USF’s defense featured four players last season who are now playing in the NFL. There were clear-cut leaders from each defensive unit.
Deadrin Senat was taken by the Atlanta Falcons in the third round of this year’s NFL Draft. Bruce Hector signed the largest guaranteed contract of all undrafted free agents with the Philadelphia Eagles. The duo commanded the defensive line for USF last year.
Deatrick Nichols was an all-conference cornerback for the Bulls who is now playing with the Arizona Cardinals in the preseason. Defensive end Mike Love is looking to make the final roster for the Buffalo Bills.
And of course there is USF’s all-time leading tackler, Auggie Sanchez. The Bulls’ former linebacker and defensive captain tried out for the New York Giants, but ultimately elected to start coaching as a graduate assistant with former USF coach Willie Taggart at FSU.
This time around, there’s uncertainty for the Bulls about who will step up to lead the defense, but one player has set himself apart from the rest — senior cornerback Ronnie Hoggins.
“One guy we can hang our hat on is Ronnie Hoggins,” defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary said. “He’s kinda taken over the leadership role since those guys left, which makes sense because he’s going into his third year as a starter.”
The title of defensive captain wasn’t automatically bestowed to Hoggins because he’s the oldest or because he’s played the most, though.
“He’s earned that right to go up in front of the defense and be the leader of that group,” Jean-Mary said. “He’s got the most experience and he’s battle tested, but we’ve got some other guys we’re hoping to step up, obviously in the linebacker role and d-line. It’s not just (Hoggins) by himself.”
Hoggins hasn’t shied away from the new responsibility. In fact, he’s embraced it.
“Being a leader on this defense is a huge role and it’s a role I’m willing to take,” Hoggins said. “It’s just the next guy up. Coach Strong always says we reload here, so we’re just reloaded and we’ve got to step up and find those roles.”
While Hoggins is taking Sanchez’s leadership role on the defense, junior Nico Sawtelle is taking over Sanchez’s middle linebacker position.
“I can always be better,” Sawtelle said. “I need to be more vocal, but as a team we’re coming together.”
Sawtelle ranked fourth on the team in tackles last season with 54. He added a pair of interceptions and a fumble recovery.
Another addition to USF’s defense is DeAngelo Antoine, who played wide receiver last season. He missed five games due to a leg injury, but caught 11 passes for 168 yards in the seven games he played. In fall camp, Antoine has been working with the secondary on defense.
“He (Antoine) is a natural athlete,” Jean-Mary said. “You can see flashes of athletic ability, now he just has to catch up on the technique and the fundamental part of it right now.”
Hoggins said Antoine played defense in high school, but was recruited as a wide receiver.
“I thought he was coming in as a DB,” Hoggins said. “It actually surprised me when they recruited him and put him at receiver….He’s actually made the transition well because it’s a natural position for him.”
Even though there are plenty of experienced players on defense, Hoggins and Jean-Mary both highlighted the younger players who are making an impact during fall camp.
“We’re a young team,” Jean-Mary said. “We’ve been happy with all the freshmen, we’re still trying to see where they fit in the depth chart, we had several that came in early and had a chance to go through spring practice.”
Defensive ends Stacy Kirby and Tony Grier along with linebacker Dwayne Boyles are all freshmen who have benefitted from coming to USF for spring practices.
“They’re a little bit ahead of the others,” Jean-Mary said. “The other freshmen have done a good job and they’re battling to catch up and learn the playbook.”
For freshmen and veteran players alike, Hoggins has one goal for the Bulls this season.
“Winning. Winning this conference championship,” Hoggins said. “That’s something we really want to do and we’ve never done it before…For me, it’s the final curtain call, so we’re going to make it a really good one.”