After running for 275 yards in the season opener against Western Carolina, all eyes were on freshman running back Marlon Mack. Since then, Mack has continued to excel and has already broken the record for rushing yards in a season by a USF freshman.
While Mack still remains a reliable running back for the Bulls, freshman D’Ernest Johnson, who has been nicknamed “Clutch” by coach Willie Taggart, has become a viable weapon in the Bulls’ struggling offense.
The nickname has caught on with his teammates, who are taking notice of the freshman’s big play ability.
“He’s a tremendously hard worker,” senior tight end Mike McFarland said. “As you can see, whenever the ball is in his hands, he’s liable to go all the way.”
Johnson has had catches of at least 20 yards in his past two games and scored the Bulls’ first touchdown against SMU on a 12-yard catch.
Senior center Austin Reiter said Johnson’s tendency for big plays is starting to have its effects on the team.
“It’s great because everybody feeds off of his energy,” Reiter said. “People make big plays and it energizes the group and makes everyone play more confident.”
But, making big plays isn’t the only thing Johnson has had success with this season.
“(He’s good at) all of it,” offensive coordinator Paul Wulff said. “And I think that’s what makes him so valuable, that he’s got great ball skills to catch the ball, he’s an excellent blocker. When he gets the ball, he’s a very physical and efficient player.”
Bulls preparing for Memphis’ defense
Memphis’ defense has been exceptional this season, holding opponents to 17.5 points per game, which is the eighth best in the nation. Memphis (7-3, 5-1) has 14 seniors on defense and Wulff said that is an essential aspect of the Tigers’ success.
“They’re a very veteran football team,” Wulff said. “Their defense has a lot of seniors that know their system. I think their team speed is very good. They don’t make mistakes and they don’t hurt themselves, so that’s why they’re good.”
Both Reiter and McFarland said they expect Memphis to blitz the Bulls often, but that will be nothing new for them.
“They have a 3-4 defense. They have a ton of blitzes and they like to disguise a lot of things,” McFarland said.
The game-winning drive at SMU
USF had a 21-play drive that included three fourth downs to end the game with a victory against SMU.
McFarland said the offense’s resiliency has given even more meaning to the Bulls’ final two games.
“Well, that means we can win these last two games so we can get to that bowl,” McFarland said. “We can play with any team.”
Reiter said the Bulls and Johnson would not be denied on a fourth down run on the crucial drive.
“I remember blocking my guy and I look to my right and see the pile starting and I see two of our guys in there,” Reiter said. “I look down the line real quick and I see the first down marker and I think to myself ‘Oh crap, we better get this one.’ So I went full steam right into that pile and just kept pushing it.”
USF (4-6, 3-3) will play Memphis on Saturday at 4 p.m. at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.