It’s homecoming week and we are officially halfway through the 2018 college football regular season.
USF remains one of eight unbeaten teams in the country and before we look towards the second half of the season that kicks off tonight, let’s look back at the first six games and talk about the highs and the lows.
For a team that had as much graduating turnover as it did, USF seemed to fill the gap left by all those great players in 2017.
To recount what we lost from last year: One of the best players in school history, two starting running backs, two strong offensive linemen, the most NFL-ready wide receiver, three defensive linemen that are on NFL rosters, the school’s all time leader in tackles, two defensive backs who rank in the top five of most interceptions in their careers, the school’s all-time leader in points at kicker, and a strong-legged punter.
All things considered, the back ups and transfers have done a great job of imitating the star power left from last year.
The amazing thing about this team is how young and fresh they are. We talked before the season that it’s concerning how many freshmen/redshirt freshmen were on the two deep, but guys like Rashawn Yates, Randall St. Felix, Donovan Jennings, and Nick Roberts have all stepped up to get valuable playing time and experience, but not without growing pains.
Blake Barnett has stepped in and showed flashes of being the highly touted recruit out of high school. Completing 61% of his passes for 1,500 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions, replacing the best player in school history. He had big shoes to fill and has done an excellent job of filling them.
He’s struggled at times with less than stellar first halves against Tulsa and ECU, but he has also showed his mobility by tacking on another six rushing touchdowns.
The running back committee has essentially turned into a one man show due to injuries...it just so happens that the one man show is like watching Hamilton on Broadway.
Jordan Cronkrite has been every bit of amazing that we thought he would be. Despite not playing against Elon, he has 757 yards on 94 attempts and is averaging 8.1 yards a carry, good for third in the nation. To put that into perspective, Q averaged 5.5 yards a carry last year.
His game against UMass broke all sorts of records both for the school and the conference, and he showed his breakaway speed. His underrated skill of “falling forward” has helped him gain yards on plays that look blown up, and has been a serviceable blocker when he needs to be.
True freshmen Johnny Ford has also exploded onto the scene. The 5’5” running back has been elusive and capable of breaking off big runs, but can also catch passes as a slot receiver. Hopefully the rest of the running backs will get healthy and had some depth to this position, as Duran Bell, Elijah Mack, and Trevon Sands have all shown flashes of greatness this year so far.
The wide receiver group had to fill another void left by a drafted teammate, and it’s Tyre McCants turn to lead the group.
The human wrecking ball leads the teams with 34 receptions, and has been a key target on screens on short yardage situations. Tackling McCants is no easy task, as he is averaging 11.2 yards per catch with two touchdowns this year. He showed his speed with a burner of a route on the second play of the game against UMass, and was able to come up big late against Tulsa to complete the comeback.
Redshirt freshmen Randall St. Felix has also come up big this year with his ability to get behind the secondary and high point the football. This young guy has a bright future ahead of him if he can round out his skills. Darnell Salomon has also stepped into his starting role well, leading the team with four touchdown receptions and averaging over 20 yards per catch.
Mitchell Wilcox has been highly regarded as one of the best tight ends in all of college football this year, and has shown why. The redshirt junior has 22 catches for 311 yards, averaging 14 yards a catch and adding a touchdown to his name. It seems like no matter where the ball is put, he’s able to come down with it, and with still another season to hone down his skills, we could be talking about next year’s John Mackey Award winner.
The offensive line is filled with young players gaining valuable playing time and with three underclassmen starting alongside two juniors, this unit is like a fine wine and will get better with age. They’ve has led the way for these running backs to have a good year and run blocking has been pretty solid.
Along the defensive side of the ball, a huge concern for most of us going into the season was the defensive line. Losing three players to the NFL is tough and replacing that much talent is something only Alabama could do. However, it looks like USF was able to accomplish this as well.
Starters Greg Reaves, Kevin Kegler, Kevin Bronson, and Kirk Livingston have combined for 84 tackles and 6.5 sacks this year and 18 tackles for loss this year. The rotation guys have also stepped up big, with freshmen Rashawn Yates, Tyrone Barber, and Tony Grier getting significant playing time against teams like Georgia Tech and ECU.
Khalid McGee has transitioned well into his linebacker role, leading the team in tackles with 54, and is on pace to break 100 tackles this season. Next to him is redshirt junior Nico Sawtelle, who has been the vocal leader for the defense, and has been able to come up with timely interceptions and fumble recoveries when his team needed it most.
Arguably the strongest unit on the team, the secondary has the football IQ and the speed to keep up with anyone in the country. Last year’s unit was near the top of the country with interceptions, but this year this squad hasn’t been tested enough. USF’s defense is allowing only 188 yards per game through the air, but it skewed slightly due to Georgia Tech. We should see this unit flourish in the second half of the season.
Special teams was also a huge concern before the season, but injuries is causing the unit to be slightly weaker than normal.
True freshmen Terrance Horne emerged onto the scene when he returned back-to-back kickoffs for a TD, but a torn ACL suffered in practice has him sidelined until next season and we can only hope that his speed won’t take a hit.
Aussie Trent Schneider has filled the punting duties well. Averaging 43.3 yards per kick, he’s been able to pin opponents deep and flip the field. Kicker Jake Vivonetto started the season but has been upended by transfer Coby Weiss, who has connected on 19 of 21 extra points, and 6-of-8 field goals.
He was the hero last week at Tulsa, nailing a game-winning field goal with a broken finger that he received from a targeting penalty against UMass.
The highest bright spot for this team right now is how young they are and how much they’re exceeding the expectations set forth. This team features only one offensive starter that’s a senior (Tyre McCants), four defensive starters (Khalid McGee, Mazzi Wilkins, Jaymon Thomas, and Ronnie Hoggins) and none on special teams, compared to 13 starters last year who graduated. Even then, behind those 5 players are a wealth of talent who will be ready and willing to step up in a big way next year.
Although this team has started 6-0, they are the media’s favorite to call “the worst 6-0 team ever” (which is far-fetched).
The opponents USF have played are not the strongest and yet they have had to come from behind to win the game in the fourth quarter in four of contests.
This team also hasn’t been able to start consistently and put points on the board. The Bulls have been held to 20 points or less in the first half in the last four games. Defensively, they’ve have struggled to produce turnovers like the team last year did.
The offensive line play has been poor and it seems like this unit is is prone to breaking down during pass protection. Barnett has been sacked 16 times so far this year, including six sacks allowed against ECU. This unit is desperate need of a fresh start this second half.
The Veer and Shoot offense has also had it’s consistent hiccups. For those unfamiliar with the Read Pass Option, receivers will run routes on running plays in case the play turns into a pass. This has led to issues with downfield blocking, and in general the unit isn’t blocking as well as it has been in the past. Some of this has to do with speed, some of this has to do with strength and technique, but screens have not been as effective this year
There have been questions around this coaching staff for a while. Installing an offense as frustrating like the Veer and Shoot, starting slow and not getting the team prepared for games has been a common trend this year. The key excuse for the past two seasons have been that “they just have to execute better.” How long until the fingers get pointed back on the coaching for not adjusting to their teams strengths instead of putting a square peg in a round hole?
We are also about to get into the more rigorous part of the schedule.
Playing at Temple and Cincinnati will be tough environments in the cold. Playing Houston and one of the best defensive players in the country on the road will be a challenge. Tulane isn’t a cake walk this year. Finally, C. seemed to have transitioned well under first-year head coach Josh Huepel.
There sre a lot of good things going on with this team. Putting them in a vacuum and not comparing it to the year before, this is a very solid team who deserves to be 6-0 on paper.
Their on-field performance might not look that way, but this is a solid team no doubt. There are only four schools to start the last two seasons undefeated through week 7. USF is one of them and the other three are Clemson, Alabama, and C. Not bad company to be around.
The rest of the season will be filled with their toughest tests, but their resiliency will be rewarded one way or another as they are officially bowl eligible (BIRMINGHAM BOWL HERE WE COME!).
Happy Homecoming, Go Bulls!