USF poised for another Strong run in American Conference
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — South Florida’s Charlie Strong isn’t making any bold predictions.
The former Louisville and Texas coach expects the Bulls to have another outstanding season, but knows simply having a talented roster doesn’t guarantee success.
“I can’t make any promises,” Strong said, reflecting on the program’s 21-4 record over the past two years, including a 10-2 finish and second consecutive bowl victory over a Power 5 conference opponent last season, his first at the American Athletic Conference school.
“We never should have to rebuild here,” he added. “We recruited well enough that we should just have to reload.”
The challenge begins with finding a replacement for USF’s career total offense leader, Quinton Flowers, who was one of the top duel-threat quarterbacks in the nation a year ago, when he threw for 2,911 yards and 29 touchdowns while also rushing for 1,078 yards and 11 TDs.
Strong is confident he has the answer in graduate transfer Blake Barnett, the opening-game starter for Alabama two years ago who left the Crimson Tide in September 2016 and continued his career as a backup at Arizona State last season.
The 22-year-old graduated from Arizona State in the spring, enrolled at USF in May and beat out junior Brett Kean and sophomore Chris Oladokun to win the starting job for Saturday’s season opener against Elon.
Strong believes Barnett’s size, strength, experience and maturity — not to mention a strong arm — make the 6-foot-5, 217-pound quarterback a good fit for the Bulls.
Barnett played the opening half of Alabama’s season opener against Southern California before being replaced by Jalen Hurts two years ago.
The native of Corona, California, played two more games with the Crimson Tide before transferring to Palomar College in his home state and eventually winding up at Arizona State, where he got in four games and attempted five passes in 2017.
“He’s seen it all, so I don’t worry about his mental makeup at all,” Strong said. “I think this is good for him because you don’t have all the glare and expectations. I think it allows him to really just calm down and be himself.”
Flowers gave opposing defense fits with his legs as well as his arm. Coaches and teammates say Barnett is more athletic and mobile than he’s given credit for.
Strong conceded that bringing in a newcomer to compete against other quarterbacks who have been part of the program for a couple of years could have risked chemistry in a tight-knit locker room.
The coach, however, feels good about the way the Bulls have embraced Barnett.
“When you want to win, you set all that aside,” Strong said.
USF, which also must replace seven starters on defense, enters the season unranked after finishing No. 21 in last year’s final Associated Press poll.
Opening-night opponent Elon is a well-regarded FCS opponent, however Strong figures to get a better idea of what the Bulls are capable of accomplishing when they host Georgia Tech and travel to Chicago for a neutral-site matchup against Illinois.
Conference play begins Sept. 22 against East Carolina and includes a regular season-ending rematch with defending AAC champion UCF.