The starters are experienced, but the depth is a problem and they had a lot of trouble with the only big-time passing game they saw last year. Can the USF secondary stop allowing plays and start making them?
There are three weeks left until the South Florida Bulls open their 2011 football season at Notre Dame, which gives us just enough time to present a complete USF Football Prospectus. Each Thursday, we'll review one segment of the team -- looking back at its history, studying how it performed in 2010, and talking about what to expect from it in 2011.
So far we've covered the entire offense, including the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and the offensive line. On defense, we've covered the defensive line and linebackers, and today we'll take a look at the defensive backs.
USF'S DEFENSIVE BACK HISTORY
The Bulls have placed more defensive backs in the NFL than from any other position, including their longest-tenured NFL player and maybe the best Bull currently in the pros.
Anthony Henry was one of the original recruits in 1996, and when he moved from safety to cornerback before his senior year in 2000, it was pretty clearly a move that would help his NFL prospects. (The story of how he managed to get himself eligible for that season is impressive enough. He had to take 22 credit hours in the spring semester -- almost doubling the 12 credit hours you need to be considered a full-time student -- to gain an extra year of eligibility. Oh, and in his spare time he learned a new position at spring practice.) He ended up with more interceptions (five) than the rest of the defense (four) in 2000, then was drafted in the fourth round of the 2001 draft by the Cleveland Browns, where he picked off 10 passes as a rookie. Henry played nine years in the league, and was on the 2008 Dallas Cowboys with Mike Jenkins, making them the first pair of USF players on the same NFL team.
J.R. Reed followed in the lineage of great USF safeties. He is the school record-holder with 18 interceptions, and he made more big plays than there is space here to recount them. In his last college game in 2003, Reed turned in the greatest one-game performance in USF history, single-handedly winning a game at Memphis with three interceptions, a kickoff return for a touchdown, and a fumble return for a touchdown. The Bulls were outgained by over 250 yards, but knocked off the Tigers 21-16 thanks to Reed's heroics. The Philadelphia Eagles drafted Reed in the fourth round of the 2004 NFL draft, but a freak injury after his rookie year derailed his pro career.
When the Bulls gained some national prominence in 2006 and 2007, it was helped along by an outstanding pair of cornerbacks. Mike Jenkins was so difficult for teams to deal with that they stopped throwing the ball towards him, which allowed Trae Williams to clean up the takeaways. Williams had 16 interceptions in his USF career, and ran four of them back for touchdowns (including three straight in 2007). Even though he didn't get as much action, Jenkins was highly regarded enough to be named first-team All-American by the AFCA in 2007, and became the Bulls' first-ever first round NFL Draft pick when the Cowboys selected him in 2008. He also became USF's first Pro Bowler after the 2009 season.
Joining them in 2007 was safety Nate Allen. Allen didn't make as many eye-popping plays as Jenkins or Williams or Reed, but he was one of the most dependable and rock-solid players the Bulls have ever had. Coverages may have been blown, or tackles missed, or dumb penalties taken, but you always knew Allen wasn't going to be the one who did any of it. He also had a knack for clutch plays, including an interception of Todd Reesing and runback into field goal range that set up a last-second field goal in USF's 37-34 win over Kansas in 2008 when both teams were ranked. Allen was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft and lined up as their starting free safety on opening day, where he continued playing well until an injury ended his season early.
These are the highest-profile defensive backs in USF history, but before moving on, let's also remember some other notable Bulls DBs, like Bernard Brown, Roy Manns, Kevin Verpaele (or as Brad Nessler always mispronounced it in EA's NCAA football games for PlayStation 2, "VER-pay-EEE-lay"), Maurice Tucker, Ron Hemingway, D'Juan Brown, and Jerome Murphy.
USF'S DEFENSIVE BACKS IN 2010
After losing two NFL draft picks (Allen and Murphy) from the 2009 team, the secondary needed a bit of a rebuild last season. Strong safety and human wrecking ball Jon Lejiste moved over to free safety to make room for Jerrell Young, while Mistral Raymond was promoted into the starting lineup opposite returning cornerback Quenton Washington. All things considered, they were a successful if frustrating unit to watch, for reasons that were usually out of their control.
The good news is that teams rarely beat USF deep in the passing game. The bad news is that teams often beat USF short in the passing game, which kept drives and ball control going. (An interesting stat from Bill Connolly's Football Study Hall and SB Nation posts about the Bulls -- their defense was top-20 in preventing big plays on standard downs, but bottom-20 on passing downs.)
Maybe the secondary wasn't a ball-hawking unit on its own, but more often it was a conscious decision to play deeper coverage and not allow really long passes. With an inconsistent pass rush, quarterbacks had time to find receivers, so defensive coordinator Mark Snyder had to give up small and medium plays in order to prevent big ones. Fortunately, this plan worked out, because only one of USF's opponents in 2010 had a high-powered passing game to attack the secondary with. But that one opponent (Cincinnati) rang up 590 total yards, the most the Bulls have ever allowed in a game, and quarterback Zach Collaros set the opponent individual passing record with 463 yards. Only the defense's ability to keep the Bearcats out of the end zone from close range and possibly a late-game injury to Collaros allowed USF to escape with a win.
The secondary didn't generate many turnovers, either. They only made 10 interceptions in 13 games, and the cornerbacks combined for a grand total of three (one each by Washington, Raymond, and George Baker).
DEFENSIVE BACKS OUTLOOK FOR 2011
That Cincinnati game could be a harbinger of bad times to come if the Bulls have to continue using bend-but-don't-break coverages. Teams like Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and UTEP are going to fill the air with footballs this season, and they will have no trouble picking soft coverages apart and moving up and down the field all game long. The secondary may have more freedom to play tighter if the pass rush improves. But they will have to start making plays and turning the ball over to keep some games from turning into shootouts, or worse, blowout losses.
While three of the four starters from last year return (Raymond is being replaced by nickel back Kayvon Webster), the depth at corner could be an issue, especially in situations where the Bulls must use six or seven defensive backs. There were injury problems during spring, preventing Ricardo Dixon and Spencer Boyd from fully participating. Skip Holtz has already talked about the potential for incoming freshmen Kenneth Durden and C.J. Garye to play right away. In fact, walk-on Ernie Tabuteau, who has never played a down of college football, is currently listed as Washington's backup at right cornerback on the depth chart. He really could be that good, but we won't know until we actually see it happening on the field. And that goes for all the players who will be competing for nickel and dime assignments. Defensive back is going to be an area of concern with the USF defense until we have enough evidence to stop worrying about it.