USF enters the 2018 season with a rather difficult question to answer — how does it replace the best player in program history?
Former USF quarterback Quinton Flowers — now trying to make the Cincinnati Bengals’ 53-man roster — set a total of 42 USF records and finished his career as the top-rushing quarterback in Florida FBS history.
In his three years as a starter at USF, he surpassed the University of Florida’s Tim Tebow (2,947) by 725 rushing yards in 12 fewer games played.
Flowers’ production cannot be replaced by just one man. The Bulls will likely find the answer from multiple positions, not just quarterback. Coach Charlie Strong understands this is just the nature of college football.
“You lose a good player, but there’s guys in the program. Now it’s their turn and their opportunity,” Strong said. “You always look at it like this — you’re going to have some really good players that are going to pass through, but there are going to be other good players that are going to come behind them.”
It’s a three-man competition to replace Flowers at quarterback between junior Brett Kean, sophomore Chris Oladokun and graduate transfer Blake Barnett.
Offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Sterlin Gilbert has been looking for Flowers’ replacement.
He isn’t necessarily looking for someone who can replace Flowers.
“We’re looking for a guy that can manage the game for us — (that) can go out and execute what we ask him to do,” Gilbert said. “Whatever helps us win on Saturday is what we want at quarterback.”
The Bulls’ coaching staff has been tight-lipped about the quarterback competition. Last Thursday, however, Spectrum Sports reported that Barnett was named the week-one starter.
Barnett will be USF’s starting quarterback for its opener Saturday against Elon. It will be the first time since Nov. 28, 2014 the Bulls won’t be led by Flowers.
Though Barnett has been named the starter against Elon, it’s still unclear which quarterback will end up leading the offense. The starting quarterback for the first game may not be the starting quarterback later in the season.
After playing a few games, Kean or Oladokun could find themselves at the helm of the offense.
Even though it’s still unclear how the quarterback battle will shape up through the year, a CBS Sports reporter predicted Barnett would become the Bulls’ starter, lead them to their first conference championship and become the best quarterback in the AAC.
Barnett arrived at USF in May as a graduate transfer with two years of eligibility remaining after earning a bachelor’s degree at Arizona State in the spring. Originally a consensus five-star recruit at Alabama out of high school, Barnett transferred to Arizona State after appearing in three games in 2016 for the Crimson Tide, completing 11 of 19 passing attempts for 219 yards.
With the Sun Devils in 2017, Barnett appeared in four games, completing three of five passes for 40 yards. According to Barnett, the ability to compete for a starting job was key in deciding to transfer to USF.
“I just was looking for that opportunity,” Barnett said. “Coach Strong presented me with an opportunity to compete and that’s all I could ask for.”
Kean spent the last two seasons as the second-string quarterback on the USF depth chart and appeared in 14 games, completing 25 of 37 passing attempts for 193 yards and two touchdowns.
Kean’s offseason was marked by controversy, however. A report from The Daily Stampede on July 10 indicated that Kean had been ruled academically ineligible by the NCAA for the first four games of 2018. A month later, Strong announced that Kean had been cleared by the NCAA and would not have to sit any games.
“I’m just excited to now just focus on football,” Kean said. “At that point, I couldn’t control it, so I was just coming (to practice) and working as hard as I could and letting what happened take place.”
Oladokun has only appeared in two games for USF, both in 2017 — completing his only passing attempt on Sept. 30 against East Carolina for 12 yards and one rushing attempt for one yard on Oct. 14 against Cincinnati. Oladokun attended Sickles High School and is one of USF’s 34 players from the Tampa Bay Area.
“It’d mean a lot (to be USF’s starting quarterback),” Oladokun said. “Growing up here, that’s always been my dream. But you can sort of get caught up in that — being from the Bay Area and having so many people here — so, I’ve just been trying to stay grounded, stay focused, get better and compete every day.”
Though the competition for the starting quarterback position may have been intense on the field, the quarterbacks insisted they are all good friends.
“We have a great friendship,” Barnett said. “It’s been really nice to be here, to get along with these guys and still be able to compete with them on a day-to-day basis … and help each other and coach each other and learn all together.”
While the Bulls will only need to find one replacement for Flowers’ passing abilities, the USF run game may require multiple replacements. The Bulls lose not only Flowers, but also their top two running backs from 2017, Darius Tice and D’Ernest Johnson. The two backs combined for over 1,800 yards in 2017, scoring a combined 18 touchdowns.
Much like the quarterback competition, the USF coaching staff has been quiet on the frontrunners for the running back position. Sophomore Elijah Mack and juniors Jordan Cronkrite and Trevon Sands could all get carries this season, though it remains to be seen which running back —or backs— will take the roles left by Tice and Johnson.
“(Johnson) and Tice, they were great leaders,” Sands said. “They taught (us to) push each other. No matter what. Always root for the other person, whether you’re on or off the field, no matter what. On and off the field, I’m going to push my brothers. They left a great example — some big shoes to fill, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to fill those shoes.”
Of the returning running backs, Sands led all rushers with 114 yards on 26 attempts in 2017.
Despite having to replace rushing leaders, running back coach Shaun King believes that competition like this is how a program thrives.
“(We have) a room full of talented guys — they’re working hard,” King said. “They’re supporting each other. It’s competition. I think the characteristics of a really good program, a program that’s becoming a consistently elite program, is when you have a lot of competition. And that’s what we have at running back.”
Flowers accounted for about 65 percent of USF’s total offense last season, no matter who steps up to fill that role, it’s likely going to take a while for both fans and players to adjust to the absence of No. 9.
“It’s definitely an adjustment,” junior tight end Mitchell Wilcox said. “You count on (Flowers) to make so many plays for us. It’s just different. Other guys (have) got to step up and make plays.”