South Florida suffered through a highly-forgettable 2020 season under first-year head coach Jeff Scott—the kind of season that suggests patience will be necessary for the Bulls’ rebuild.
Scott has the bona-fides, if not the experience, to make it work in Tampa. He was a part of Clemson’s transformation into a juggernaut, so he knows all about what it looks like to level-up a program, but USF is his first head coaching gig.
The 2021 season figures to be a quest for modest progress from the Bulls after they managed just one win last season. Scott has turned over a significant portion of the roster with transfers in the hopes of speeding up the process; there are 29 transfer players on this team, including 18 guys from elsewhere in FBS. Among the notables there, of course, is quarterback Cade Fortin, who was all set to go from UNC to Syracuse before Scott won him over with a last-second pitch.
Fortin is tasked with breathing life into an offense that struggled in a wide variety of ways. The good news, at least theoretically, is that USF returns a lot of experience. Four vets on the offensive line have a combined 88 starts among them. The Bulls’ top two rushers are back, as are four of the top five pass-catchers.
But given that the roster needs a substantial infusion of talent—hence the transfers—it’s fair to wonder how much mileage that experience gives the Bulls. “Leading returner” implies a good season but doesn’t necessarily indicate one, after all. USF’s top returning rusher, Kelley Joiner, had 368 yards on 72 carries (4.7 YPC) in 2020. Its top returning receiver, Bryce Miller, had 327 yards on 33 grabs. (The Bulls played a nine-game season.)
Guys like that will have a role, but if they’re still leading the charge, maybe that’s a bad sign. USF almost certainly will see some different faces emerge, and one of them might be running back Jarren Mangham, who was a Pac-12 All-Freshman Team selection at Colorado in 2019. At receiver, maybe it’s someone like DeMarcus Gregory or Yusuf Terry, who come over from power-conference programs.
South Florida’s defense returns a lot of experience as well, and has the team’s one all-conference selection from ‘20: linebacker Antonio Grier, who made the AAC’s second team. Grier collected 58 tackles in 2019, then finished with 59 in four fewer games last season. He led the Bulls in tackles for loss (5.5) and sacks (3.0)—in fact, he was the only USF player with more than one sack.
USF’s inability to get home defensively is one obvious area where it needs improvement. The Bulls finished with seven sacks in nine games (the offense allowed 30 sacks, meanwhile), and while a defense’s ability to create havoc isn’t just defined by its sack total, at an extreme like this, that sack total says plenty.
USF will hope to get some added production from a couple of edge rushers it added from the SEC. Grier will be a factor, certainly, and Dwayne Boyles is another veteran linebacker who has been productive.
In the secondary, the Bulls have added four transfers from P5 programs to bolster the unit. Daquan Evans was a standout at corner last season, leading the team with three interceptions.
USF upgraded its talent by adding these power-conference transfers, but they still have a lot to prove on the field since most played sparingly at those P5 schools. It’s anybody’s guess how many will have breakthrough success, and how quickly that will happen. Obviously, a lot depends on Cade Fortin, since the quarterback affects a team’s ceiling more than any other single position player.
This season doesn’t figure to be easy for USF no matter what, though you can at least see some inklings of hope. The forward progress may be modest, but after 2020, the Bulls just need something to build on.