As newly hired coach Charlie Strong stood at the podium for his first National Signing Day press conference at USF, he looked far from ecstatic.
Maybe it was the stress that accompanies signing day coupled with the exhaustion that follows. Or maybe it’s just his personality.
What can be said for certain is that Strong strung together a solid list of signees in a rather short time to pull USF from the depths of the AAC recruiting rankings and finish fifth in the conference Wednesday — USF was ranked 12th in the AAC by 247Sports as recent as Wednesday morning.
After succeeding Willie Taggart, who was able to secure two recruiting crowns in the conference in five attempts, questions circled Strong.
He had the task of fusing together a scattered class in just seven weeks, much like Taggart did after being hired in December of 2012.
Despite the concerns, Strong did just that.
“We were just behind in getting to know the recruits and building that relationship,” Strong said. “We had to go in there and try to change some of their minds there at the last second and some we were successful in doing, some we weren’t.
“You really don’t know until that paper comes in on the fax machine what you’re going to get, but we were able to really get some good ones today.”
Pulling recruits from all over Florida, including Taggart’s coveted Bay area, Strong signed 18 additions to an already talented, 11-win team.
The first letter of intent rolled into the fax machine in the Lee Roy Selmon Athletic Center before 8 a.m. from 6-foot-5, 201-pound tight end Frederick Lloyd.
From there, the faxes kept pouring in, with USF adding 10 recruits by 11 a.m.
The class was highlighted by a trio of players from state champion Carol City High School in Miami.
Defensive backs Donelle Thomas (2-star) and Naytron Culpepper (3-star), along with receiver Kevin Dingle, made their surprise commitment together on CBS Sports Network midway through the day, bolstering Strong’s class.
Dingle, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound 3-star recruit, was ranked as the No. 14 receiver in the state after catching 44 passes for 753 yards and five touchdowns in his senior year.
Another standout hails from Jefferson High School in Tampa. 6-foot-4, 285-pound offensive lineman Jean Marcellus (3-star) stayed committed to USF throughout the recruiting cycle, even with the departure of Taggart.
“He’s a really great coach,” Marcellus said of Strong. “I think he will bring the toughness out of USF and bring USF back to where it used to be. And if I can help make that happen in any way, I’m going to.”
From Jacksonville to Miami to here in Tampa, Strong showed he could scour the state in search of the high school gems and compete with other schools, much like his predecessor.
But it wasn’t just about checking the boxes in certain regions.
Strong’s staff added a fair amount of depth in this class in key places such as the offensive line, which was decimated by injuries last year, and the secondary, which lost seniors Johnny Ward, Lamar Robbins, Nate Godwin and Jalen Spencer.
One of those defensive back signees was Nick Roberts, a 3-star corner from Oakleaf High School. Some recruiting services are deeming Roberts as the gem of this class, with the possibility of taking over the No. 1 corner spot after the departure of senior Deatrick Nichols following next season.
But to his credit, Strong didn’t just piggyback off of Taggart’s efforts, at least not completely.
Sure a lot of the guys were already in place upon his arrival, but he had to allure these young talents to stick with the up-and-coming program.
“Just coming off an 11-win season was really a great selling point for us and talking about the direction of the program,” Strong said. “Everything is so positive right now, so it wasn’t real hard to sell what we needed to sell.”
Some recruits left. Some, like key target Bruce Judson, followed Taggart to the west coast. But most stayed the course.
Duran Bell Jr., a 2-star, two-way athlete from Hillsborough High School, said he was close to de-committing once USF swapped coaches, but Strong won him over.
“He’s a great person honestly,” Bell Jr. said. “He’s more like a father-figure type of guy. He’s real laid back and he means what he says and I like that about a coach.”
Others, like 3-star defensive back Bentlee Sanders out of Tampa Catholic High School, welcomed the change, citing the defensive mind of Strong as a big selling point.
“It’s fine with me,” Sanders said of the change. “Coach Strong is a great person, a great person to talk to, a great coach I’ve heard and I can’t wait.
“And he’s a defensive coach, which makes it even better for me because he’s going to get me even closer to where I want to get, which is the NFL.”
With arguably the most stressful leg of the offseason behind him, Strong now looks to spring practice, which begins March 6.
“Spring ball will be hitting us in the face before you know,” Strong said. “But we have a few weeks before we get to it, so we’re gonna have to really go.”
-Additional reporting by Vinnie Portell