The season ended in as loss, but 2015 saw South Florida finally turn the corner and push for a seat at the adult table of the American Athletic Conference. The Bulls ended their season with a winning record (8-5) for the first time since 2010.
After struggling in the opening portion of the season, the South Florida offense finally found its groove versus Syracuse. The offensive jump start was due to a running game that was among the nation's most explosive and effective. The Bulls finished the season with the #21 ranked rushing IsoPPP, the #6 ranked success rate, and the #18 ranked S&P+. Sophomore running back Marlon Mack picked up from his successful freshman campaign and rushed for 1,381 yards on the season. His 6.6 yards per carry was among the best in all of the G5.
It wasn't all about the Mack truck for South Florida as Darius Tice and D'Ernest Johnson added a combined 767 yards and five touchdowns on the season. Quarterback Quinton Flowers added 991 yards for a run game that put up 246.5 yards per game.
With a quarterback still trying to learn how to be a passer on the college level, the Bulls were a bit up and down throughout the season. Flowers only completed 58.9% of his passes, but was the catalyst for a passing game that was one of the ten most electric in the nation.
Much of the electricity in the passing game came from junior wide receiver Rodney Adams. The 6-1 wideout caught 44 passes for an impressive 18.6 yards per catch average. His 44 receptions were 19 more than anyone else on the team. Adams, Chris Barr, and Ryeshene Bronson were the only wide receivers on the team to finish in the top six on the team. Johnson, Mack, and tight end Sean Price rounded out the top six pass catchers.
Of the group of offensive skill position players, the only major loss in 2016 is Price.
The Bulls offensive line was one of the very few nationally to finish the season with all five linemen making all 13 starts. Seniors Mak Djulbegovic, Brynjar Gudmundsson, and Thor Jozwiak will be very tough to replace, but there is a talented and young group behind them. Right guard Dominique Threatt and left tackle Kofi Amichia are the returning starters.
The Bulls were a team built to stop the run. The rush defense gave up only 3.7 yards per carry and just over 140 yards per game.
Much of their success came in stopping plays in the backfield, ranking #13 nationally with a 24.5% stuff rate. You can thank sophomore Auggie Sanchez and seniors Jamie Byrd and Eric Lee for that. The trio, coming from all three level of the defense, combined for 31.5 tackles for loss on the season. Byrd and Sanchez were particularly effective with a combined 205 tackles.
While they did give up more versus the pass, the Bulls secondary was full of ballhawks. Byrd, Deatrick Nichols, Devin Abraham, and Ronnie Hoggins combined for 12 interceptions on the year. The entire defense had 17.
Lee is lost from the defensive line to graduation, but mammoth defensive tackle Deadrin Senat returns. The sophomore made 46 tackles from his spot on the line, ranking him sixth on the team.
As a whole, the Bulls gave up 380.5 yards per game and a stingy 22.9 points per game.
The best thing moving forward for South Florida's defense is the fact that only three of the top ten tacklers from 2015 are gone. If Lee and Byrd can be replaced somewhat, the Bulls will be a scary defense in 2016.
Special Teams: B+
With a group of athletes as talented and quick as South Florida has, a solid special teams group can make all the difference. The punt return team was able to average 10.8 yards per return, with Tajee Fullwood leading the way. No touchdowns were scored, but they consistently gained yards on punt returns. Kickoffs were returned for solid yardage with Johnson and Adams back deep. Adams even returned one 97 yards for a touchdown.
The biggest complaint on special teams was the inability to land kickoffs for touchbacks. That was a luxury for a coverage team that kept returns under a 20 yard average. Emilio Nadelman was much better than senior Michael Hill with a 25% touchback rate compared to Hill's 3.3% rate. Nadelman was also solid on field goals (15-23) and PATs (53-54). He was deadly in making 9-11 from inside the 40 yard line. His accuracy tended to wane from 40+ yards (6-11).
Finally, punter Mattias Ciabatti was money in 2015 with a 43.2 yards per punt average, including 19 of his 57 punts landing inside the 20 yard line.
There was thought before the season started that anything short of a bowl berth would be the end of Willie Taggart's tenure at South Florida. Things looked dire at the quarter pole with a 1-3 record, but the Bulls turned a corner and won seven of their last nine games to finish at 8-5. Taggart was rewarded with a new contract and the Bulls look ready to compete for an AAC title in 2016.