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Halfway through USF’s football season, some significant questions linger

Tampa Bay Times logo Tampa Bay Times 10/21/2020 By Joey Knight, Tampa Bay Times
a group of football players on the field: USF tailback Johnny Ford leads the Bulls with 685 all-purpose yards in five games. © Luis Santana/Times/Tampa Bay Times/TNS USF tailback Johnny Ford leads the Bulls with 685 all-purpose yards in five games.

TAMPA — Depending on your current perspective as a USF fan, the following point of fact will be considered a blessing or bummer.

We’ve reached the halfway point of the Bulls' disrupted football season.

Unless the postponed game at Florida Atlantic can be rescheduled for December (still plausible), the Bulls will play a pandemic-shortened slate of 10 games. To this point, things have transpired according to preseason forecasts: USF has struggled to find stability at quarterback, has suffered from a glaring lack of depth at some positions and is feeling the effects of trying to shoehorn a new system and verbiage into an abbreviated offseason.

Which is to say, 1-4 isn’t terribly surprising. But what can the final half of the season teach us? Here are five questions we still have about the inaugural year of the Jeff Scott era.

1. Can Jordan McCloud become the long-term answer at quarterback?

The knee-jerk reaction (at least by many Bulls observers) is no, and McCloud’s three fumbles at Temple certainly didn’t help his cause. But from a passing perspective, he’s on a sparkling two-game stretch (41-for-61, 480 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions). As elusiveness goes, McCloud — who has been sacked eight times in the past two weeks — never will be mistaken for Quinton Flowers, and dual-threat ability is pretty much a prerequisite in 2020. The next five games could be pivotal for his future.

a baseball player swinging a bat at a ball: USF quarterback Jordan McCloud passes late in the second half of the Bulls' 44-24 loss to East Carolina on Oct. 10 at Raymond James Stadium. © Luis Santana/Times/Tampa Bay Times/TNS USF quarterback Jordan McCloud passes late in the second half of the Bulls' 44-24 loss to East Carolina on Oct. 10 at Raymond James Stadium.

2. Any evidence the Jeff Scott/Charlie Weis Jr. offense will work?

Saturday’s 39-37 loss at Temple offered the most tangible proof the Bulls are starting to get their bearings in this up-tempo scheme. USF is averaging 69 plays a game (about five more per contest than last season), and 72.5 in their last two contests. Bear in mind, Scott and Weis had no spring and an abbreviated offseason in which to install their system. Toss in the fact Weis is 27 and Scott is a first-year head coach, and it’s naive to believe the Bulls would click an all cylinders from the outset. As these guys find their rhythm, so will the offense.

3. Are there any blossoming stars around which the team can build for the future?

Let’s be candid: A lot of the players who will orchestrate this program’s turnaround probably aren’t on the roster yet. Still, 5-foot-5 sophomore Johnny Ford (28.2 yards per kick return) is evolving into one of the American Athletic Conference’s top all-purpose players, and former Tennessee receiver Latrell Williams (13 receptions, 159 yards) has brandished his promise in spurts. Defensively, sophomore Daquan Evans (13 tackles, one tackle for loss, one INT) has shined at corner, and freshman Mac Harris has been productive (23 tackles, INT) in the linebacker rotation.

4. Is there a kicker capable of a field goal of 40 yards or longer?

We presume. Perhaps the most astounding stat during USF’s two-year stretch of futility is its 29 consecutive games without a field goal of 40 yards or longer (dating to the 2018 opener). Arkansas transfer Jared Sackett, perfect on all six of his extra points so far, appears to be the guy going forward, but he hasn’t even attempted a long one yet. He enters the Tulsa game 2-for-3 with a long of 31 yards and a miss of 35.

5. Will this team truly remain united from start to finish?

Scott introduced that acronym (“United from Start to Finish”) as the Bulls' mantra on Day 1, and from what we’ve seen and heard, the team has remained cohesive amid its miserable start. For evidence, look no further than Saturday’s loss at Temple, when the Bulls responded after falling behind 10-0 early. That said, we’re not privy to practices or meetings, and it will be interesting to see how invested the players remain if this losing streak extends. Scott earned a lot of team trust when national protests for social justice were at their peak, joining the Bulls on the front line in a unity march in June. If he can keep the Bulls from fragmenting the rest of the way, that will represent a moral victory not to be undervalued.

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©2020 the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.)

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