The start of the 2019 USF football season is rapidly approaching with fall camp opening just six days from today and the highly anticipated Friday night home opener versus Wisconsin kicking off just over a month from now.
Dropping by the Bulluminati Podcast during AAC Media Days last week, third-year Bulls head coach Charlie Strong spoke about the offseason and where the program stands entering a new fall campaign.
It’s standard stuff for a head coach to hit on themes like leadership and the desire to see guys step up during these preseason media stops. But the way he laid it out was interesting:
“With every team, there’s a story and the story’s got to be told,” Strong said. “When you watch a successful team, there’s a main character and there’s a story being told about that team.”
As an example, he mentions how his 2017 squad coalesced around Quinton Flowers and Auggie Sanchez with playmakers like Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Deadrin Senat, Bruce Hector and others playing strong supporting roles in said story.
So coming off a dreadful collapse late last season, Strong poses the question who will get the story going for the 2019 Bulls...
“Last year we didn’t get that because we never had a main character and our story was never told because you didn’t have anyone to center it around,” Strong said.
Now, it’s like reading a book. Like ok, when we start off with this team, where are we going to start? Where’s the introduction going to be and who is going to come to life for us? Who’s going to be that guy willing to step put for us? When you get that guy that steps out for you then all of a sudden, the story starts moving and the team starts moving with it.”
When thinking about potential players to be cast as one of USF’s ‘main character’ for 2019, the list obviously begins with quarterback Blake Barnett.
The senior’s wild journey throughout his collegiate career has been discussed repeatedly but it’s worth pointing out that this fall will be his first season with a semblance of stability. Around this time last year, the Corona, CA, native was still in the process of adjusting to a new city, a new team with new teammates, and a new playbook (well, if you could call it a playbook), all while juggling the responsibilities of being a husband and a father.
Even through all of this, Barnett elevated himself to the starting job and threw for 2700+ yards/12 touchdowns before being limited by injuries late in the year. Now established in Tampa with a full year on the roster on top of having several months to learn an offense tailored to his strengths, one could easily see how the story of the 2019 Bulls will directly tie into his success.
Blake spoke to Nate about being able to entrench himself as a team leader this offseason.
“I’m able to spend more time on working on the offense, on building on top of relationships with teammates and fully establish myself as a leader. Not just trying to show the team who I am, but establish my leadership capabilities,” Barnett said during media days. “Even last year halfway through the season, I was still just starting to get to know guys and I’m pretty sure that anyone would agree that it’s not easy to lead people if they don’t really know who you are or if they can’t trust you at least. Those are the things I don’t really have to worry as much about this year. I think I’ve shown who I am character-wise, toughness-wise, leadership-wise, I think I established that last year.”
Two other senior offensive playmakers that are set to have vital roles in the story this year are tight end Mitchell Wilcox and running back Jordan Cronkrite.
Wilcox is on the cusp of owning every tight end record in school history and could potentially turn himself into a first-round NFL Draft prospect with a dominant season. if the first play of the spring game is an indication of what’s to come, he’ll certainly be getting his fair share of looks.
Coming off surgery that sidelined him for the spring, there’s an aura of unfinished business when it comes to Cronkrite heading into his senior year. At one point projected as a mid-round draft pick last fall, Cronk’s production tailed off towards the end of the season (ie: Sterlin forgetting that he existed).
Still finishing the year with over 1,000 yards, the UF transfer flirted with the idea of leaving early for the draft before ultimately deciding to return to Tampa for one more season. We’ll see if he’s able to thrive as the top running option in Kerwin Bell’s #ShowandGo.
For a still relatively young defense, a few players could emerge as lightning rods for whom each individual unit rallies around.
It’s no coincidence that the defense’s collapse late in 2018 coincided with the absence of linebacker Nico Sawtelle, who missed the final seven games of the season due to a neck injury. In the six games he played, he racked up 42 tackles, a team leading 7.5 tackles for loss and his two turnovers made all the difference in the Georgia Tech game. As long as the Jensen Beach native is healthy, he’s playing a major role in the story.
In the secondary, newly minted Thorpe Award Watch Lister Mike Hampton could entrench himself as a household name after an excellent year as a first-time starter in 2018.
Coming off the edges, Greg Reaves has returned to his natural position of defensive end after spending a season filling in for a depleted linebacker core. Opposite of him is AAC All-Academic Team regular Kirk Livingstone, who came on the Bulluminati Podcast about being pushed to take more command this offseason.
“Coach (Paul) Spicer’s taught me quite a bit. He’s asked me to step up and lead more, which is something I haven’t done,” Livingstone said. “I’ve always been the guy to just work and not have to talk because there’s always been older guys there, so that’s something I’ve had to work on.”
As Strong mentioned, the main characters of a story needs a strong supporting cast to build around and there’s a wide gamut of Bulls that could fill those roles.
One immediately thinks to the entire offensive line, who took their lumps last season as an inexperienced unit. William Atterbury and Outland Trophy Watch Lister Marcus Norman are back as senior veterans to lead.
At the skill positions, Johnny Ford could serve as a more dangerous weapon in the slot while the likes of Eddie McDoom and Randall St. Felix could be a nightmare for opponents in open space.
On defense, freshman like Tyrone Barber, Dwayne Boyles, Bentlee Sanders and Mekhi LaPointe were all thrown into the fire in 2018 and will be relied upon to take steps forward with some experience under their belts.
Along with the cast of characters Bulls fans are familiar with, there’s always room for relatively unknown commodities to emerge at points of the year. Perhaps a true freshman like a Daquan Evans hits the field and starts making plays immediately? Or a transfer like a Patrick Macon or a KJ Sails shows their mantle?
With the arrival of fall practice next week, we’ll start finding out who takes center stage for this team.