Coming off the best season in program history, USF football is finally beginning to attract the attention and expectations it has craved since the Bulls won seven of nine to close the 2015 season.
The Bulls are sure to begin the season nationally ranked, season ticket sales are on the rise and Saturday’s spring game drew what the school estimates to be over 4,000 fans.
While many fans are expecting USF to return to national prominence like it was under former coach Jim Leavitt, most likely don’t know exactly how the Bulls will reach their destination.
With a new coaching staff headed by Charlie Strong in place and two of its most important offensive weapons off to the NFL, the 2017 Bulls are far from predictable.
After witnessing spring practices, scrimmages and the spring game, these are The Oracle’s fall predictions for USF football.
Valdes-Scantling breaks receiving record(s)
Playing alongside Rodney Adams last season, Marquez Valdes-Scantling caught 22 passes for 415 yards and five touchdowns. Valdes-Scantling served as a dangerous outside weapon that forced defenses to pay attention to both sides of the field.
Adams benefitted with a season in which he tied his own record for the most receiving yards (822) in school history and broke the record for most receptions in a season (67).
Why it will happen: With Adams graduated and primed for the NFL Draft, Valdes-Scantling steps up as the No. 1 option for quarterback Quinton Flowers in 2017.
In the Bulls’ spring game on Saturday, Valdes-Scantling far outpaced all other USF receivers on both the stat sheet and the highlight reel. The senior receiver hauled in seven catches for 123 yards and two touchdowns.
USF’s receiving corps is deep this season, but Valdes-Scantling represents the best option in what the coaching staff has described as an even faster offense than it was in 2016.
Why it won’t happen: All things considered, 822 yards and 67 receptions aren’t outlandish numbers to shoot for, even if the Bulls are deepest at the receiver position than any other unit.
There are several options for Flowers this season, and if he finds a rhythm early with another receiver such as Deangelo Antoine — the expected slot receiver replacement for Adams — then Valdes-Scantling could struggle to get enough touches to compete with Adams’ records.
Mack and Watts will be best
On established teams with veterans littered throughout the roster, it can difficult for freshmen to earn playing time, let alone make an impact.
In 2016, freshmen didn’t play a major role in USF’s record-breaking season, but tight end Mitchell Wilcox and defensive end Kirk Livingstone stood out and contributed all season long.
Elijah Mack: Despite depth at running back in 2017, the departure of USF’s other Mack to the NFL opens up opportunity for the redshirt freshman.
While Mack will likely start the season behind seniors D’Ernest Johnson and Darius Tice, it wouldn’t be unlikely to find Mack getting significant snaps at the end of games.
In USF’s annual spring game on Saturday, Mack was the lead back for the winning Green team and had the most touches of any running back. On 14 attempts, he rushed for 60 yards.
With both Johnson and Tice gone after 2017, USF will have to find replacements for both its lead and secondary running backs.
It would be smart for the Bulls to have an experienced player waiting in the wings, and after a spring that had coaches raving, all signs point to it being Mack.
Craig Watts: Ranked as a 4-star recruit and the third-best safety in Florida in his recruiting class, Craig Watts redshirted last year, but looks to add some sorely needed athleticism to a Bulls defense that was the team’s Achilles heel in 2016.
Even though he’s yet to see game action, Watts has already made an impression on the practice fields. Coaches tried him as both a safety and defensive back this spring in an attempt to find more ways to get him on the field.
Despite there being several talented veterans ahead of him on the depth chart, expect Watts’ talent to earn him ample playing time this fall.
Offensive line will be Bulls’ worst position group
It’s tough to knock an offensive line that helped block for two of the best rushers in school history in Quinton Flowers and Marlon Mack, but this unit could be a cause for concern for USF.
The Bulls lose their starting left guard and center from 2016 in Jeremi Hall and Cameron Ruff, respectively.
Why it will happen: Replacing two seasoned starters is no small task, and if spring practices were any sign, the Bulls will have their hands full. With Mack now gone, the offensive line will have to be better than ever. Countless times, Mack turned what should have been a loss into a first down, and relying on Johnson to replicate that is expecting too much.
Throughout the spring, USF’s offensive line was sluggish and clearly struggled to adjust to offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s even more up-tempo play style.
Learning and adjusting to a new offense always takes some time, but USF’s offensive line can’t afford to struggle while it protects the Bulls’ most valuable commodity.
Why it won’t happen: USF has had significant turnover on the offensive line over the past few seasons, and it hasn’t suffered because of it. With dynamic runners in Flowers and Johnson still in the backfield, the offense will still put up similar numbers as last season.
USF plays an almost embarrassingly easy schedule next year, and so its offensive line won’t face the Power-5 behemoths who have given the Bulls trouble in the past.