NEWPORT, R.I. – The moment Charlie Strong exited the podium after his final weekly news conference at the University of Texas, a swarm of his players enveloped him. They issued a rousing round of applause and formed a reception line for hugs to support their embattled coach. The moment immediately went viral, and one viewer was so captivated by the raw emotion he considered it a job interview. “That was all I really needed to see,” South Florida athletic director Mark Harlan said.
After Strong’s dismissal at Texas and Willie Taggart’s departure from USF to Oregon, Harlan worked quickly to secure Strong as the Bulls’ next head coach. Harlan needed only to know if Strong was ready to jump immediately back into coaching: “His line was, ‘I can’t watch Jerry Springer anymore,’ ” Harlan recalled with a laugh on Tuesday. “He was ready to get back at it.”
Strong’s arrival at South Florida provides one of the most fascinating storylines in college football this season. He jumps from the relentless spotlight of one of the sport’s elite jobs into a job so ripe with potential that Las Vegas is expected to make USF a favorite to win every game.
Will the next time the college football world sees Strong enveloped in a group hug come at the conclusion of an undefeated season? Don’t bet against it. Strong inherits 16 returning starters from a team that went 11-2 in 2016, including American Athletic Conference Player of the Year Quinton Flowers. Along with it comes a non-conference schedule lined with goose feathers – at San Jose State, Stony Brook, Illinois and UMass. (The Bulls also miss Memphis, which is picked to win the AAC’s West Division).
Count on Strong looking more like the coach who went 23-3 his final two years at Louisville, as opposed to the one who sputtered through a 16-21 mark during his three years in Austin.
When South Florida opens at San Jose State on Aug. 26, Strong will take the field with two key assets he lacked during a majority of his tenure at Texas – a distinct offensive identity and an established quarterback. Without a clear offensive identity, Texas flailed through its first two seasons under Strong. By the time Sterlin Gilbert installed a hyper-tempo spread last season and freshman quarterback Shane Buechele arrived, Texas couldn’t win enough games.
At USF, Strong inherited a player who established himself as the country’s most devastating dual-threat quarterback not named Lamar Jackson. Flowers passed for more than 2,800 yards, rushed for 1,530 and accounted for 42 touchdowns. Count Flowers as a Heisman darkhorse, the latest in the line of quarterbacks from outside the Power Five – Colt Brennan (Hawaii), Kellen Moore (Boise State), Case Keenum (Houston), Colin Kaepernick (Nevada), Jordan Lynch (Northern Illinois) and Derek Carr (Fresno State) – poised to put up pinball numbers.
“If you look at the teams that are good in college football, they all have a quarterback,” Strong said. “When we were at Texas, Baylor had Bryce Petty. Oklahoma State has Mason Rudolph, and Oklahoma has Baker Mayfield. I think about A&M, [Kevin Sumlin] is struggling right now because he doesn’t have a quarterback. You get a dude back there, you have a chance.”
Along with a dude, you need an identity. Strong brings Gilbert with him from Austin to further an offensive evolution Taggart began last season. Taggart installed small portions of Briles’ spread offense after taking a trip to Waco after the 2015 season. Flowers said on Tuesday that he expects the Bulls to be “way faster” this season. Gilbert is so serious about snapping the ball within 11 seconds that if a USF player hands the ball to the ref on the sideline – as opposed to sprinting it to the middle of the field – they are punished with a gasser.
Flowers and USF are the prohibitive favorites to win the AAC this season, as Harlan said the program is adapting to “embracing the frontrunner mentality.” That’s easy to do when led by Flowers, the consummate underdog who overcame a childhood in the Liberty City section of Miami defined by violence and tragedy.
Flowers’ father died after being hit by a stray bullet outside the family’s home when he was 7. His mother died when he was a junior in high school, leaving his then-19-year-old sister, Shanay Flowers, to provide for the family. “Growing up without my mom and dad,” Flowers said, “I had to grow up faster than every other kid and different than every other kid.”
On the field, Flowers said he was overlooked by powerful high school programs before landing at Miami Jackson High School. In his recruitment, schools like Alabama, Miami and Tennessee wanted him to play positions other than quarterback. “All my life I’ve been overlooked,” he said. “It’s always been that way.
“People want to go to the big schools and just be another guy. I didn’t want to be another guy. I want to be a difference maker. That’s the reason I came to USF.”
Flowers has a veteran offensive line in front of him and talented tailback D’Ernest Johnson to replace Marlon Mack (fourth-round pick by the Indianapolis Colts). The defense can only improve under Strong’s tutelage after finishing No. 91 in scoring defense last year. Strong said he’s simplified the system with less checks and adjustments to let star middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez and eight other returning starters play more freely.
But the reason USF is one of the buzz teams entering 2017 is simple: “We have a quarterback, that makes a big difference,” Strong says. “And Willie left me some really good players.”
And that could lead to 2017 concluding with a powerful coda, an electric group hug after USF wins the first conference title in school history.
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