With a new defensive back coach and a new safeties coaches, the USF secondary is set to look drastically different in 2019. For a defense that ranked 104th in FBS in total defense in 2018, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
But it’s not about past failures for new defensive backs coach Steve Ellis. It’s about now.
“My goal is to come in and don’t worry about last year,” Ellis said. “I’m just worried about Feb. 10th, when I started. My biggest focus, being right now, ‘Hey, how can we get better?’”
Part of the secondary getting better will ride on the success of redshirt sophomore Bentlee Sanders.
Sanders attributes the success he’s having this spring to maturing.
“[I’m] becoming more of a leader and getting into my playbook more and just making sure I’m on my ‘P's’ and ‘Q’s’ and always making sure I’m in the right spot,” Sanders said. “I was immature and I’m starting to mature more, so the more I grow, the more I’ll be better and grow more.”
Ellis agreed that Sanders is maturing, and with that maturity comes accountability.
“He’s playing multiple positions,” Ellis said. “He’s a kid that’s really explosive … great ball skills. The biggest thing about Bentlee, now, he’s been a great leader for the group. I think he’s maturing. And the more he matures, the more plays he’ll make and the more he’ll be accountable. Because at the end of the day, it’s all about accountability, toughness — that equals trust. And the more you can trust him, the more a player will be accountable for our defense.”
But it’s not just the defensive backs that have a different coach.
Bryan Hill, formerly a defensive quality control assistant, has taken over as safeties coach, but his goal remains the same.
“It has been a dream come true,” Hill said. “When I talked with coach [Charlie] Strong, I said, ‘The role may change, but the goal’s the same.’ So my role within the program is a little bit different, but the goal to come out here and win and develop young men on a consistent basis is still the same.”
Much like Ellis is doing with players like Sanders, Hill is having his players train at multiple positions. The best of the best can do it all, according to Hill.
“If you come in and you just play corner, you kind of limit yourself,” Hill said. “Or you just play safety, you kind of limit yourself. And so, it’s fun to watch, especially with a young group, guys take reps at the boundary safety or the field safety and then move them down to nickel and see how they progress.”
One of those cross-training players is redshirt sophomore Nick Roberts. Last year, Roberts played free safety. In 2019, Roberts is at strong safety and is also working at nickelback.
“Fundamentally, you can just see him improve,” Hill said. “Through nonpractices, he’s gotten better each and every day.”
It’s not only new positions for the USF secondary this year. There are also new schemes, which is the biggest difference between 2018 and 2019 for Sanders.
“We’ll show something and then we’ll get out of it,” Sanders said. “Mess with the quarterback’s head a little bit, so they never know what is going on.”
It won’t be known until the fall whether the new-look USF secondary is successful, but one thing is certain. There are plenty of reasons it should be, and that’s why Ellis is at USF now.
“First of all, Charlie Strong,” Ellis said. “I mean, what a great man, great football coach. One of the top defensive minds in the country … and the next thing is South Florida. We’re in the state of Florida — a great recruiting base, one of the largest state schools in the country, great weather, great players … they don’t need a roadmap to find the quarterback and they don’t need [a] GPS to track down the football.
“So, Charlie Strong and South Florida. That’s why Steve Ellis is here right now.”