After USF’s loss to Tulane last week, coach Charlie Strong said that he knew the team wasn’t prepared for the game in practice that Thursday.
He seemed to be the only one who saw the loss coming though.
Several players on the team said last week that there was high intensity and a lot of focus. One of them was wide receiver Stanley Clerveaux.
“The energy in practice today was pretty good, looking forward to getting ready for Tulane,” Clerveaux said last Tuesday.
But after the Bulls’ loss to Tulane, Clerveaux had a different view of practices leading up to the game.
“To be honest, in practice it’s just a feeling that we’re going through the motions, that’s what it is,” he said after losing to Tulane. “We’ve been going through the motions thinking that we can’t get beat…We’ve just got to tighten up.”
This week, players have been saying the same things about practices.
“I think today’s practice was really good,” wide receiver Tyre McCants said Tuesday. “There was a lot of energy…I think that after today’s practice with a lot of energy, we’ve put [the loss] behind us.”
On the defensive side of the ball, linebacker Josh Black also thought Tuesday’s practice went well.
“Today was very up tempo,” he said. “We’ve just got to get back to what we usually do — go out there and hit and just have fun.”
But what exactly has changed this week as the Bulls (7-2, 3-2) prepare for Cincinnati (8-1, 4-1), a team that showed its ability to score and play defense in last week’s 42-0 shutout against Navy?
This week, players are saying the same things about practices that they were saying last week, which led to a 41-15 loss against Tulane.
Can USF football fans expect a different result against a one-loss Cincinnati Bearcats team?
According to defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary, the practices this week have, in fact, been different. The team has been practicing with the first-team offense playing against the first-team defense — starters against starters.
“This is the way we should have been practicing all year,” Jean-Mary said Wednesday. “Our focus and our intensity has been a little better than it has been in practice the past couple weeks.”
The drawback to practicing this way, and the reason Jean-Mary said most teams don’t practice starters vs. starters, is because of another opponent USF has been battling lately — injuries.
Wide receiver Randall St. Felix, standout defensive back Mekhi LaPointe and linebacker Nico Sawtelle, among others, were out of the lineup against Tulane with injuries. The potential payoff is worth the risk, according to Jean-Mary.
“Most people don’t do that this time of year, obviously because you’re afraid of injury, but at this point, we’re just trying to change things and get things going,” Jean-Mary said. “It’s supposed to bring out a little higher-level competition. It doesn’t feel like it’s the [first string] unit versus the scout team.”
Another change that has happened in practice this week is some players stepping up as leaders. With such a young team — 30 freshmen have seen playing time this season — there has seemingly been a leadership void left by players like Auggie Sanchez, Deatrick Nichols and Quinton Flowers.
“Us seniors, we know it starts with us,” Black said. “We took charge today and made sure everybody was out there doing their job and just having fun while they’re out there.”
The defense’s vocal leader, Ronnie Hoggins, who was disappointed, yet optimistic for the rest of the season after the Tulane loss, has tried to step up and keep his team focused in games and in practice.
According to Jean-Mary, that’s been a tough task.
“It’s hard for [Hoggins] to do,” Jean-Mary said. “He can’t rally the troops every week…it’s hard for one guy, especially a guy that’s on the back end, to always have to go rally the front four and rally the linebackers and take care of his room…[Hoggins] does an unbelievable job, but we have to get more guys to step up.”
USF travels to Cincinnati to play Saturday at 7 p.m. on ESPNU.