Call it the “Collapsing of the Bulls.”
The South Florida Bulls were rolling last season at 7-0. At that point, they had won 28 of their previous 32 games.
But then … the Bulls lost a 57-36 shootout at Houston. The Bulls also blew a 17-0 lead in a 27-17 loss at Temple. And the skid never ended as the Bulls finished 7-6.
“What happened last year woke us up,” USF coach Charlie Strong told the Tampa Bay Times. “It woke up the whole program.”
Strong, who spent more than a decade as a Gators assistant coach and was also the head man at Louisville and Texas, reacted to last year’s collapse by bringing in former Florida star quarterback Kerwin Bell as offensive coordinator.
Bell was a head coach last year, leading Valdosta State to a Division II national title, averaging 52 points per game.
“He’s going to attack the field,” Strong said of Bell. “When he won that national title, I didn’t know if I could get him.”
Another former Gator — senior running back Jordan Cronkrite — last year became just the fifth Bulls player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. The former Miami Westminster Christian star played 24 games for the Gators before transferring, and he led the Bulls last year in rushing yards (1,121) and TDs (nine). He also tied the school record with five consecutive 100-yard games.
The quarterback is senior Blake Barnett, a former Alabama and Arizona State player who burned Illinois for 411 passing yards last year. He went 7-3 as a USF starter.
“This is the first time I’ve gone into camp as the starter,” said Barnett, a 6-5, 225-pounder.
USF also returns first-team American Athletic Conference tight end Mitchell Wilcox, four starting offensive linemen and explosive wide receivers Johnny Ford, Michigan transfer Eddie McDoom and Randall St. Felix, who averaged 20.6 yards per catch last year.
Wilcox set school records for tight ends with 43 catches and 540 yards.
Ford averaged 6.8 yards per rush last season — ranking 12th nationally. He’s a former Miami High star and the cousin of Hurricanes defensive back Robert Knowles.
St. Felix, who is from Miami Krop, ranked ninth nationally in yards per catch while topping USF with 679 receiving yards.
Six starters return on defense, and there are 13 players on that side of the ball who have starting experience.
In addition, the Bulls got transfers from Notre Dame (senior safety Devin Studstill); Oklahoma State (senior linebacker Patrick Macon); North Carolina (junior defensive back KJ Sails); and Ohio State (senior defensive end Darius Slade).
Among the returning starters on defense, senior end Greg Reaves — a former walk-on who had 21 tackles for losses and 140 total stops the past two years — is the top pass-rusher.
Starting middle linebacker Nico Sawtelle (29 career starts) returns from injury — the team fell apart last year right after he got hurt — and junior cornerback Mike Hampton ranked ninth nationally with 18 passes defensed. That statistic is one short of the USF record, and it helped land Hampton on the watch list for the Thorpe Award, which is given to the nation’s top defensive back.
“It’s a big achievement,” Hampton told USF’s website about making the watch list. “I’ve been aiming for this since I got here.”
Hampton is one of four Bulls on national watch lists, joining senior right tackle Marcus Norman (Outland for best lineman); junior kicker Coby Weiss (Groza); and tight end Wilcox (Mackey).
USF’s schedule was difficult immediately as 17th-ranked Wisconsin visited Aug. 30. It’s the highest-ranked season-opening opponent for USF since the Bulls beat No. 16 Notre Dame in 2011.
“This is what we signed up for,” Barnett said of the big game. “We want these opportunities.”