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Mekhi LaPointe among USF freshmen on travel squad

Former Armwood High star Mekhi LaPointe (center), who had 10 interceptions for the Hawks as a junior, has made the USF travel roster.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Former Armwood High star Mekhi LaPointe (center), who had 10 interceptions for the Hawks as a junior, has made the USF travel roster.

At least a half-dozen freshman defensive players -- including former Armwood High ball hawk Mekhi LaPointe -- will travel with the Bulls to San Jose State, defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary said Wednesday.

Other rookies joining LaPointe (a defensive back) will be DT Kelvin Pinkney, DT Kevin Kegler, CB Donelle Thomas, CB Naytron Culpepper and LB Keirston Johnson.

"I don't know how much they'll play," Jean-Mary said, "but they'll be in the two-deep and will be available if needed."

Fewer freshmen are expected on offense, though Jeremiah Stafford is listed as the No. 2 center behind Cameron Ruff. If the current depth chart holds, three non-rookies -- WR Stanley Clerveaux, RG Brooks Larkin and LT Eric Mayes -- will make their starting debuts Saturday.

Offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert said Wednesday that Larkin and Mayes remain first-teamers at their respective spots.

BRACING FOR 'EM ALL: Because the Bulls don't know which of San Jose State's three quarterbacks they could see Saturday, Jean-Mary said his staff has planned -- and contingency-planned -- for just about anything.

Regardless of who takes the first snap for the Spartans (sophomore Josh Love, redshirt freshman Montel Aaron or redshirt sophomore Sam Allen), Jean-Mary said he expects to see an offense similar to USF's. New SJSU offensive coordinator Andrew Sowder has worked with Gilbert at three different schools, including Texas in 2016.

"When you really don't know who the quarterback's gonna be or exactly what offense (they're) gonna run, you have to have all your bases covered," Jean-Mary said.

"We have to be alert for what we could possibly see. So we've tried to cover everything we could see from A to Z, which in all honesty, has probably made us better coaches. Sometimes you get so focused in a particular offense, you don't check all the boxes if they come out in something new. We feel like we've covered everything that we feel like they could possibly run." 

ODDS AND ENDS: Both Jean-Mary and Gilbert said they'll coach from the sideline. ... WR Ryeshene Bronson (shoulder) didn't suit up Wednesday (the Bulls were in shells) and now seems doubtful for Saturday's game. ... RB D'Ernest Johnson is only six catches from Rafael Williams' school record for career receptions by a running back (68). Johnson's 28 catches last season were the most of any returning Bull.

AUDIBLE: "I think it will be very similar to what we do. He was with me last year (at Texas), we were together at Eastern (Illinois) and (Bowling Green), which is basically this offense. And I think you're gonna see a very similar look out there at what they're gonna try to do. I know their head coach (Brent Brennan) is an offensive guy, so I'm sure he'll have his thumbprint on it somehow someway." -- Gilbert on Sowder

AUDIBLE, PART II: "I tell everybody, if you didn't know Greg was a walk-on the first day that we came out here in winter conditioning and we saw him running around, and then in spring practice, you would've thought he was a scholarship player. And not just a young scholarship player, probably a two- or three-year veteran. He carries himself with so much class and he's such a humble kid, sometimes you forget how menacing of a player he can be on the field." -- Jean-Mary on sophomore DE Greg Reaves, awarded a scholarship last week

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Deatrick Nichols to start at nickel for USF

USF senior Deatrick Nichols, a first-team All-American Athletic Conference cornerback in 2015, has moved to nickel back.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

USF senior Deatrick Nichols, a first-team All-American Athletic Conference cornerback in 2015, has moved to nickel back.

If the Bulls' most recent depth chart holds true until Saturday, senior Deatrick Nichols will make his debut at nickel back against San Jose State.

A two-time all-conference cornerback with eight career interceptions, Nichols appears slightly thicker this preseason (listed at 190 pounds) and has drawn raves from coaches. As a result of his move inside, junior Mazzi Wilkins -- a Plant High alumnus -- is almost certain to make his first career start at cornerback opposite junior Ronnie Hoggins.

"The guy who's having an unbelievable camp for us right now is Nichols," Coach Charlie Strong said Tuesday. "And a guy who's really come on is Mazzi."

Elsewhere on the depth chart (dated Aug. 16), third-year sophomore Brooks Larkin is listed as first-team right guard, while redshirt junior Stanley Clerveaux -- injured most of his first two seasons -- is listed as a starting receiver opposite Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Neither Larkin nor Clerveaux has started a college game.

Sophomore DE Greg Reaves, awarded a scholarship last week, is listed as a starter alongside three seniors: DT Deadrin Senat, DT Bruce Hector and DE Mike Love. Junior Chris Barr is listed as the first-team slot receiver ahead of Deangelo Antoine and Tyre McCants.

INJURY UPDATE: Strong didn't sound optimistic when asked if senior WR Ryeshene Bronson (shoulder) will be available Saturday. Also expected to be sidelined is G Glen Bethel, who was on crutches last week and doesn't appear on the two-deep chart.

"I don't know just where we are right now (with Bronson)," Strong said. "He hasn't been in our plans, so usually by Tuesday or Wednesday...if he's not ready, then he won't be. But we still have some time up until game time."

ODDS AND ENDS: Strong indicated defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary will be the primary play-caller. "I sit in the meetings with them, but...I've got enough experienced guys in that room that they can run it," he said. "I mean, every now and then I say, 'Run this defense,' but I won't just completely (take over)." ... RB D'Ernest Johnson said the Bulls have been studying tape of Oregon State's defense; new San Jose State coordinator Derrick Odum was the Beavers' secondary coach the last two seasons. ... The Bulls head to California on Thursday, presumably to get acclimated to Pacific time. ... Johnson and FS Tajee Fullwood split punt-return reps during Tuesday's segment of practice open to reporters. ... Ben Holden will handle CBS Sports Network's play-by-play for Saturday's game, with Randy Cross serving as analyst and John Schriffen on the sidelines.

AUDIBLE: "He was with us last year at Texas, and actually him and Sterlin (Gilbert) have the same background being at Bowling Green and everywhere. But the key thing for us on defense is not so much worry about what he's gonna do, but we have to worry about ourselves." -- Strong on San Jose State offensive coordinator Andrew Sowder, who served as Strong's offensive quality-control coach at Texas last season. Sowder also worked with Gilbert at Bowling Green and Eastern Illinois.

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Know the foe: San Jose State

San Jose State junior Malike Roberson led the Spartans with 508 rushing yards last season.

Terrell Lloyd | San Jose State University Athletics

San Jose State junior Malike Roberson led the Spartans with 508 rushing yards last season.

A look at San Jose State, which hosts USF on Saturday at CEFCU Stadium

Nickame: Spartans
'16 record: 4-8
Coach: Brent Brennan (first season overall)

The breakdown: Brennan, a San Jose native making his Division I head coaching debut, said Monday his three-player quarterback derby continues. Whomever wins the job -- sophomore Josh Love is the only one to have played in a Division I game -- is likely to operate an offense strikingly similar to USF's. Spartans offensive coordinator Andrew Sowder was Charlie Strong's offensive quality control coach at Texas last season, and previously worked with Bulls offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert at Eastern Illinois (2012-13) and Bowling Green ('14). "It probably will benefit Sterlin just as much as it does us, I would say," Brennan said Monday. "But I do think there will be some similarities in terms of the scheme on offense." ... The Spartans' projected first-team offensive line has 123 combined career starts, most in Division I. Question is, can some skill guys blossom around them? San Jose State averaged 24.4 points last season, which ranked 103rd nationally. ... Defensively, the Spartans return seven players who have started at least 10 games, and those seven endured their share of lumps in 2016. The Spartans allowed 246.7 rushing yards per game (122nd nationally), and surrendered 5.66 points per drive (128th) when opponents got inside their 40. Brennan said he hopes an infusion of juco talent -- including former Arizona State LB Jamal Scott -- will help fortify the unit.

Odds and ends: If you haven't seen this viral clip of Spartans running backs coach Alonzo Carter, do yourself a favor. In a previous life, Carter was a backup dancer for MC Hammer. ... In each of the last three seasons, San Jose State has finished in the top 12 nationally in fewest penalties per game. ... Bulls athletic director Mark Harlan spent part of the previous decade at SJSU, where he was credited with helping then-AD Tom Bowen resurrect and restructure a floundering sports program previously crippled by rampant academic ineligibility.

Audible: "Obviously, when you coach with somebody and spend as much time as Coach Sowder and Sterlin have spent together, you get a feel for each other. And then sometimes it's kind of like playing basketball in the back yard against your brother; you go twice as hard." -- Brennan

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Texas voter ranks USF 10th on preseason ballot

USF linebacker Auggie Sanchez (43) goes up against center Cameron Ruff during a preseason practice.

CHARLIE KAIJO | Times

USF linebacker Auggie Sanchez (43) goes up against center Cameron Ruff during a preseason practice.

At least one scribe who watched Charlie Strong falter at Texas believes he'll flourish at USF.

The preseason ballot of Austin (Texas) American-Statesman columnist Kirk Bohls says it all. A veteran voter in the Associated Press rankings, Bohls ranked the Bulls 10th -- at least two spots higher than any other voter, and nine spots higher than where USF landed in the initial poll.

Our own Matt Baker ranked USF 19th.

His general thought process: The Bulls' offense will atone for any initial defensive shortcomings. In an e-mail to the Tampa Bay Times, Bohls correctly mentioned USF has several veterans returning on the two front levels of the defense (but incorrectly noted San Diego Chargers rookie Nigel Harris as one of those returners).

"With Quinton Flowers leading the offense as a legit Heisman candidate and perhaps the best dual-threat quarterback in college football and explosive D’Ernest Johnson ready to replace the departed Marlon Mack, the offense should overcompensate for a lot of defensive ills," Bohls wrote.

"And if memory serves, they had both kickers back. The schedule is fairly friendly with Illinois as a medium challenge and home dates against powers like Houston (which I also ranked) and Temple.

"Seven home games, new energy with an invigorated Charlie Strong and a good staff could have USF poised as my dark horse to reach the (College Football Playoff)."

This link reveals where each voter placed USF on his/her respective ballot. Three other voters also put USF in their top 15. Seven voters didn't rank the Bulls at all.

 

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USF's season-opening foe still waging QB derby

Evidently, Brent Brennan's first major decision as a Division I coach will be a last-minute one.

The rookie San Jose State coach said Monday afternoon he hasn't decided who will start for the Spartans in Saturday's season opener against 19th-ranked USF, and likely won't make a decision until game time.

"It's nip-and-tuck right now, it's a close battle," Brennan said on a teleconference Monday. "Three guys are up there towards the front, and we've got four more practice opportunities to hopefully let the dust settle and figure out who's gonna run out there with the first team on Saturday."

The official SJSU depth chart lists 6-foot-2 sophomore Josh Love or 6-5 redshirt freshman Montel Aaron, though Brennan said 6-2 sophomore Sam Allen also is in the mix.

Love is the only one to have played in a Division I game. He started twice last season, finishing 31-for-60 for 392 yards, two touchdowns and five interceptions. His net rushing total: minus-41 yards.

Aaron had a 56-yard scoring pass in an Aug. 12 scrimmage, and finished 6-for-13 for 202 yards (with 30 rushing yards) in the Spartans' spring game.

"Josh had a good camp. He's hit his throws consistently. He's probably the most mature of the group, just because he played a little bit in games," said Brennan, a former SJSU assistant who spent the past six seasons as Oregon State's receivers coach.

"But Montel Aaron has played really well also. Every time we scrimmage...Montel shows up and he makes plays. ... And then Sam has made a lot of plays, too. He's a little bit different than both of those guys; he's a little bit bigger guy, a little more solid. So he's done some good stuff in terms of getting out on the perimeter and moving around."

The Spartans and Bulls kick off Saturday at CEFCU Stadium at 4:30 p.m. (PST). The Bulls -- and a CBS Sports Network audience -- are likely to learn of Brennan's decision concurrently.

"I anticipate a decision at about 4:32 on Saturday afternoon," Brennan said.

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USF No. 19 in AP poll, matching highest preseason ranking

USF, behind senior quarterback Quinton Flowers, is 19th in the Associated Press preseason poll.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

USF, behind senior quarterback Quinton Flowers, is 19th in the Associated Press preseason poll.

While it remains to be seen whether USF will have an unprecedented regular season, one thing is certain.

It already has had an historic August.

The Bulls are 19th in the Associated Press' preseason poll, matching the program's highest preseason ranking previously achieved by the 2008 team. They're the only two USF teams to be ranked before September.

Times staff writer Matt Baker ranked USF 19th on his ballot. The Bulls also were ranked 19th at the end of 2016, when they finished 11-2 and topped South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl.

USF is the only Group of Five team to be ranked, a potentially encouraging harbinger at the season's outset. The Group of Five conference champion ranked highest by the College Football Playoff selection committee earns a berth in a New Year's Six bowl game. The first CFP rankings will be released Oct. 31.

Here's where the Bulls have landed in the seven most prominent preseason rankings:

Associated Press: 19
Athlon: 24
Coaches poll: 21
The Sporting News: 22
Sports Illustrated: 17
Street & Smith's: 23
Phil Steele: 18

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USF wraps up preseason camp

USF wrapped up its preseason camp Saturday at Raymond James Stadium. The Bulls open the season Aug. 26 at San Jose State.

JOEY KNIGHT | Times

USF wrapped up its preseason camp Saturday at Raymond James Stadium. The Bulls open the season Aug. 26 at San Jose State.

The Bulls' 2017 preseason camp, comprising 21 practices over a four-week stretch, concluded Saturday, and not a sweltering second too soon for most.

At least not for senior MLB Auggie Sanchez, who deemed it the "worst" (aka toughest) of the five camps he has endured as a Bull.

"I think it might be the worst camp just because I'm older, I've just kind of got nicks and stuff on my body, but it was physical," Sanchez said after Saturday's finale, held at Raymond James Stadium. "We did a lot of hitting and stuff, but yeah, definitely the most physical and probably the longest camp I've been a part of."

The Bulls practiced six days each of the final two weeks, with every practice held in searing mid-morning conditions. In spite of the preseason's length (the July 24 start date was the earliest in program history), no Bull appeared to suffer a season-threatening injury.

"The coaches, once we get out on the field, they make sure we go hard, and they want us to work while we're tired because in the game it's gonna get easier for you," said QB Quinton Flowers, whose team begins game-week preparations for San Jose State on Sunday afternoon. …

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Nicholas, Selvie say USF a better tackling team

USF redshirt freshman Andre Polk Jr. engages in a tackling drill with fellow linebacker Danny Thomas during a recent practice.

CHARLIE KAIJO | Times

USF redshirt freshman Andre Polk Jr. engages in a tackling drill with fellow linebacker Danny Thomas during a recent practice.

We'll learn soon enough -- in about eight days -- whether the tackling of USF's defense has improved from last season.

But two significant observers, both of whom know a thing or two about the fundamental, insist the Bulls are better.

One of them is Bulls two-time All-American DE George Selvie, who has spent the preseason working out on campus and hanging around the team with the thought of eventually joining the staff in an official capacity.

"It's a very good tackling team," said Selvie, who last played in the NFL in 2015.

"Coach (Charlie) Strong has been pushing them on defense. He's a defensive coach and he's coming out here teaching them his defense, a hard-nosed defense. That's what he wants and they're responding to it."

Former first-team All-Big East LB Stephen Nicholas, now a Bulls defensive quality-control assistant, concurred before hedging slightly.

"Most definitely," Nicholas said when asked if this is a better tackling team. "We're getting better. ... We're working at it, but we're definitely getting better at that, okay?"

At least twice last season (after losses to FSU and Temple), former Bulls coach Willie Taggart publicly called out his team's tackling -- or lack thereof. USF ranked 120th nationally in total defense (482.0 ypg) and 84th against the run (196.5 ypg).

When asked specifically about his linebackers' tackling proficiency late last week, new defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary indicated he was pleased to a degree.

"It could always get better," he said. "You've got to think, as far as live reps go, it's limited, because you never want to hurt your own team. So we've had a couple of live scrimmages where we've done okay, but you'd like to see it through a full game and see how we tackle live bodies.

"We've gotten as close to live as possible, and they've been more than adequate so far."

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New name for St. Petersburg's bowl game: the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl

Mississippi State wide receiver Fred Ross is tackled by Miami (Ohio) wide receiver DeAndre Huff (28) during the 2016 St. Petersburg Bowl at Tropicana Field.

CHARLIE KAIJO | Times

Mississippi State wide receiver Fred Ross is tackled by Miami (Ohio) wide receiver DeAndre Huff (28) during the 2016 St. Petersburg Bowl at Tropicana Field.

St. Petersburg, a notable contributor to college football's rich history of bizarre bowl sponsorships, might have just outdone itself.

The annual contest, held on Tropicana Field's synthetic turf, reportedly will be sponsored by a national lawn mower manufacturer.

Former ESPN college football insider Brett McMurphy reported Friday morning the St. Petersburg Bowl -- set for Dec. 21 -- has been re-named the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl. 

The latter part of the title appears an attempt to further regionalize the game, though the most prominent Gasparilla-themed events each winter are staged in Tampa.

The bowl is holding a press conference next week, presumably to formally announce the name change. Past sponsors of the bowl -- which began in 2008 -- include magicJack, Beef 'O' Brady's and Bitcoin.

This year's contest is slated to pit an American Athletic Conference team against a Conference USA squad.

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USF journal: Tyre McCants bulks up, Greg Reaves on scholarship

USF fourth-year junior Tyre McCants (8) had 25 catches last season.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

USF fourth-year junior Tyre McCants (8) had 25 catches last season.

In their perpetual quest to create glaring advantages in their passing game, the Bulls may have come upon the most novel mismatch yet.

Isolating a speedster against a linebacker? Too routine.

How 'bout a speedster who resembles a linebacker?

Fourth-year junior Tyre McCants, who arrived at USF weighing around 210 pounds more than three years ago, now is listed at 236. If he were a backer, he'd be the second-heaviest on the team. (Here's a photo of him following Thursday's practice).

"I feel comfortable," said McCants, who at 5-foot-11 sports a stocky, muscular frame. "I feel like I'm still running the same."

Though he says he's closer to 230 after nearly four weeks of preseason practice, McCants is the biggest receiver in the American Athletic Conference based on official roster listings.

And he's by far the stockiest of any Division I receiver in the state. Florida's Kalif Jackson and FAU's DeAndre McNeal are listed at 236, but stand 6-4 and 6-1, respectively.

"I like to use it to my advantage, I like being a bigger body," said McCants, a utility force (1,918 all-purpose yards) on the 2013 Niceville High team that reached the Class 7A state title game. "I don't think it ever really holds me back speed-wise, so I just use it to my advantage."

McCants said he initially bulked up after sustaining an ACL injury his freshman year, and played at around 220 last season, when he enjoyed a breakthrough season (25 catches, 384 yards, four touchdowns). He was limited in spring drills by a sprained right foot, then added 10 pounds in the offseason.

The coaches plan to exploit that frame -- and fleetness -- by putting McCants in the slot, where he's likely to out-muscle most defenders he encounters.

"He's a bigger, stockier kid for being inside at the slot, but that's obviously a position we like him in," offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert said Thursday. "He's able to apply pressure on people with his size, and it's kind of a mismatch sometimes with either nickels or DBs out there." …

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USF offensive scheme veering toward clarity

First-year USF offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert's system is expected to combine a power run game with a vertical passing component.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

First-year USF offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert's system is expected to combine a power run game with a vertical passing component.

So far, we've seen it only in glimpses, fuzzy snapshots in the form of public scrimmages. All we know for sure is, it's fast, and maybe that's fitting in a way.

Because if we know nothing else about new coordinator Sterlin Gilbert's offense, it's this: It has been a blur.

In 10 days, when the Bulls kick off their most anticipated season ever at San Jose State, we'll finally see the full picture. At that point, all the elements -- the pace, the power, the pass trajectory -- will be revealed.

Until then, we can only draw conclusions based on (A) Gilbert's history, and (B) what little we've seen to this point in practice.

With that in mind, we believe Bulls fans will see a solid likeness of the veer-and-shoot offense.

It's the spread variation Gilbert learned more than a decade ago at the foot of Art Briles, and polished under the employment of current Syracuse coach Dino Babers (at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green from 2012-14).

As this SB Nation story indicates, the veer-and-shoot differs from other spread schemes in that it's essentially an option offense with a vertical component. A power -- but not necessarily ball-control -- run game lulls defenses to the box, creating mismatches out wide.

And if linebackers get sucked into trying to stop the run, well, tight ends can find themselves quarantined.

Moreover, Gilbert is a proponent of having his players execute without thinking, a process he has termed "mind-muscle memory." Such a philosophy, of course, doesn't lend itself to a thick playbook.

Which might explain why the Bulls have no playbook. Quarterbacks have said Gilbert diagrams a play, and they copy it down themselves.

But there are still other hints. Girth up front is an obvious prerequisite for a power run game, and USF has it. …

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Q&A: USF lineman Billy Atterbury

Former CCC standout Billy Atterbury has practiced at guard and tackle for USF this preseason.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Former CCC standout Billy Atterbury has practiced at guard and tackle for USF this preseason.

On a practice day devoid of any significant drama (the Bulls worked out in shorts), we were afforded a few minutes with redshirt sophomore lineman Billy Atterbury, who could emerge as USF's most versatile offensive lineman. Here are excerpts from his media session.

We don't get to watch a lot of practice. Are you still double-training as a tackle and pulling guard?
"Coach (Matt Mattox) is moving a lot of us around right now. We've got a few guys (with some) little bumps and bruises. We've got a few guys that he's just trying to figure out where everyone is gonna work out at. I think we're all just trying to make the travel team, trying to do our best to get there."

I assume you primarily played tackle at Clearwater Central Catholic. How much guard did you play?
"Not really (laughs). I was at Countryside freshman year, and I played a little bit of that when I got moved up to varsity because I was still one of the shorter guys on that offensive line. This is something relatively new to me, but...whatever's best for the team, that's what all of us offensive linemen, we're not here for the glory. It's just a team, collective unit."

What was noticeably different about your offseason conditioning work to prepare for the pace you guys plan to run?
"Just a lot of cardio. I think that's the same with every team. A lot of running, a lot of just keeping the pace going. Because like you said, it's not one long sprint, one long mile run. It's every seven seconds, you've got to snap and be able to run 10 yards downfield, turn around and get back on the ball, and snap the ball seven seconds later. So it's a lot of quick turnaround, just very explosive, just seeing how much you can do, as fast as you can go."

So you'd do a lot of bursts, then get back to the ball?
"Absolutely. Coach (Pat) Moorer (strength and conditioning coach) definitely tries his best to get as much as he can out of us."

When you look at the fact that your team appears in another preseason poll almost daily, do you feel it more as a bay area kid? Do you want it more? You want the undefeated season more?
"Everyone says undefeated season, but as every player on this team will tell you, we're worried about San Jose (State), first game of the year. As a hometown kid who grew up watching this team, especially you want to do well, you want to show some hometown pride. But at the end of the day, it's about what Coach (Charlie Strong) says: every play, every quarter, every drive, every game."

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Fullwood, Valdes-Scantling return to practice for USF

Senior receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling (11) had 22 catches for 415 yards and five touchdowns last season.

CHARLIE KAIJO | Times

Senior receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling (11) had 22 catches for 415 yards and five touchdowns last season.

The Bulls received two encouraging signs Monday when senior FS Tajee Fullwood and senior WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling practiced fully after missing part of the preseason with injuries.

Fullwood even had an interception during the portion of practice closed to reporters.

Valdes-Scantling hadn't practiced in full-squad drills since injuring his right leg after landing awkwardly during a route-running drill July 29. Fullwood suffered an ankle injury during an Aug. 5 scrimmage.

Elsewhere, senior WR Ryeshene Bronson (shoulder) didn't suit up again Monday, and still had his right arm in a sling. RB Duran Bell Jr., DE Kirk Livingstone, LB Andre Polk Jr. and RB Elijah Mack also spent Monday rehabbing injuries.

The Bulls are slated to practice six days this week (Monday-Saturday) before breaking camp and starting a conventional game-week schedule Sunday or Monday.

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Rags to roster: USF long snapper Zack Deitz is former manager

Steinbrenner High alumnus Zack Deitz, a student manager for the Bulls last season, is their new long snapper.

JOEY KNIGHT | Times

Steinbrenner High alumnus Zack Deitz, a student manager for the Bulls last season, is their new long snapper.

He was a grunt, a gofer. Sometimes, Zack Deitz would be the first one to arrive on the USF practice field and last to leave, a routine borne not of nobility but job description.

That's what student managers do. Except one day, amid his series of mundane duties, Deitz proved he also can perform an essential one.

The Bulls specialists immediately took notice.

"He was actually out here one day and he's like, 'Hey, I can (long) snap,'" P Jonathan Hernandez recalled. "And we're like, 'All right, let's see it.' And so he did it and we were like, 'Wow, you should definitely come out next year,' because we knew we were losing (Alex) Salvato."

The Steinbrenner High alumnus practically has been snapping ever since. When the Bulls kick off the season at San Jose State in two Saturdays, the guy who spent last year washing uniforms will be wearing one.

"He's a local kid, he's bought into it and these kids have accepted him," Bulls special teams coach Justin Burke said. "He's been a really good part of our team. Doesn't say much, goes to work...we've just got to get him to be a little more aggressive is all."

Because Coach Charlie Strong typically doesn't permit rookies to speak with the media until they've appeared in a game, Deitz (5-foot-10, 205 pounds) was unavailable for comment after Monday's practice.

He long-snapped (and played linebacker and defensive end) at Steinbrenner as a senior in 2015 after missing his junior year due to ACL surgery. He also has played for USF's rugby team. (Here's some footage of him scoring in a recent match.)

Bulls equipment chief Jeremy Lees said Deitz's duties last season ranged from field setup to cleaning helmets and shoulder pads, to assisting coaches with drills. Like all student managers, he normally arrived a full two hours before the start of practice.

"He primarily worked with the special teams guys a little bit, which is kind of ironic," Lees said.

"He just came to us (shortly after the Birmingham Bowl) and said he wanted to walk on. We said, 'All right, good luck.' Obviously the team had a need so it was kind of a perfect fit."

He replaces one of the most consistent Bulls players of the last three seasons. Salvato, also diminutive at around 200 pounds, went at least two consecutive seasons without an errant snap, proving that arguably the most unheralded job in football isn't necessarily a thankless one.

Willie Taggart awarded Salvato a scholarship in the 2015 preseason.

"It's one of those deals that, if you invest in that position, it can be yours for a long time," Burke said. "It's a nerve-wracking deal for those guys, 'cause they have to invest in it and their team depends on 'em. So it takes some guts and some confidence to do it."

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USF journal: Defense draws praise, penalties

USF defensive back Naytron Culpepper (27) breaks up a pass intended for fellow freshman Kevaughn Dingle during the Bulls'  public scrimmage Saturday.

JOEY KNIGHT | Times

USF defensive back Naytron Culpepper (27) breaks up a pass intended for fellow freshman Kevaughn Dingle during the Bulls' public scrimmage Saturday.

Exactly two weeks before its season opener, USF's once-maligned defense spent the better part of a soupy Saturday morning alternately giving their fans reason for excitement and expletives.

Which is to say, it made one play -- and penalty -- after another.

The Bulls recorded three interceptions and a fumble recovery (in the end zone, no less), holding the first- and second-team offenses mostly in check in a public situational scrimmage spanning roughly 90 minutes.

But for every pick, there was a personal foul. Or an offside whistle. Or a hold.

"We're gonna harp on those," said senior DT Bruce Hector, who had the fumble recovery, "and the next practice, we'll cut down on 'em."

Whistles aside, there was plenty defensively to encourage the audience of about 200, which grimaced its way through a forgettable '16 season in which USF allowed more than 480 yards a game. …

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