TAMPA — Through eight quarters, the most consistent element in USF's offense has been the flow of jeers generated by it.
Subtract that 28-point outburst in the second quarter at San Jose State and new coordinator Sterlin Gilbert's system — hailed for its hypersonic tempo — has been pretty pedestrian against two inferior foes. The pocket seems stationary, Quinton Flowers seems stifled and the protection seems shaky.
So what gives? Why is this unit struggling to find its groove? The hypotheses are as numerous as the catcalls, and we've examined many of them. As the No. 22 Bulls resume their interrupted season Friday against Illinois, we offer five explanations for the unsteady start.
We ain't seen nothin' yet
We've spotted few of the elements (screen passes, zone reads, downfield shots in play-action) off which the Bulls have prospered in the past. Why? Two reasons, maybe.
For one, Gilbert's style of the spread differs from Willie Taggart's, leaning more on power running (i.e. tight end Mitchell Wilcox lined up as an h-back) and vertical passing.
Moreover, we haven't seen all of it yet. "You're not seeing everything right now just because you're still fairly early with everything," Gilbert said last week. "So there's stuff that's still coming to be implemented and installed that we're gonna be able to utilize, especially with conference games and stuff coming up."
Theory is, the Bulls have gotten by on the generic elements of their offense against two overmatched opponents but will try to catch Illinois off-guard with things not yet on film.
They miss speedsters
While the Bulls may possess more depth than ever at tailback and receiver, their collective team speed dissipated when all-time leading rusher Marlon Mack and No. 2 career receiver Rodney Adams bolted for the NFL.
The key cog in the Bulls' spread, Adams flourished in the slot as a downfield burner or jet-sweep extraordinaire, totaling 1,587 all-purpose yards last season. And Mack simply was uncatchable once he reached the defense's second level.
Combined, they accounted for 3,001 all-purpose yards in 2016. For all of USF's depth, it's not an Alabama or Ohio State, which routinely replace NFL draftees with NFL draftees-in-waiting.
No swing-pass sightings
Last season, Mack and backup tailback D'Ernest Johnson tied for second on the team with 28 catches each. The swing passes in their direction provided the ideal safety valve for Flowers and maximized their ability to create in space.
This year, Johnson doesn't have a catch, and fellow tailback Darius Tice has only one. That may go back to Gilbert's insistence he hasn't revealed his entire offense. Asked if his system includes passes to the backs, Gilbert said, "Absolutely."
Clearly, the revamped offensive line, which graduated left tackle Kofi Amichia and right guard Dominique Threatt, still is trying to find its bearings. Last week, Gilbert said missed assignments have been the most glaring issue to this point.
Coaches experimented with lineups throughout preseason and stunned many in the season opener by starting junior Michael Galati at center and sliding Cameron Ruff — who edged Galati for the center job last season — to right guard.
Additionally, left tackle Eric Mayes is a converted defensive lineman who played in only three games last season. Jelling will take time.
Still a learning curve
Again, Gilbert's power-based spread — known as the veer and shoot — is noticeably different from Taggart's offense. So far, the Bulls have played only eight live quarters in it. Everyone, Flowers included, needs a grace period.
"You're starting over, that's the thing," Gilbert said. "You're starting over with the new offense and there's some carry-over of the things that they've done in the past couple of years that are there, but I'm excited where the direction (Flowers) is going."
Gilbert said at his other stops, the offense gradually has improved over the course of the season. During his only year as offensive coordinator at Bowling Green in 2014, the Falcons gained 465 yards on 71 plays in their opener, a 59-31 loss at Western Kentucky.
In Game 3, a 45-42 win against Indiana, they gained 571 yards on a school-record 113 plays. Similarly, Flowers said he has noticed progress lately.
"We can't start off slow," he said Thursday. "If you play a good team, things will turn sideways, but … these couple of days we've been coming out to practice, everything's been going fast and we're getting on track."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.