end of the season?

Honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if the team goes 10-2 and runs away with the Big East. This is a pretty young team with only 14 scholarship seniors on the roster, and the two-deep is littered with freshmen and sophomores. Opening at a hostile environment like Notre Dame will prepare our underclassmen and will get them ready for the rest of the season. There’s only so much you can do during practice, and nothing can replicate actually playing in a game.

ITI: Name two offensive threats (not Daniels) that Irish fans might not know about, but will after Saturday’s game?

Most fans know about Colorado transfer Darrell Scott, so I’ll go with WRs A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin. Both players were primed to start for USF last season, but they missed all of last year due to a Torn ACL and a dislocated ankle. After getting their feet wet in the spring, both have done an excellent job this fall keeping their starting positions over younger players like Deonte Welch, Andre Davis, and Stephen Bravo-Brown.

A.J. is your classic possession receiver who isn’t afraid to go across the middle. By far the most experienced receiver, the 6th-Year Senior runs some really crisp routes and catches everything that comes his way. The staff has been so impressed with Love’s progress that they were able to move Evan Landi to H-Back, where he is more effective.

Griffin is the team’s deep threat, and he’s most known for his 73-yard touchdown against Florida State in 2009. Griffin and Daniels seemed to have a good rapport going with Daniels towards the end of 2009 and big things were expected from Sterling last year before his freak ankle injury.

ITI: The Bulls defense has a ton of speed and is building depth. How will they match-up with the Irish offense?

I think the defensive backs will hold their own against the wide receivers of Notre Dame. Quenton Washington, Kayvon Webster, Jerrell Young, and Jon LeJiste are probably the best DB group in the Big East and JaQuez Jenkins, Ernie Tabuteau, and Mark Joyce provide ample depth without much of a drop in production.

The linebackers might be the deepest group on the roster. MLB Sam Barrington and WLB DeDe Lattimore combined for over 150 tackles last season, and they’ll be joined by redshirt freshman Reshard Cliett at SLB, who will be making his first start Saturday. The backups are just as talented with Mike Lanaris, Curtis Weatherspoon, and Mike Jeune filling out the rotation.

We’ve been looking for a pass rushing DE ever since George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul left for the NFL two years ago, and we think Ryne Giddins has the tools to step in and make the leap. He was all-everything at nearby Armwood High School and spurned Florida to play for the hometown Bulls. Patrick Hampton and Julius Forte make a strong trio with Claude Davis coming in for pass-rushing scenarios.

DT is a big concern after you get past Keith McCaskill and Cory Grissom. Luke Sager and Elkino Watson are the clear backups, but neither have seen the field much and Watson is a true freshman. Behind them are Demi Thompson and Todd Chandler, who are good for a few plays at a time. If the backups can keep things together when rotated in, the Bulls should be able to stop Cierre Wood and the Irish rushing attack.

ITI: Finish this sentence: USF will upset Notre Dame if …

Daniels is able to run wild.

ITI: Look in your crystal ball. What do you see happening on Saturday?

I think this will be a defensive struggle. USF has made a living going into hostile territory and pulling off rather substantial upsets. Its probably the eternal optimist in me, but I think USF wins with a Maikon Bonani field goal as time expires. Bulls win 17-14.

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For more from Ken and all the guys at “the toughest blog in America,” check out VoodooFive.com. You can also follow Ken’s musings on Twitter. @SBNVoodooFive

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

BVG
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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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