A coaching staff’s debut season is usually filled with the buzz of a new scheme, hype stemming from renewed energy at practices and general goodwill. While first-year South Florida head coach Jeff Scott may have that goodwill, present realities have robbed the Bulls of those other intangible assets. Beat media has not gotten to see Scott’s approach in practice, it has not gotten to see a new defensive scheme rolled out, it has not gotten to see Charlie Weis Jr. interact with his quarterbacks.
Instead, Joey Knight of the Tampa Bay Times has had to wait like the rest of us. Let’s discuss what he is anxious to see as South Florida faces its first conventional opponent of 2020 …
DF: Thanks for squeezing in this Q&A. I know we are only one week into this season, but it already feels like everything is a squeeze, including this game. Given it was scheduled less than a month ago, I never really considered an offseason deep dive on South Florida. I do know enough to know where to start the questions … with former Clemson offensive coordinator and first-year Bulls head coach Jeff Scott.
Scott takes over a program on quite a downswing, courtesy of Charlie Strong, going 4-13 in its last 17 entering this year, so used to losing that Scott spent a chunk of a Monday morning radio interview discussing the simple fact that South Florida needs to learn to win. “It really starts with learning how to win, how to not beat yourself, focusing on yourself and not focusing on the opponent.”
With that in mind, and I do not mean for this question to sound as harsh and negative as it does but rather intend it to give a chance for you to better explain things to me, why did Scott take this job of all the ones he could have looked at? Maybe he didn’t have a chance at every head coaching gig in the country, but Clemson’s coordinators are rather hot commodities. Why South Florida?
JK: Aside from the fact his father (Brad) is a South Florida alumnus, I think Jeff recognized the upside of the program, a quintessential sleeping giant that briefly was ranked second in the BCS standings (in 2007). The fertility of the area’s recruiting landscape is unquestioned; build a wall around the Tampa Bay area and you can compete for American Athletic Conference titles.
I am also convinced athletic director Michael Kelly, a former College Football Playoff executive and universally respected administrator, influenced Scott’s decision. Dabo Swinney encouraged Scott to take the job primarily because of Kelly.
Before the pandemic struck, the school had raised roughly half the money needed for its $40 million football center, which includes an indoor practice facility. With the right recruiter and fundraiser, this program can position itself prominently when the next major wave of conference realignment transpires.
Scott and his coaching staff got in only one spring practice to begin changing the Bulls’ culture. For defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer, that includes implementing what you described as a “30-float” defense. I like that concept, and realize gauging it against The Citadel’s triple-option is not a worthwhile predictor of things to come, but what have been your first impressions of a defense with only three defensive linemen and the rest of the personnel in various multi-purpose roles?
My first impressions won’t arrive until Saturday. Spencer’s system, which typically features three down linemen and tons of movement on the back end, basically was scrapped against the Citadel’s triple option. Spencer has indicated he will also employ a four-man front, and I am guessing we will see a lot of that if the Irish choose to run power with Kyren Williams. Props to Spencer’s unit for its solid effort Saturday, when it allowed The Citadel to convert only three of its last 12 third downs. But the Bulls are running up against an entirely different beast this weekend.
Notre Dame’s passing game struggled in the opener, for whatever of myriad reasons, but its running game found a groove as the game went along. Knowing the Bulls have been particularly bad against the run in recent years (209 rushing yards allowed per game last year, 248 in 2018), does Spencer have newfound personnel to change that trend, or should the Irish expect to run wild once again?
Depth up front was a concern for Spencer in the preseason, and unless the participation sheet was inaccurate, only four down linemen appeared in Saturday’s game. Things appear a bit more promising on the second level. Juniors Dwayne Boyles and Antonio Grier, a bit undersized last year, have transformed their bodies and now look like bona fide college linebackers. Grier had 10 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in the opening half Saturday. Still, it all starts with the point of attack, and South Florida appears in danger of being exposed in that area this weekend.
On the other side of the ball, the most familiar of Notre Dame names … Somehow already in his third year as an offensive coordinator, though first at South Florida, Charlie Weis Jr. What have your impressions been of him thus far?
The dude’s reputation as an offensive prodigy (He’s still only 27.) preceded him to Tampa. Just look at what Weis’ offense did at Florida Atlantic last season (top 20 in scoring and total offense). Moreover, with three starting offensive linemen out last week, he still employed enough creativity in the run game (i.e. jet sweeps, pre-snap movement, etc.) to help the Bulls net 302 yards on the ground.
Speaking on his weekly radio show on @BullsUnlimited, Jeff Scott addresses the absent 3 starting o-linemen: "Really at the end of the day, we're gonna get these guys back. We feel confident in that, and we'll just have to figure out when that is."
— Joey Knight (@TBTimes_Bulls) September 14, 2020
Weis is working with a returning starting quarterback in Jordan McLoud, but things did not exactly go well for them against The Citadel. McCloud went 11-of-16 for 68 passing yards, the rushing game instead picking up the Bulls with 302 yards. What approach does Weis want to have? What approach does he have the personnel to actually implement?
The jury’s still out on whether he has the quarterback to execute all he wants to do aerially. Weis has two mobile options in incumbent Jordan McCloud and graduate transfer Noah Johnson, but they combined for only 92 passing yards Saturday. North Carolina transfer Cade Fortin, who possesses arguably the best arm of the trio, was unavailable last week for unspecified reasons.
I have focused more on the coaching staff than anything else here. I find it to be an interesting group, while this is a roster that has simply been beaten down for two years and I am not sure there is anything known there. What strengths am I missing from my 30,000-foot view?
Senior cornerbacks KJ Sails and Mike Hampton, a pair of bay area products, both should get an NFL look next spring. Junior Vincent “Smoke” Davis is a disruptive force in the “Star” (or nickel) position. Once the Bulls have all five starting offensive linemen available, the unit should represent an upgrade from last season, when South Florida allowed 3.75 sacks a game (126th nationally).
— Joey Knight (@TBTimes_Bulls) September 16, 2020
I won’t ask you if South Florida can win for a second time at Notre Dame Stadium. I will ask you, how long do you think the Bulls can keep Saturday competitive?
To the pleasant surprise of their fan base, the Bulls had no turnovers and were whistled for only five penalties Saturday. If they can play with that type of discipline and ball protection in South Bend, they can make a respectable showing. Gotta believe Weis kept a lot of his playbook concealed against The Citadel.