Jamie Byrd’s switch to husky paying off for USF

Senior Jamie Byrd leads the Bulls with four sacks, all of which have come in his last two games.

USF husky Jamie Byrd doesn’t just hit opponents. He takes every ounce of his 185-pound compact frame and drives through them, pummeling them into the dirt.

SMU quarterback Matt Davis was his latest victim.

Midway through the second quarter of USF’s 38-14 rout of the Mustangs Saturday at Raymond James Stadium, Byrd came on a blitz off the right side completely untouched. Before Davis could take a breath, the air was forced out of his lungs by the crushing blow. 

It was the senior’s second sack of the day after he had forced Davis to fumble on the game’s opening drive. He now leads the Bulls with four sacks, all of which have occurred during the last two games.

Byrd likes to drop back in coverage, but has made one thing clear: he’s out there to take your head off. 

“The one great skill set that Jamie Byrd has is his courage on impact,” coach Willie Taggart said Tuesday. “He’s a small guy, but he will rattle the fillings in your mouth when he hits you. He’s not afraid to hit anybody.”

Byrd has played this way since his pee-wee days. It’s a mindset instilled in him by his father, Jamie Byrd Sr., a former standout at Pasco High in Dade City; where his son also played.

“I was always competing with my dad, wanting to be better than him and hit harder than him,” Byrd said. “He was a head hunter when he was in school, so I was always trying to be better than him and that pushed me to be the hardest hitter, no matter what league I played.”

Byrd said his crowning achievement was when his father told him he was a harder hitter than Byrd Sr. had been in his heyday.

“It felt great, because I had been working for that for so long,” Byrd said. “I try to improve every week, and him saying that I hit harder than him was like, ‘I’m finally here.’”

In Byrd’s year and a half at USF since transferring from Iowa Western Community College, he has led the Bulls with 145 tackles and four interceptions. But switching positions under first-year defensive coordinator Tom Allen almost derailed his success.

Under Allen’s 4-2-5 scheme, Byrd switched to a safety-linebacker hybrid called “husky” that plays close to the line of scrimmage rather than 15 or so yards back. Spending over a decade in the deep safety spot, Byrd was reluctant to make the change.

“I remember him coming into my office saying, ‘Coach, I appreciate you and I appreciate coach Allen, and I knowbut I think I could do a better job back on the back end and not at the husky position,’” Taggart said. “I was like, ‘Jamie, I appreciate you, but you’ve got to give it a chance first. Just give it a chance. This could really utilize your athletic ability. You could not only make a lot of tackles but you could get some sacks, some tackles for loss.’”

Taggart and Allen both reassured him and told him to trust them and the plays will come.

Byrd struggled early, but once he got a hold of the scheme, something clicked. Soon the position felt natural for him and his production on the field intensified even more.

Byrd has recorded four sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception during USF’s current three-game win streak. His play has been unrivaled and his teammates have taken notice.

“We joke around a lot (with him, saying), ‘I’m trying to lead the team in sacks. I’m trying to lead the team in picks,’” sophomore defensive back Tajee Fullwood said. “He’s real fast. He’s savvy, and everybody on the team loves him, because of how hard he works and how hard he pushes us.”

One thing that surprises Byrd is being left unblocked, something Davis probably wishes wouldn’t have happened on Saturday.

“It gives me that feeling though like, ‘Did they really just let me free? Is this real?’” Byrd said. “And then, it goes into slow motion like don’t make a mistake. I love it.”

Byrd said he is finally at ease in his new role, realizing its perks. It’s a vision Allen saw all along.

Now, USF is reaping the benefits.

“He can maneuver himself,” Allen said. “He accelerates when we gets close to the quarterback rather than slow down. I saw that on film, that’s why we put him here. 

“He fit the profile of what we wanted. He has a burst to the ball that you just can’t coach."

-Follow on Twitter @JacobHoagUSF