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Column | Charlie Strong will strike back with USF

BIRMINGHAM, AL - DECEMBER 29: Incoming South Florida Bulls head coach Charlie Strong watches from the sidelines during the 2016 Birmingham Bowl between the South Carolina Gamecocks and South Florida Bulls on December 29, 2016, at Legion Field in Birmingham, AL. (Photo by Scott Donaldson/Icon Sportswire)
Scott Donaldson/Icon Sportswire

Before his brief, 16-21 tenure at Texas, Charlie Strong oversaw a team in the newly christened American Athletic Conference with a top-tier quarterback, a lockdown defense and the pieces for a Bowl Championship Series contender.

Some things have changed in the four years since Strong left Louisville for Austin. His former program now plays in the ACC, and the College Football Playoff/New Year’s Six supplanted the BCS. Otherwise, the new head coach of the USF Bulls returns to the American in a familiar situation.

USF named Strong the successor to Willie Taggart in December, just two weeks after Taggart accepted the vacancy at Oregon. Strong’s availability wasn’t wholly unexpected; chatter of his impending release from Texas gained volume just 18 games into his run, following a 50-7 loss to TCU in October 2015.

He lasted another 13 months — not enough time to turn around a Texas program in various states of struggle since it lost the 2010 BCS Championship Game, but in plenty of time to land with a ready-made winner.

Charlie Strong won’t be asked to rebuild in Tampa. The Bulls are coming off an 11-win 2016 season and, with 16 total starters returning from that lineup, figure to be the frontrunners for the American championship in 2017. USF has top 25 potential, and might well be the prohibitive favorite to claim this coming season’s Group of Five bid into a New Year’s Six bowl.

In Strong’s final season at Louisville, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater led the Cardinals to 12 wins en route to national accolades and an NFL draft selection. USF dual-threat quarterback Quinton Flowers is a much different type of playmaker than the pocket passer Bridgewater was, but a talent worthy of college superstardom all the same.

BIRMINGHAM, AL – DECEMBER 29: South Florida Bulls quarterback Quinton Flowers (9) looks for an opening during the 2016 Birmingham Bowl between the South Carolina Gamecocks and South Florida Bulls on December 29, 2016, at Legion Field in Birmingham, AL. (Photo by Scott Donaldson/Icon Sportswire)

Flowers finished second in the nation last season rushing among all quarterbacks. His 1,530 yards trailed Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson’s output by just 41. Flowers also passed for 2,812 yards and 24 touchdowns — two totals he’s likely to build on with the arrival of Strong’s new staff.

Offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was afforded only one year in Austin, but he breathed much-needed life into a previously stagnant Longhorns offense. Texas’ per-game average jumped by five points from 2015 to 2016. He previously oversaw two of the nation’s most prolific passing attacks, at Bowling Green and Tulsa, before joining Charlie Strong.

That acumen in the aerial game adds a new layer to the already-electric ground game USF employed last season with Flowers behind center.

“We’ll stretch it out even more,” reserve quarterback Chris Oladokun said following last month’s spring game, via GoUSFBulls.com. “Coach Gilbert hasn’t even put in half of the offense yet. Once that time comes, we’re going to be rolling.”

That’s a dizzying prospect, considering the Bulls were fourth in the nation in scoring offense last year at 43.8 points per game. There’s a very real possibility USF could lead college football in points scored in 2017.

In contrast, Strong’s last Louisville team finished right near the top for fewest points allowed. Only 2013 national champion Florida State’s defense was better (12.1 points a game) than Louisville (12.2).

The Bulls won’t play at a pace conducive to low point yields, but they still have room to improve from last season’s No. 92 national rank. That’s the biggest challenge facing Strong in Year 1, and the coach’s greatest opportunity to silence criticism lingering from his time at Texas.

A defensive guru as a coordinator at Florida, and later as head coach at Louisville, Strong’s Longhorns struggled at 31.5 points allowed per game in 2016. And yet, Texas’ points per game allowed outperformed USF’s by 0.1.

USF has room to grow — and should, returning nine of 11 starters on that side of the ball. Defensive tackle Deadrin Senat and linebacker Greg Reaves are two names to remember: The duo could evolve into key pass-rushers as Strong implements a more aggressive strategy.

Despite its points-allowed totals, Texas ranked among the nation’s best in sacks. Louisville ranked second nationally under Strong in 2013. Expect a significant jump in the Bulls’ numbers in 2017.

Indeed, the pieces are in place for Charlie Strong to enjoy immediate success at USF. But there’s more to this marriage than Strong flourishing on the foundation Taggart and company laid.

This is a situation built for long-term success, as the former UF Gators assistant finds himself situated in one of the nation’s deepest recruiting pools — and a pool Strong knows well. His success at Louisville came in large part because of the pipeline Strong established between Kentucky and the Sunshine State. Bridgewater was the quintessential example, leaving Miami for UL.

Strong continued to recruit Florida well at Texas, but struggled making inroads with the powerhouse prep programs of the Lone Star State. USF’s a program capable of sustaining a high level with prospects almost exclusively out of Florida.

All told, this might be college football’s most ideal partnership — and it should begin with a bang.

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