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USF's Lauren Evans named AAC Player of the Week

USF junior Lauren Evans has been named American Athletic Conference Player of the Week.

Photo provided by USF

USF junior Lauren Evans has been named American Athletic Conference Player of the Week.

Bulls junior INF Lauren Evans, who hit .500 in five games this past weekend, has been named American Athletic Conference Player of the Week.

A former Academy at the Lakes star, Evans finished 8-of-16 with four runs scored, a stolen base, sacrifice bunt and no strikeouts during the five-game stretch.

She recorded multi-hit games against Wisconsin, (eight-inning, 3-1 loss), Hofstra (7-5 win) and Oklahoma State (six-inning, 12-4 win). For the season, Evans is hitting .385 with six runs scored.

The Bulls, 2-7 this time a season ago, are 6-3 with one triumph against a ranked foe (No. 6 Michigan).

In other softball news, USF pitching coach Jessica Moore, has been named 2016 USA Softball Female Athlete of the Year.

Moore earned the win for the U.S. national team in the title game of the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) Women's World Championship last summer. In 15 total innings, she struck out 23 and allowed three earned runs.

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ESPN bracketologist says USF not on bubble...yet

USF point guard Laia Flores (sore right ankle) is among a handful of Bulls playing through injury.

ANDRES LEIVA | Times

USF point guard Laia Flores (sore right ankle) is among a handful of Bulls playing through injury.

Despite USF's unsightly two-game skid, the nation's foremost NCAA women's bracketologist doesn't think the Bulls are sitting precariously on the bubble.

As of right now.

"USF has faded, but I don't think there is danger of missing the tournament, yet," ESPN's Charlie Creme wrote Monday morning in an e-mail to the Tampa Bay Times.

Besieged by injuries, the Bulls (20-6, 9-4 American) fell 66-62 to UCF at home on Tuesday, and watched a valiant second-half rally fall short in Sunday's 77-71 home loss to Temple. …

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USF women's rally falls short in costly defeat

With 20 victories and a top-50 RPI, the USF women's tournament resume still looks pretty solid these days.

Their seeding is another story.

A furious second-half rally by the No. 22 Bulls (20-6, 9-4 American) ended with futility down the stretch in a 77-71 loss Sunday to Temple before a Sun Dome crowd of 2,281. USF has lost two in a row for the first time this season and almost certainly will fall out of the top 25.

Suddenly, it appears in danger of losing three of its last five entering the American Athletic Conference tournament. The Bulls play at Houston (10-16, 3-10) on Tuesday and at Tulsa (8-18, 4-9) on Saturday before hosting top-ranked Connecticut on Feb. 27.

"We've got to go on the road and win those two games," Coach Jose Fernandez said. "And if we don't, we don't deserve to go to the NCAA Tournament."

Hampered by one of its most dreadful shooting halves of the season, USF trailed 39-26 at halftime Sunday, missing all 10 of its 3-point attempts. At that point, USF had more turnovers (nine) than field goals (eight).

And Temple had done far more hand-checking than Fernandez could bear, prompting his technical with 2:53 to play in the first half.

"I wasn't gonna sit here for the next 22, 23 minutes watching that game unfold the way it did," Fernandez said.

The Bulls scored the first six points of the second half -- all by sophomore Kitija Laksa -- and trimmed their deficit to seven, 56-49, by the end of the third. When junior Maria Jespersen (26 points, 11 rebounds) converted a traditional three-point play with 2:46 to go, USF went ahead 67-64, its first lead since the first period.

"I think the first and second halves definitely were officiated differently," Fernandez said.

From there, USF went on a 2:17 scoring drought lowlighted by two turnovers and a critical defensive lapse.

The Bulls failed to box out after a missed 3-pointer by Temple's Alliya Butts on the left wing, enabling Feyonda Fitzgerald (23 points) to hit a second-chance 3-pointer to tie the score at 67-all.

A Donnaizha Fountain trey from the right baseline made it 72-67 with 56 seconds remaining. Temple (21-5, 11-2) went 7-of-8 from the free-throw line in the last 1:33.

"Up three and we don't get a defensive stop when we needed to," Fernandez said. "It was a long three (by Butts) from the left wing and we didn't block out. And that's what it comes down to."

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Speedster Chauncy Smart signs with USF

The Bulls received a significant -- and speedy -- late addition to their 2017 recruiting class when Auburndale High ATH Chauncy Smart signed a letter of intent.

One of the nation's top sprinters, Smart (5-foot-8, 160 pounds) announced via social media on Saturday he'll play football and run track for the Bulls. In a follow-up message to several media outlets including the Tampa Bay Times, he indicated he had signed.

If and when the announcement is confirmed by the school, Smart will become the 19th signee in the Class of 2017.

Smart, who has an all-conditions personal-best time of 10.3 seconds in the 100-meter dash, is on a visit to USF this weekend.

A three-star prospect according to 247Sports, Smart signed a track scholarship with FSU last fall but was granted a release. Originally a two-sport athlete, he quit Auburndale's football team about midway through the '16 season, presumably to stay healthy for track.

But his passion for football led to a change of heart. He is deemed a three-star football prospect by 247Sports.

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Nine-run inning rallies Bulls past Iowa

On the eve of what could be a nasty storm front in Tampa, USF brandished the art of storming back.

Handcuffed most of the night by Iowa right-handed starter Nick Gallagher, the Bulls exploded for nine eighth-inning runs off two Hawkeyes relievers in a 9-4 romp before a USF Baseball Stadium opening-night crowd of 1,113.

Spoto High alumnus Chris Chatfield's one-out RBI-single started the rally. Senior DH Luke Borders followed with a two-run triple that he nearly stretched into an inside-the-park homer.

Sophomore Cameron Montgomery provided the go-ahead RBIs with a two-run double. By inning's end David Villar and Kevin Merrell each had stroked two-run singles. …

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Q&A: USF offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert

New USF offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, a west Texas native, is on his fifth collegiate coaching stop.

JOEY KNIGHT | Times

New USF offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, a west Texas native, is on his fifth collegiate coaching stop.

Though he's set to close on a new home in the area later this month, new Bulls offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert still is living primarily out of boxes. Among the items still stowed: the contents of his Art Briles-influenced offense. Gilbert, 38, didn't offer many specifics (for obvious reasons) during his sit-down Wednesday with the Tampa Bay Times, but he did chat about his influences, fellow staffers and his west Texas roots.

What's your assessment of the personnel you've inherited here?
"You know, what's probably a little unfair about that right now is, you don't really know until you get out to spring ball. Obviously a guy like Quinton (Flowers) jumps out to you, and D'Ernest (Johnson) and some of these guys that are back. But as far as just sitting right here today, you just watch 'em go through some offseason stuff and lift, so you're not seeing any football stuff until March 6. So our true assessment, our true evaluation of those guys, won't come until then."

What would you say is one -- or two -- prevailing adjectives to describe your offense?
"You know, we try to be physical. Physical and fast are probably the first two words that come to mind. That's what we want to be, be physical in our run game, have a physical presence about what what we do and how we play. And then just the speed and tempo that we play with, and the kind of speed that's on the field."

You were a pupil of Art Briles back in the day (a Houston graduate-assistant in 2005), and the presumption is you run a Baylor offense. But I'm sure over time, you've added some components and variations of your own, correct?
"Absolutely. I was with Art back in '05; that was at Houston. So what it's evolved to and how it is today has changed. And just a lot of that's been with my location and where I've coached. When you're up north, you've got to do things a little bit different weather-wise than you do down in the south. So those are some things that we've adapted and adjusted with."

Something that fascinates people about the Baylor-style offense are the post-snap adjustments. Is that something you'd like to try here?
"Yeah, I think so. There's just some different stuff that we do in the ways that we try to get things accomplished and done scheme-wise, and we've had some success doing that. And again, you go back to your initial question, the thing we've got to do that you can't do right now in the weightroom or in the offseason drills is, we've got to see what our guys do best. That'll be the first initial thing."

You've been at a lot of places. Who would you count, on one hand, as your biggest influences?
"I really don't just identify with one of those guys. I mean really, with Art and then Dino Babers, those are probably two of the biggest guys that stick out. I was with Dino at Eastern (Illinois) and obviously at (Bowling Green) and learned a lot of football from him. He has a really heavy influence on me and the path that I've taken and what we do on the offensive side of the football."

What will the collaboration be like between yourself (offensive coordinator) and Matt Mattox (offensive line/run game) on game days?
"It just works. We really don't even divide it up. I'd say it's somewhat like that, but we've coached together for a while now and we just understand and know what we want on Saturdays and what we need. We both obviously rely and depend on each other for information and answers and suggestions within our whole staff. That is one positive, Coach (Charlie Strong) was able to bring pretty much everybody with us (from Texas). And Shaun (King) is with us, who's got a great football mind and played in the NFL, we all know that. He brings a perspective and a view himself, and gives us obviously some knowledge."

You mentioned you've watched a little bit of USF film from last year. They ran what they liked to call the Gulf Coast Offense. How similar is that offense to what you'd ideally like to do?
"I haven't seen enough. When I say a little bit of film, I bet I haven't seen 50 plays (from USF's 2016 season). I don't really probably have a fair judgment off that minimal amount of plays. But just in those 50, there are some things that I like that will probably be good carry-over for what we're doing."

As a west Texas guy, how close were you to Odessa and Midland of Friday Night Lights fame? (Gilbert attended Lake View High in San Angelo, Texas)
"They're about and hour and 15, hour and a half west of me. So the whole Friday Night Lights the movie, that district is Odessa High, Odessa Permian, San Angelo Central...and then you've got the two Abilene schools, Abilene High and Abilene Cooper. So that's what that movie's based on, those schools. ... I grew up hearing all that Mojo and all that kind of stuff."

So when you were a high school coach in west Texas, how many fans on a typical Friday night?
"Umm, it just probably depends where you're at. You go to Abilene Cooper...you're probably looking at -- I'm gonna say -- 10,000 to 18,000. And then your crosstown rival game with Abilene High is gonna probably draw you in the 20-something. ... And then those other places, we had good crowds. My first job was at Springtown (Texas), and you might only draw -- I don't know -- 3,000 to 5,000 people, but it's not a very big town. I mean, it's one of those deals that when you go on the road, last person out turn off the lights. Nothing's going on in town when the games are going on."

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USF's Darius Tice granted extra year

USF running back Darius Tice, who fractured his ankle early in his senior season last fall, has been granted an extra year of eligibility.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

USF running back Darius Tice, who fractured his ankle early in his senior season last fall, has been granted an extra year of eligibility.

Bulls senior RB Darius Tice, whose college career appeared to end when he fractured his right ankle in September against FSU, was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA and will be eligible in 2017, the school confirmed.

One of the team's more popular players, Tice's return helps fortify a running back depth chart that took a substantial hit when three-time 1,000-yard rusher Marlon Mack announced in January he'd bypass his senior year and enter the NFL Draft.

Tice (193 career carries, 874 yards, five TDs) will join rising senior D'Ernest Johnson (1,000 career rushing, 756 career receiving yards), sophomore-to-be Trevon Sands (eight carries, 26 yards in '16) and 2016 redshirt Elijah Mack in the backfield derby. 

Speaking of Mack, he and former Bulls WR Rodney Adams will represent USF at the NFL Scouting Combine, starting Feb. 28 in Indianapolis. …

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Gregory, UCF shock No. 22 Bulls

Ten months after former USF scoring dynamo Courtney Williams was taken with the No. 8 overall pick in the WNBA Draft, Bulls fans got a pseudo-sighting of her Tuesday night.

Courtesy of UCF junior Aliyah Gregory.

In a performance reminiscent of Williams, the Strawberry Crest High alumnus scored a career-high 34 points in the Knights' 66-62 upset before an announced Sun Dome crowd of 1,884.

It was UCF's first win ever against a ranked team and first against USF since Dec. 10, 1980, snapping the Bulls' 19-game winning streak in the series.

Gregory, who said she was recruited by USF (20-5, 9-3 American) but never offered a scholarship, hit a free throw with 13.3 seconds to play to provide the final margin. Before that, she scorched the No. 22 Bulls with steady dribble penetration and a sequence of mid-range jumpers.

"I have to prove myself to a lot of teams because a lot of people didn't recruit me because they didn't think I could score at an elite level in college and things like that," said Gregory, who estimates she had more than two-dozen friends and relatives in attendance.

"So every night I come out here and prove myself no matter who we're playing, but it's a little more personal with USF 'cause it's my hometown."

The Knights' top scorer (16.0 ppg) coming in, Gregory scored 14 consecutive points in one stretch between the first and second quarters, and had 20 at halftime, when UCF led 37-38. Doing a bulk of her damage from mid-range and in, she finished 15-of-26 from the floor, missing her only 3-point attempt.

"We turned her down, we helped with the post, we doubled her, we went zone," Bulls coach Jose Fernandez said. "It's a credit, she had a really, really good night. They're not in that position if it wasn't for her individual performance today."

Trailing 56-44 entering the final period, USF opened the quarter on a 12-2 run, holding the Knights scoreless the first 4:55. UCF (16-9, 6-6) regrouped and took a 65-60 lead on Gregory's traditional three-point play with 1:58 remaining. From there, USF went 1-of-4 from the floor, turning the ball over on its final possession.

Moments later, the Knights were celebrating at midcourt as USF's players gathered beneath one basket for the traditional playing of the alma mater.

"We talked to our kids about we're in the top 25, we're an NCAA Tournament team, the history of the series, and how important this game is to UCF," Fernandez said. "It showed; you saw how they celebrated after the game. Hand it to them."

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USF spring game set for April 15

USF fans won't get their initial glimpse of Charlie Strong's inaugural Bulls team until April 15, when it stages its annual spring game.

ANDRES LEIVA | Times

USF fans won't get their initial glimpse of Charlie Strong's inaugural Bulls team until April 15, when it stages its annual spring game.

Bulls fans won't get their initial glimpse of Charlie Strong's inaugural Bulls team until April 15, when the Bulls stage their annual spring game.

The school confirmed Tuesday morning what was widely expected: Strong's spring practices will be closed until the spring game, which again will be held on campus at Corbett Stadium. Admission to the 4 p.m. contest is free, and the game will be broadcast live on the radio on 820-AM.

USF begins spring drills March 6. After three practices, the Bulls will adjourn for spring break (March 12-18) before returning for the final 12 of 15 spring workouts starting March 21.

Spring game festivities again will feature a Fan Zone including inflatables, music and food. In a Bulls doubleheader of sorts, the baseball team will host Cincinnati at 1 p.m. on Red McEwen Field.

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USF's Kingston up in arms, and it's a good thing

USF senior Phoenix Sanders is expected to start Friday's season opener at home against Iowa.

Photo provided by USF

USF senior Phoenix Sanders is expected to start Friday's season opener at home against Iowa.

Third-year USF baseball coach Mark Kingston believes the pundits who have offered modest projections for the Bulls in 2017 simply haven't seen a large chunk of his pitching staff.

Unless they smuggled a hidden camera inside the Bulls' rehab room last year.

Arguably no USF coach this side of Murry Bartow warrants a mulligan more than Kingston, who lost four pitchers to Tommy John surgery in 2016. The result was a 24-33 record, only one season after USF earned its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2002.

"No disrespect to last year's team, but we had to deal with a lot of adversity," Kingston said.

Entering Friday's season opener at home against Iowa, adversity has been supplanted by anticipation. The Bulls' pitchers are healthy again.

Toss in a seasoned nucleus of sophomore position players, and a promising freshman class rife with bay area flavor, and Kingston's outlook is much brighter than his fellow American Athletic Conference coaches (who picked USF sixth in the AAC preseason poll) or d1baseball.com (which picks USF seventh).

"When you factor in our (injured pitchers) are now returning, you factor in some new players that were in this year's recruiting class, and then you talk about the continued growth that (pitching coach) Billy Mohl has done with our guys...I feel a lot better about our options going into this season," Kingston said.

"Knock on wood, so far this year guys appear to be at full strength and we've seen a lot of improvement on the pitching staff."

Almost certain to get the ball Friday is senior right-hander Phoenix Sanders (5-5, 4.15 ERA, 95.1 IP, 95 Ks in '16), one of the few pitchers to remain healthy last season.

Also in line for a weekend starting spot are no fewer than three of the Tommy John veterans: freshman lefty Shane McClanahan, junior righty Peter Strzelecki, and senior righty Ryan Valdes. All three redshirted in 2016.

McClanahan is ranked No. 3 on Baseball America's list of the AAC's top 2018 draft prospects. Brawny rookie right-hander D.J. Roberts (6-foot-1, 235 pounds), is ranked fourth among AAC freshmen.   

Sophomore lefty Andrew Perez, whom Kingston says has made a "huge jump" from a velocity standpoint, is the leading candidate to replace '16 closer Tommy Eveld, now in the Diamondbacks organization.

"We have options, now it's a matter of figuring out how to put the best pieces of the puzzle together," Kingston said. "But I like the pieces, I can tell you that."

2017 USF Baseball
Coach: Mark Kingston (third season at USF, 58-59-1; eighth season overall, 231-161-1)
First pitch: vs. Iowa, Friday, 6:30 p.m., USF Baseball Stadium
Need to know: Look for this year's team to possess a better slugging percentage -- and seasoning -- than last year's rookie-laden lineup. Kingston returns five position players who started at least 38 games as freshmen last season. In the first five intrasquad games, USF hit 10 homers, Kingston said. ... The top 2017 draft prospect is SS Kevin Merrell (.320, 22 RBIs in '16), a preseason all-conference pick (and Steinbrenner High alumnus). ... Don't look for former unanimous first-team all-conference C Levi Borders in Friday's lineup. Borders redshirted after missing the last 41 games of '16 with a mysterious bacterial infection, and remains sidelined. ... The freshman class includes four bay area players: INF Nick Cerelli (Plant), INF/OF Anthony Gonnella (Riverview), RHP Carson Ragsdale (Bishop McLaughlin) and C Jordan Santos (TNXL Academy, Tampa Catholic).

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USF's Laksa, Henshaw honored by AAC

USF sophomore Kitija Laksa has been named American Athletic Conference Player of the Week.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

USF sophomore Kitija Laksa has been named American Athletic Conference Player of the Week.

For the third time this season, USF sophomore Kitija Laksa has been named American Athletic Conference Player of the Week.

Laksa scored 34 points on the road Wednesday as the Bulls rallied past East Carolina, and scored 21 in Sunday's 66-56 home triumph against Tulane. In those two contests, she shot a collective 50 percent (7-of-14) from 3-point range.

Meantime, 6-foot-1 rookie Tamara Henshaw was named Rookie of the Week for the second time.

Henshaw tallied her third career double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds) at East Carolina, and flirted with her fourth (eight points, 10 boards) Sunday against Tulane. All eight of her points came in the second half, and her four blocks were a career-high.

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UF's Barnhill handcuffs Bulls in 8-0 romp

An opening weekend rife with drama ended with a drubbing for USF.

Florida sophomore right-hander Kelly Barnhill came a hit shy of a six-inning perfect game, striking out 12 in the third-ranked Gators' 8-0 romp of the No. 24 Bulls (3-1) before a standing-room-only crowd of 2,332 Sunday afternoon at USF Softball Stadium.

"That was one of the best pitching performances I've ever seen in college," said Bulls coach Ken Eriksen, who has seen more than 2,400 of them in 20-plus seasons as Bulls coach.

USF opened its season Friday with a 5-4 win against Illinois (on freshman Bethaney Keen's walk-off homer) and used a four-run sixth inning Saturday to rally for a 6-4 triumph against No. 6 Michigan.

But that offensive magic never materialized against Barnhill, a current member of the U.S. national team coached by Eriksen. Only Astin Donovan's fourth-inning single wiped out Barnhill's shot at a perfect game.

"They moved the mound back for (Olympic gold medalist) Michele Granger back in 1987, and golly, if they don't try to think about moving the mound back after today..." Eriksen said.

"What you witnessed today was pretty special. (Barnhill's) ball had so much movement, late-breaking stuff besides velocity. When you're throwing 73, 74 (mph) you've got to respect velocity. And then she throws the movement in at the end. It's unfair."

Sophomore Amanda Lorenz finished with five RBIs and had one of Florida's three home runs.

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As ankle throbs, so does Flores' fortitude

Despite an injured right ankle, USF junior Laia Flores has played every minute of the last six quarters for the Bulls.

ANDRES LEIVA | Times

Despite an injured right ankle, USF junior Laia Flores has played every minute of the last six quarters for the Bulls.

The pain in her throbbing right ankle wasn't quite as profound as the agony of helplessly watching her team's NCAA Tournament hopes fracture.

USF junior PG Laia Flores hadn't played a minute of that first half at East Carolina, which ended with the Bulls trailing by two. The initial plan was for Flores not to play at all. But a second consecutive loss to a conference foe with a losing record may have left a permanent smudge on the Bulls' NCAA resume.

So when Coach Jose Fernandez approached Flores at halftime, the Spain native leaped -- at least figuratively -- at the opportunity to go in.

"He came to me, he was like, 'Do you think you can give us some minutes?'" said Flores, who had badly turned the ankle in the first quarter of a loss at Memphis three nights before. "And I said, 'Yeah, I'm fine.'"

Flores hasn't come off the floor since.

Despite an injury still essentially requiring round-the-clock treatment, Flores played the entire second half Wednesday at East Carolina as USF rallied for a 76-66 triumph. On Sunday against Tulane, she had 10 points, six assists and four rebounds in 40 minutes as the No. 22 Bulls prevailed, 66-56.

"I'd take her in a back alley with me. That's toughness," Fernandez said following Sunday's game. "We got back and X-rayed and had everything looked at, but the swelling and the pain that she has had to play through these last 60 minutes has been big."

How big? Without Flores, it's conceivable the Bulls could've ended this week on a three-game losing streak and skidding head-on toward the tournament bubble.

But with Sunday's victory against a top-50 RPI foe, they clinched the program's fifth consecutive 20-win season (20-4, 9-2 American) and appear in excellent position for their third consecutive NCAA berth.

"She's battling an injury and she's going through it just for the team, to help us," said sophomore Kitija Laksa, who scored 21 Sunday. "She's our only point guard because the rest of them (freshman Enna Pehadzic, juco transfer Nachalie DeJesus) are hurt. …

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Charlie Strong reportedly completes his staff

Marshall defensive ends coach Sean Cronin, a graduate assistant at Florida during the Gators' last two national title seasons, reportedly has been hired to join Charlie Strong's staff at USF.

FootballScoop.com first reported the hiring Friday. Cronin's addition would complete Strong's staff.

Miami Carol City defensive coordinator Damon Cogdell reportedly was hired by Strong earlier this week, but no official announcement has been made by USF.

A graduate of Cincinnati's famed Moeller High, Cronin began his collegiate playing career at UC before finishing at Georgetown (Ky.). In addition to his three-year stint at UF, during which Strong was Gators defensive coordinator, Cronin has coached at The Citadel (2009), Temple ('11-12) and Marshall ('10, '13-15).

If and when the Cogdell-Cronin hirings are made official, here's what Strong's staff would look like:

Sterlin Gilbert: Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
Matt Mattox: Offensive line/run game
Shaun King: Running backs
Charlie Williams: Receivers
Justin Burke: Tight ends/special teams
Brian Jean-Mary: Defensive coordinator/linebackers
Damon Cogdell: Defensive line
Sean Cronin: Defensive ends
Blue Adams: Defensive backs

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Bulls' 2017 schedule includes Black Friday date at UCF

USF's annual showdown with UCF will be played on Black Friday (Nov. 24) in Orlando.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

USF's annual showdown with UCF will be played on Black Friday (Nov. 24) in Orlando.

After a one-year hiatus, the "War on I-4" is headed back to the earlier part of Thanksgiving weekend.

USF's annual showdown with UCF will be played on Black Friday (Nov. 24) in Orlando, the American Athletic Conference announced Thursday. Last season's contest was played on Saturday of the holiday weekend, but was held on Thanksgiving night or Black Friday from 2013-15.

The release of the complete conference schedule finalizes the Bulls' 2017 slate. In addition to the UCF contest, the Bulls' other non-Saturday games include a Friday night home game against Illinois (Sept. 15) and a home contest against Temple the following Thursday.

Presuming USF's Sept. 2 home opener against Stony Brook kicks off at 7 p.m., the Bulls won't have a home day game until the Oct. 14 homecoming contest against Massachusetts -- at the earliest. …

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