Rowe, defensive backs preparing for difficult road test next week

USF defensive backs coach James Rowe brings NFL experience to a Bulls secondary that struggled at times last season. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

USF defensive backs coach James Rowe expressed confidence in his positional group at a press conference Thursday ahead of next Saturday’s season opener at Western Kentucky, yet reaffirmed that more work is still to come.

“I think I might have the deepest group on the team. There’s a lot of older guys in the room, we’re going to find creative ways to get them on the field and give them roles in the game,” Rowe said. 

Rowe has an eye for what makes a strong secondary given his NFL pedigree. Rowe served as the defensive backs coach for the Chicago Bears in 2022, also spending time as an assistant coach with the then-Washington Redskins from 2015 to 2017.

His leadership and defensive expertise has served as a model for a young Bulls’ secondary, who heavily struggled at times last season. 

Sophomore safety Jaelen Stokes talked about the changes that a former NFL coach brings to the team. 

“You have to adjust to the different terminology because he came from a higher up system. Everything seems different,” Stokes said.

For the Bulls’ defense, different may not be a bad thing. USF allowed 516.5 yards per game last season, ranking last in the FBS. They also had the second-worst scoring defense in the country, allowing 41.2 points per game. 

Throughout fall camp, what Rowe has been emphasizing is to read the quarterback’s tendencies and watch their eyes. By doing so, the defensive back can make certain areas on the field harder to throw to. 

“[Rowe] tells us how to read a quarterback’s eyes,” Berryhill said. “Make the quarterback play off of you, and then make the quarterback throw the ball where you want it.” 

Western Kentucky has become known for its prolific passing attack over the last couple of seasons. In 2021, Hilltoppers quarterback Bailey Zappe led the nation with an astounding 5,967 yards through the air. The following season, junior Western Kentucky quarterback Austin Reed also led the country with 4,744 passing yards and 40 touchdowns. 

Reed, who is returning as the Hilltoppers starting quarterback, was named to the All-Conference USA second team in 2022. He was also named to the Manning Award Watch List and Maxwell Award Watch List, which is annually given to the best quarterback and player in college football, respectively. 

Rowe noted Reed’s skill set and the difficulties it could pose for the Bulls.

“I feel like he always knows where to go with the ball. He’s a really good decision maker, he’s accurate and has good arm strength. He’s got the total package,” Rowe said. 

Sophomore safety Jaelen Stokes sees Western Kentucky’s preference for throwing the ball as a perfect opportunity for the secondary to make plays. 

“We definitely love that as a defensive back room, we’ve looked forward to preparing for that for the past two weeks,” Stokes said.

“We have to be elite in how we take the ball, we’re trying to lead the country [in interceptions].”  

Junior safety Logan Berryhill mirrored that sentiment as well.

“Elite is the standard, everything we do has to be elite,” Berryhill said.

South Florida will kick off their season at Western Kentucky on Sept. 2 at 3:30 p.m. and will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network (CBSSN).