Remember that stretch in the mid-to-late 2000’s where South Florida was supposed to be the next superpower to come out of the hotbed of talent that is Florida? In a span of ten years they went from literally not having a program to becoming the hottest team in college football. At one point during the 2007 season South Florida was ranked #2 nationally and threatened to take the King of Florida crown from UF and FSU.
Then Jim Leavitt (their head coach since the school was created) supposedly hit a player at halftime during a game against Louisville in 2009, tried to cover it up, and the Bulls got pelted by a tranq gun. Leavitt, the face of the franchise, was fired the subsequent offseason and that ushered in the largely unsuccessful three-year era of Skip Holtz, which saw them decline from 8-to-5-to-3 wins before his firing in 2012.
Like economies that have a tendency to overheat should they experience too much growth too fast, that’s pretty much the status of South Florida. This team went from going to six straight bowl games and downing Clemson in their last one, to staring at the outskirts of mediocrity in the Big East. Now they’re rebuilding with Willie Taggart, a Florida native whose most impressive resume point was guiding a Western Kentucky Hilltoppers team to a 16-20 overall record and a bowl game that he didn’t coach in. Unsurprisingly, last year the Bulls finished 2-10 under Taggart and at times did not look impressive.
When you’re young, things are tough
There’s no other way around it: South Florida is in rebuild mode. Towards the end of last year, the Bulls were trotting out six true freshmen on offense and three of their top four tacklers are sophomores. A whopping thirty players on the team this year are new scholarship players that weren’t on the squad last year, and 28 of those are true freshmen. Their quarterback is a true sophomore who started as a true freshman in the latter part of last year. Oh, and their coach is the fifth youngest in college football. In short, they’ve still got their spots and it’s a wonder they even won two games last year with that much turnover.
But while they may be young, the Bulls still have that Florida talent base, and Taggart is a good enough recruiter to reign a lot of it in. In their 36-31 victory against Western Carolina last week, we got to see a few great examples of both that youth and that talent.
Marlon Mack, the Bulls true freshman running back of the future, looked like Barry Sanders on the field. He was one yard shy of the USF school record for rushing yards after he finished with 275 of them and four touchdowns. He didn’t even start playing until the game was halfway over, either.
Meanwhile, their sophomore QB Mike White delivered such an aesthetically painful performance that South Florida fans are already contemplating the need for a change at the position. In week one. White struggled mightily in the first half and were it not for the emergence of the guy we just mentioned, South Florida would’ve been cooked.
Believe the hype on Marlon Mack
It’s hard to tell whether it was playing the Catamounts or sheer talent, but after watching what he did last week I’m convinced wholly that Mack is the real deal. Just watch the cut this kid makes at the :37 mark of this video:
That cut translates in any conference and can make a whole lot of players miss. I’d be hesitant to label Mack as shifty, because that implies a smaller size. Mack is built sturdy (he played safety as well in high school) and knows how to use it pretty well, but the kid has amazing feet inside the hole and gets push like you wouldn’t believe on his cuts. He runs the way Adrian
Mack gained 122 yards on two carries last week (one 60 yard TD run and another 62 yarder), sure, but he was tearing off five to eight yard runs all game long. Taggart finally decided to basically abandon the pass in the third (they threw twice) and let Mack carry the team entirely. And he did, even as a true freshman in his first game.
Mack does most of his damage running power and counter out of the I formation, and even with Western Carolina stacking the box he was able to evade half their team. Taggart’s play calling was pretty mundane by and large, but it didn’t matter against Western Carolina because their linebackers were such terrible tacklers.
Stopping the bull
As effective as Mack’s running style is, let’s hold off heaping too much praise on him until we see how he does against a nine-man front when his quarterback can’t complete 40% of his passes against an opponent twice as talented as Western Carolina. This is where their youth movement goes haywire, because Mike White can’t throw. On his first five passes, by my count, that weren’t going to running backs or wide receivers behind the line of scrimmage on bubble screens, he completed zero. He ended up throwing only seven passes in the second half because of how late he was on so many simple passes.
On all of White’s completions (and he had a few 25+ yarders in the second half that set up touchdowns), his feet were planted and he had time to get the ball off. When that’s going for him, South Florida’s running game will be a nightmare to stop. Unfortunately against Maryland, the Bulls offensive line could get eaten alive by corner and safety blitzes. DC Brian Stewart showed off that wrinkle last week against James Madison and there’s a good chance it works against South Florida as well. The Catamounts had repeated success blitzing Maryland native and safety Ace Clark liberally, getting to both Mack and White at will.
The Terps have the pass rush up front to stop a QB early and the secondary depth to blitz a corner or two when they’re feeling ambitious. Mack and White are young and turnover prone, and if Maryland can get a couple good licks on him early that ball might come flying out. Plus, if the Terps can get their linebackers in proper position and plug up the running gaps, Mack showed a tendency to try and bounce it back out for more yards (like most young backs do). Doing that could result in a lot of plays that go for negative yardage. And with White at QB running for his life, South Florida would have a very hard time being competitive.
I’ll hazard a guess and say that by the second half if Maryland goes up big, former Penn State QB and recent transfer Steven Street ends up becoming the Bulls starter and making the game competitive. Even if they score 40 points, though, they’re liable to give up 50 some games because their defense has no edge rush when they’re sending three (the Bulls run a 3-4), and for whatever reason got absolutely manhandled by bubble screens.
The Catamounts ran a spread offense eerily similar to Maryland’s, with slightly more tomfoolery (it felt like they ran the jet sweep every three plays) but and a little less passing.
The Bulls have glimpses of talent, and they’re on a track that seems pointed in the right direction. But Maryland knows all about youth and talent and no results, only now they’re talented and mature. It’s the Bulls turn to experience that rebuilding frustration.