Alright, so Week 1 of USF Football’s fall camp is done and over with . We know a lot more about this team than we did this time last year – most notably the lack of an active quarterback competition going on – even though last year’s team may have seemed more primed to do something from the start of the season.
With the first full week of camp, which included a couple of days in pads and Fan Fest, in the rearview mirror, let’s take a big-picture look at where this team is.
First thing’s first, this team is 1,000 percent happier than this time last year.
Practices are fun for the guys. There’s a lot of competition on both sides of the ball. Music blares along “rehab island” during and after practices. Guys are singing, having fun and enjoying playing the game.
Nearly every single player that the media has talked to over the first week of media availability look happier. Veteran guys, young guys, coaches. Head coach Charlie Strong looks pleased with the progress and new offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell smiles while answering media questions.
However, we’ve seen where players are having lots of fun in the fall and then that same team drops an egg mid-season. Who are the leaders to reign it all back in to make sure this team stays focused? For more on that, please revisit Nick’s incredible piece on the “main characters” of the 2019 season.
Want an abridged version? Blake Barnett is more vocal this year (it’s more than likely because he knows everyone’s names versus this time a year ago), which is allowing significant development on the offense, especially in the communication department. On the other side of the ball, Nico Sawtelle has been a verbal leader, while the secondary looks like it’s communicating pretty well without one person standing out.
This team is getting along, well, which is a genuinely good sign going forward. From what I’ve seen, there haven’t been scuffles or fights this fall, significantly different from last year at this time.
The Offensive Tree View:
Let’s go unit-by-unit to help piece together our big-picture.
We’ve already mentioned Barnett, but to expand - he’s looked really, really good. He’s in sync with his receivers and it looks like there’s a lot more trust there. With that, he’ll be able to throw and complete a lot more routes on the route tree, so look for the timing to be better across the board in that department.
Plant High alumnus Jordan McCloud is progressing nicely with the second-team offense. He just needs some game reps at Raymond James and I’m expecting the South Carolina State game to be where he gets those first snaps at the collegiate level. After a small off-season surgery, true freshman Jahquez Evans has been practicing with the team.
Behind running back Jordan Cronkrite, there’s depth, but not a whole lot of depth that has experience in the backfield. Cronkrite gave high praise to Trevon Sands’ progression this fall while mentioning that Odunayo Seriki has also looked good at times. Dave Small had a 40-yard touchdown run on Saturday’s scrimmage. For those wondering if Johnny Ford will get some time at running back, he got a couple of red zone reps in Saturday’s scrimmage from the shotgun.
If you’re not a Randall St. Felix fan now, you will be soon. Not just because he changed his number from #84 to the beloved #5, but because he’s going to be extremely dangerous on the outside. Mitch Wilcox looks even stronger than before and should be right up there with St. Felix in receptions and yards this year. Eddie McDoom has looked proficient on the outside, as has Ford in the slot. Terrence Horne has been practicing with the second-teamers in the non-contact jersey.
You like an underdog story? Let’s talk about Bryce Miller. The former East Lake Eagle has gotten a lot of love from his offensive coordinator and his teammates in the first week of camp. And rightfully so. He’s quick, speedy, an excellent route runner and in the best shape of his life. I’d almost expect him to be on scholarship by the end of 2019.
As soon as Billy Atterbury works out the kinks at left tackle and is seen blocking someone other than Kirk Livingstone, the offensive line should be significantly better than last year. Normally, you would be kind of concerned with an offensive line that has two seniors and three sophomores. The difference is that there are a ton of starts between those five guys, especially with the trial-by-fire experience that Brad Cecil and Donovan Jennings got last year. Speaking of Jennings, his transition to right guard has been solid thus far. The real test will be when the five guys go up against different colored jerseys. I think they’ll be alright though.
The Defensive Tree View:
Major props to Greg Reaves filling the hole last year at linebacker after Sawtelle went down. Let’s be done talking about it. I’ll explain more about why in a moment.
So Reaves is back to his natural (not technically his natural position, you get the point) and he looks really impressive there. You can tell that the player that had 14 TFL in 2017 is still in there. Livingstone also looks impressive so far when the offensive line has had a weak moment here or there. On the inside, Kevin Kegler has received praise from teammates, as has Kelvin Pinkney. I think that Rashawn Yates is primed for a big year inside because he’s eaten up the second-team offensive line. Tyrone Barber and John Waller could also be guys that could sneak into a starting spot for a game or two.
There is linebacker depth on this team (!!), which nobody expected coming into the year. Sawtelle back helps a ton and he looks like the linebacker version of Mike Alstott with his neck roll. Graduate transfer Patrick Macon might just be carved out of granite, so he should be exciting to see play in a real-game situation. Strong has mentioned Dwayne Boyles, Antonio Grier and Andrew Mims as guys that have had significant developments at that position. So, no, we won’t need to move anyone to linebacker (knocks on wood) because there will be enough guys that have experience and are ready to go in the second level.
If a couple of NCAA transfer waivers get worked out, the secondary could be the best unit of this defense. North Carolina transfer KJ Sails had an interception on Saturday. Another newcomer, Devin Studstill also had an interception. Those came on back-to-back drives. Add in a well-established Mike Hampton opposite of Sails, and you’re pretty excited about the way that unit looks. Vincent Davis, a native safety, showed the ability to come to the line of scrimmage and play press coverage. That could become beneficial so another safety could be used alongside a three-cornerback look with a Sails, Hampton, Studstill and Davis rotation.
There’s a potential to see an all-Tampa Bay safety pairing with Bentlee Sanders (Tampa Catholic) and Mekhi LaPointe (Armwood) playing centerfield if Davis moves to the line of scrimmage. Newcomer McArthur Burnett has also received a lot of playing time with the ones.
The Specialist Tree View:
There could be a dual-kicker setup for USF this year, with the way that true freshman Spencer Shrader has looked in practice.
The Newsome High grad made a 53-yard boot with yards to spare on Saturday. Strong has said that Groza Award Watch Lister Coby Weiss will operate as the short-yardage kicker, while Shrader will take long kicks. Let’s not forget about Shrader’s fake field goal attempt that turned into six. In the punting game, Trent Schneider keeps on rocking. Or golfing, I should say.
Okay, big-picture time.
USF is in a lot better place than where it could be right now and it’s in an even better place than this time last season. There’s a lot to like after this first week of camp, especially in the chemistry department.
With that, there are still some kinks to work out. Strong said penalties were an issue on Saturday’s scrimmage and USF was one of the most penalized teams in the country a year ago. Bell’s offense seems to be taking shape every day, with installs. Barnett said on Saturday that the offense is becoming more reactionary.
With chemistry at a high, this next week of camp becomes the most vital. Although that first game against Wisconsin is still 19 days out, the players are still in the dog days of camp with no end in sight, for now. Hopefully, the progress that they’ve made from this first week seeps into next week.
Bottom line, this team looks hungry for Wisconsin. They look hungry to win. What a difference a year makes.