Lots of turnover, but big things expected of USF
TAMPA – The USF team that takes the field for Saturday night’s opener at Raymond James Stadium against Elon will look much different than the team that concluded last season with a Birmingham Bowl victory over Texas Tech.
While the loss of 13 starters and 33 lettermen does not leave the Bulls as naked as the back side of the Roman god atop the Vulcan Trophy the team jubilantly hoisted at Legion Field, no less than 47 players are true freshmen or redshirt freshmen. That’s 44 percent of the roster.
“We went over to the stadium on Sunday just to do a mock walkthrough,” said coach Charlie Strong during Tuesday’s press conference. “I wanted to get them in the stadium because some of them have never been in there.”
Indeed, many players will see their first collegiate action against Elon. Quarterback Blake Barnett, on the other hand, is playing for his third program. Strong confirmed at Tuesday’s press conference what many already knew and that was the 22-year-old graduate transfer would be under center.
Barnett, who opened the 2016 season as Alabama’s starting quarterback before serving as a backup at Arizona State last year, beat out redshirt junior Brett Kean and redshirt sophomore Chris Oladokun.
“He has done a really good job coming in and learning and picking it up,” said Strong, of Barnett’s command of the offense. “You look at him and he has a real strong arm and he runs a lot better than what we thought and what we gave him credit for.”
One of Barnett’s top targets is sure to be Tyre McCants. The team’s leading returning receiver, who averaged 19.1 yards per catch last season, likes what he has seen in his new quarterback.
“He has done some things this camp that have surprised a lot of us, we didn’t expect from him,” he said. “He is really athletic, being a taller guy, and I am just excited to see what he can do.”
Strong also spoke about how other positions played out during fall camp. He particularly likes the talent and depth of the defensive front, which was something he expressed last week.
“If there is a strong position on our football team right now it has got to be our defensive front because there are a lot of numbers there and guys that have played a lot,” he said.
To that extent, senior tackle Kevin Bronson expects many of the d-linemen to see the field Saturday night.
“You have to have a rotation on the defensive line,” he said. “I don’t think that there is anybody that plays the whole game. We have a lot of depth, which is good. It is going to help us out. We are going to need each and every one.”
Strong heaped praise on tight end Mitchell Wilcox for the many things the junior brings to the table, the leadership of senior corner Ronnie Hoggins and the development of redshirt freshman receiver Randall St. Felix.
“St. Felix is probably the biggest surprise for us in camp right now,” he said.
With the clock ticking toward Saturday night there is a sense of anxiety about the getting things underway.
“Everybody’s ready to get back on the field and get back to playing somebody else,” said McCants. “We are tired of beating up on each other and we’re ready to play somebody else.”
Kickoff is 6 p.m. and the game can be heard on 820 AM.
The Bulls are 3-0 all-time against Elon, an FCS program that became a member of the Colonial Athletic Association in 2014 after moving from the Southern Conference. The Phoenix, who have lost all 10 meetings against FBS programs, went 8-4 last season, including a first-round playoff loss to Furman. They finished No. 21 in the final FCS coaches poll and open this season at No. 13.
Coach Curt Cignetti is in his second season at Elon after having spent six seasons (61-21) at Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Cignetti, the son of former West Virginia and IUP coach and College Football Hall of Fame member Frank Cignetti Sr., was a quarterback at West Virginia and his coaching career includes a stint (2007-10) as recruiting coordinator and receivers coach under Nick Saban at Alabama.
Cignetti said opening at USF represents quite a challenge, one that his team is prepared for.
“We’re flying right into the eye of the hurricane,” he said during his teleconference while noting the Bulls’ 21-4 mark the past two seasons. “They are a really good football team that is extremely well coached and they have a lot of speed. It will be a tremendous challenge for us, but I am confident that we have the right stuff and will respond to put ourselves in the best position to be successful.”
Among key players are sophomore quarterback Davis Cheek, who was fourth in the CAA in pass efficiency last season and was named the conference offensive rookie of the year.
Cignetti said junior running back Malcolm Summers is ready to go. A torn hamstring suffered in Elon’s sixth game ended his 2017 season prematurely. Two weeks earlier he ran for 294 yards on 40 carries against then-No. 6 Richmond. Summers’ 755 yards at the time of his injury led the FCS.
“I know Cignetti and I know he is an outstanding coach,” said Strong. “His team is going to be well prepared. What I always tell our guys is that we have to go out and we have to play at a level that we need to play and not be concerned about the other team.”
Elon’s defense returns eight of its top nine tacklers, including middle linebacker Warren Messer, who led the way with 114 tackles last season.
“They are a really physical team,” said McCants. “Their front seven is really physical and they seem really disciplined. It will be a tough matchup.”
It was announced Tuesday that Valley National Bank will be the season-presenting sponsor of USF football.
In partnership with the USF Foundation, The Valley for Veterans scholarship fund has committed a total of $75,000 in scholarships throughout the 2018 season.
“I have felt a lot of momentum and good energy in the community surrounding our football program,” said Michael Kelly, who in June was named USF’s vice president of athletics. “Today is another great step that emphasizes that point and feeling of momentum.”
The university is known for being among the best nationally when it comes to being veteran friendly. In 2017 the Military Times ranked USF as the No. 1 public, four-year university with respect to opportunities for student veterans.
The USF Football Radio Show returns to the World of Beer (2815 East Fowler Ave.) Thursday night on 820 AM. The show will air on Thursday nights (6-7 p.m.) during weeks the Bulls play on Saturday. It will air in the same time slot on Wednesday nights during weeks the Bulls play on Friday, which they will at Tulsa (Oct. 12) and vs. UCF (Nov. 23).