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USF Football Fall Practice 2017: Things to Watch On Defense During Preseason Camp

They can’t be as bad as last year, right?

NCAA Football: Navy at South Florida Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

If you missed our primer for the offense, check it out here.

First things first, I want to personally thank the defense for being so unbelievably terrible in 2016. See, without them giving up 482 yards per game (120th in the nation) and 31.5 points per game (92nd) we wouldn’t have experienced the GULF COAST OFFENSE in all of their majestic glory. So, former defensive coordinator and fellow excessive sweater Raymond Woodie... thank you. Thank you for being in so far over your head and calling the same play over and over again (allegedly).

New head coach Charlie Strong and new defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary have their work cut out for them turning around a defensive unit that ranked near the bottom in nearly every statistical category in 2016. If they can just make the defense mediocre instead of train wreck on top of car crash wrapped in a flood bad, USF fans will throw a parade in their honor.

They have some talent at each level of the defense, but getting them to play well together and in sync is a different problem altogether.

Here are a couple things I’ll be watching for during practice.

By keeping the 4-2-5 defense intact, what changes will Jean-Mary include to give the defense some bite?

I think we can all agree Woodie was not a good coordinator. To be fair, former DC Tom Allen left so late in the coaching carousel last year that it only made sense to promote from within. Still, any good Allen did installing the Bull Shark defense in 2015 was arguably undone during the spring of 2016.

The first thing that was noticeable during spring practice this year and in the spring game was how many different positions and angles the defense blitzed on any given play. BJM wants to create havoc for the opposing defense, and a great way to do that is not being afraid to blitz a corner or safety from every part of the field.

“I like crazy coaches and he’s kinda crazy,” senior cornerback Deatrick Nichols said during spring practice. When asked if Jean-Mary’s attitude is a throwback to Allen, Nichols chuckled and responded, “You could say that.”

What does the defensive line look like?

Defensive team MVP and Nagurski Award and Outland Trophy watch lister Deadrin Senat will anchor the line, but who will be around him to try to turn around the defense is a much bigger problem.

Senior Bruce Hector figures to get first crack at pairing with Senat in the middle. He totaled 33 tackles and eight TFL, and tied for the team lead with six sacks. Sophomore Marlon Gonzalez figures to fill the void left by Daniel Awoleke as the third tackle in the rotation.

Defensive end is a black hole of guys that haven’t lived up to their potential. They accounted for just 8.5 sacks in 2016, and that’s including Kevin Bronson who has split time between end and tackle. Birmingham Bowl hero Mike Love will be heavily involved, but the team will need more production from him on a consistent basis. Kirk Livingstone, Juwuan Brown, and Vincent Jackson Jr. all saw action at DE in 2016 to varying degrees of success. Junior JUCO transfer Frank Johnson could find himself on the field after not playing in 2016.

If there is any unit on the roster that could stand an influx of talent and contributors, it’s the defensive line. Strong addressed those needs in the 2017 recruiting class by adding Darrien Grant, Kevin Kegler and Kelvin Pinkney Jr., plus JUCO transfer Anthony Beko.

Anyone else missing Derrick Calloway right about now?

Who replaces Nigel Harris as the weakside linebacker?

We know team captain Auggie Sanchez will be the mike linebacker, but who is going to take over for Harris? He played in 47 games (41 starts) in his four year career with the Bulls. The likely choice is redshirt sophomore Nico Sawtelle stepping in to fill the very big void. He chipped in 16 tackles in 11 games as a reserve linebacker. He missed time with a fractured foot during the middle of the year.

Redshirt freshman Andre Polk is also an option and has looked like the real deal during the spring. He’s every bit of the 6’4”, 227 pounds that USF lists him at on the roster. He could become the guy everyone hoped the next guy could be.

LB-turned-DE-turned-LB again Jimmy Bayes could finally live up to his potential and become the linebacker everyone hoped he’d be when he got to USF in 2014. Or not.

Junior Danny Thomas is the only other linebacker with extended game experience, and he’ll backup Sanchez unless the coaching staff decides to move him over to weakside.

Defensive back is as deep as ever. Where do they all fit in?

CB1 is locked up with Thorpe Trophy, Nagurski Award and Bednairk Award watch lister Deadrick Nichols. CB2 is probably locked up by junior Ronnie Hoggins. That just leaves free safety, strong safety and striker up for grabs.

Redshirt freshman Craig Watts will make a huge impact on this team in 2017. From what position(s) is up for discussion. He came into school as a safety, but saw a lot of playing time at cornerback in the spring and looked very comfortable there. If anyone was to push Hoggins for CB2, it will be Watts.

Junior safety Jaymon Thomas is the best DB on the team and will take up a safety spot. He played in 13 games (four starts) in 2016 and racked up 55 tackles, five TFL and two sacks. His 55 tackles ranked fifth on the team, and everyone ahead of him started at least eight games.

That leaves seniors Devin Abraham (25 starts) and Tajee Fullwood (13) to battle it out for the other safety position. Pencil in Khalid McGee as the striker. He was very effective there in 2016 and finished the year with 51 tackles, four TFL and one sack.

Reserve cornerback roles are up for grabs. Redshirt freshman Mike Hampton showed some promise during spring practice and figures to get some run along with junior Mazzi Wilkins.

Freshmen Nick Roberts and Bentlee Sanders could make their presence known as the backups to Nichols and Hoggins/Watts.

Overall I don’t think this defense is devoid of talent. I just think it was completely underutilized by a coach way in over his head and that with Strong and Jean-Mary on staff now they could actually be... good? We’re not looking for the ‘85 Bears from these guys but we’ll settle for 2016 Bucs — bend a whole lot but don’t break.