The story of South Florida and Charlie Strong getting Kerwin Bell as offensive coordinator begins with this simple point: Sterlin Gilbert did have to go.
Few USF fans would argue with the claim that Gilbert, who helped Strong at Texas and did a good job with Quinton Flowers, lost his fastball and needed to find a new place of employment. His timid and unimaginative approach to the biggest game of the year, the Nov. 23 game against UCF in which the Knights were highly vulnerable due to the McKenzie Milton injury, sealed his fate.
USF did not perform well in its bowl game against Marshall, but games against Marshall don’t define seasons at USF. Games against UCF do. Gilbert flunked that rivalry game, and Charlie Strong needed to change his play-caller.
We can all (or almost all) agree with that.
That meant the Bulls needed find someone to lead an offense that sputtered it’s way to six straight losses.
Here is the problem: Charlie Strong has a history of not choosing elite offensive coordinators. More precisely, he has a history of having to make second hires of OCs, as a head coach.
Strong hired Mike Sanford, Sr. (not Jr.) at Louisville. That didn’t work out. Strong pivoted to Shawn Watson, who benefited from nothing more — or less — than the simple fact that Teddy Bridgewater was the quarterback during his tenure as Strong’s second offensive coordinator at Louisville. When Strong moved to Texas, he took Watson with him.
Spoiler alert: Bridgewater did not play at Texas. Texas did not perform well on offense with Watson as the play-caller.
Strong went to Jay Norvell (now the head coach at Nevada) to replace Watson as the offensive play-caller at Texas before he then endured the public humiliation of begging Gilbert to leave Tulsa and join him at Texas. The protracted drama underscored how much Strong had struggled at UT, and how far the Longhorns had fallen.
When Gilbert did improve the Texas offense (but not enough to help Strong stay at Texas, due to many defensive lapses), Strong felt a sense of loyalty to his assistant, enough to take him to USF. The Quinton Flowers offense largely did what it was supposed to do, including the game at UCF which turned into one of the classic games of the entire 2017 college football season. This year, though, the house fell down.
“Charles in Charge” means that Charlie Strong had to replace yet another offensive coordinator, and to be more specific, for bad reasons, not good ones.
Nick Saban constantly has to replace offensive coordinators at Alabama because they get NFL OC jobs or college head coaching jobs. Safe to say, Strong replaces his offensive coordinators for different reasons.
What to make of Kerwin Bell? He is a name older football fans in the state of Florida remember well — and fondly — due to his years as the Florida Gators’ star quarterback. Had Florida not been hit with NCAA and SEC penalties due to various violations under Charley Pell (whose tenure preceded Bell’s playing career) and then Galen Hall, Bell might have led Florida onto the field in one or more Sugar Bowls He was robbed of that opportunity, but the quality of his performances spoke for itself.
Bell, as head coach, led Valdosta State to an unbeaten season this past year and the Division II national championship. He has been around the block, coaching at various levels of college ball plus the CFL and high school. He is 53 years old and a true survivor in the football industry. In addition to his many stops along the way as a coach, he also carved out a professional playing career which lasted over a decade — not bad for a seventh-round pick at No. 180 in 1988.
Bell could be really, really good, and personally, I am cautiously optimistic about the move.
Yet, Kerwin Bell isn’t really the main story here. The main story is that Charlie Strong had to replace another offensive coordinator for the wrong reasons.
Strong can only hope that this offensive coordinator will stick. He needs it to happen.
Otherwise, his head coaching career will end before too long.
Bulls OC Bell takes responsibility for shut out against Wisconsin
In Friday night’s opener against Big Ten perennial contender Wisconsin, the Bulls had suffered their worst loss in program history and left fans wondering what has caused such a downward spiral in the program over the last year and a half? And in a 49-0 loss, its hard to tell which side of the ball is a bigger struggle for the South Florida program?
While both looked alarmingly bad, the lack of offense was the ultimate reasoning behind the shut out, which led coordinator Kerwin Bell to taking full responsibility when speaking to the media on Wednesday.
— Joey Knight (@TBTimes_Bulls) September 4, 2019
“I’m the OC so I take all the blame, that’s all on my shoulders,” said Bell. “I’ve been in that position before, I’ve been shut out before, it didn’t feel good and surely last Friday night didn’t also. I was very disappointed in our performance. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Bell offered somewhat of an explanation as to why the team came out looking so ill-prepared and resembling every bit the team that lost their final six games last season. He said it’s the style of offense he’s introducing and that it takes time to get a team fully acclimated to it, which is not a new feat for him.
“This system is a little bit different than what everybody runs in college football, it’s more of a pro style. A lot of thinking, a lot of going through progressions and receivers changing their route on the run,” he added, “It takes a little bit of time and I’ve incorporated this thing 3 or 4 times now in new systems and we’ll be able to handle it. We’ll get up to speed, we just need some success with it.”
Bell also touched on the absence of USFs star slot receiver Johnny Ford. While there’s been no explanation to why he sat out of last weekends game, the Bulls play-caller did say that having him back will free up the rest of the offense in a major way.
“Johnny missing the game was big for us. We had a lot stuff on him to handle some of their man coverages. He’s a great man beater for us. With him being out it really put a lot of extra emphasis on other guys and he really frees up the team because he’s got so much ability running and catching the football.”
Bell, as head coach, led Valdosta State to an unbeaten season this past year and the Division II national championship. His offense at Valdosta led the nation in scoring (52.0 ppg), ranked second in first downs (341) and was fourth in total offense (523.9 ypg), red-zone offense (.901) and pass efficiency (167.37).
He has been around the block, coaching at various levels of college ball plus the CFL and high school. In addition to his many stops along the way as a coach, he also carved out a professional playing career which lasted over a decade.
Although he may have a history of offensive success, he’ll have a short timeline to start seeing success under head coach Charlie Strong or it may be a foregone conclusion before USF ever begins American Conference play, that this will be Strong’s final year and would likely Bells, as well.
Bulls QB Barnett will maintain starting spot against Georgia Tech
After the Bulls opened their season with the worst loss in USF football history against Wisconsin this past weekend, a lot of criticism has been directed at the two predominant faces of the program, head coach Charlie Strong and starting QB Blake Barnett. However, there will be no apparent changes to the make-up of this team any time soon. Strong announced Monday that Barnett will still be the “go to” guy to lead his offense.
Bulls beat writer Joey Knight reported from Strong’s press conference Monday afternoon.
Strong says Barnett still is his guy. Indicated dropped passes, failure to spring run game led to his struggles. "For (the first) two series, he looked really good." #USF
— Joey Knight (@TBTimes_Bulls) September 2, 2019
Strong indicated that it was the initial two dropped passes by Jernard Phillips and Michigan transfer Eddie McDoom along with the failure to spring the run game that set then tone for the offensive failure on Friday night.
Still, Barnett was only 13-for-30 for 109 yards, two interceptions, a fumble, and three sacks. The Bulls had 157 total yards on the night with 40 of those yards coming on their final drive of the game, as they were already down 49-0. The loss makes this the 7th in a row for the Bulls, and fans continuing to question wether 23-year-old veteran quarterback has what it takes to turn the program around.
South Florida’s other option would be redshirt freshman Jordan McCloud, a Tampa native who as senior, completed 160 of 295 passes for 2,426 yards and 26 touchdowns. He led Sickles High School to a 12-2 record, district and regional titles, and a trip to the state semifinals in 2018.
At this point, the Bulls don’t really have much to lose by giving McCloud some playing time. He may be able to spark USF, where Barnett clearly has not been able to since last October. Clearly, if Barnett struggles again, then McCloud will likely see some action Saturday.
USF will play at Georgia Tech next Saturday, which has a new coach and was blown out by Clemson to start the season. And, the Bulls defeated the Jackets in a wild 49-38 game a year ago.
And, if the Bulls are not better, or at least competitive with the Yellow Jackets, it may be a foregone conclusion before USF ever begins American Conference play, that this will be Strong’s final year.
And, anyone that wants to argue with that, should put in the tape and watch how poorly his recruits and his coaches performed Friday night, when they had everything pointing to a huge game at home with the Badgers for months.
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