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Charlie Strong: USF needs indoor facility, outdoor fan support

New USF football coach Charlie Strong (center) appeared Wednesday evening at the "Summer Stampede" booster function at Ulele restaurant.

Photo provided by USF

New USF football coach Charlie Strong (center) appeared Wednesday evening at the "Summer Stampede" booster function at Ulele restaurant.

Standing on a makeshift stage beneath a white tent on a soupy summer evening, new Bulls football coach Charlie Strong made it clear to new boss Mark Harlan and roughly 150 boosters he covets an indoor practice facility.

Not to mention one major appliance.

"Next year Mark, we've got to get us an air conditioner," Strong quipped.

Morale seemed as high as the humidity Wednesday night on the back lawn of Ulele restaurant as Strong, Harlan and new men's basketball coach Brian Gregory spoke to the gathering at the "Summer Stampede."

For now, it's the only booster stop slated for the coaches, who trumpeted their respective programs and -- in Strong's case -- passionately lobbied for fan support.

Here are some highlights from the evening.

Need 1: Outdoor fan base
Like predecessor Willie Taggart, Strong hasn't been shy about trying to ignite a constituency with a spotty recent attendance record. …

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Will Houston represent USF's biggest headache? We say no

UCF sophomore quarterback McKenzie Milton gets another crack at USF on Nov. 24 in Orlando.

CHARLIE KAIJO | Times

UCF sophomore quarterback McKenzie Milton gets another crack at USF on Nov. 24 in Orlando.

These days, those of us who cover college football wrack our respective cerebrums to keep fans engaged. We attend camps, follow recruiting, and react to the litany of preseason rankings that waft through cyberspace. 

We also compile lists, tons of 'em. Some are compelling, others pure clickbait. The good ones elicit debate.

On Wednesday, we found just such a list, courtesy of ESPN. And yes, we're debating it.

This one attempted to identify the "biggest opposing headache" for each top-25 team (or at least the teams listed in Mark Schlabach's post-spring top 25). FSU's headache? The talented pass rushers its reconfigured offensive line will face. Florida's was LSU TB Derrius Guice (who had a pedestrian 83 yards on 19 carries in the Tigers' dramatic home loss to UF last season).

And USF's? Houston DE Ed Oliver, a freshman All-American last season whose team comes to Raymond James Stadium on Nov. 4.

To be sure, Oliver's a force, not to mention future pro. His 23 tackles for loss ranked second nationally in 2016, and his team projects to be pretty darn good.

But as headaches go, we don't predict the Bulls' biggest one to hail from Houston. We can see UCF potentially providing a migraine-caliber challenge to the Bulls on Black Friday.

Follow us here: By the time USF travels to Orlando, we expect the Bulls to have clinched the American Athletic Conference's East Division and still be in contention for the New Year's bowl berth awarded to the Group of Five's highest-ranked conference champ.

That puts the Knights -- whom we expect to be far improved in '17 -- in prime position to spoil the Bulls' postseason aspirations. Moreover, Knights sophomore QB McKenzie Milton will be far more seasoned once this game arrives. So will a defense that must rebuild at linebacker and the secondary.

Now toss in this additional dash of incentive: UCF's coaches likely are still seething over last year's game, when they took issue with a late TD tacked on by Willie Taggart in the Bulls' 48-31 romp.

It all makes for a scenario that could give USF fits.

If not a headache.  

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USF football rookies arrive on campus

Another sign of the 2017 football season's imminence arrived Tuesday at USF -- mostly in boxes.

All 19 members of Charlie Strong's inaugural signing class were expected on campus Tuesday, the rookies' formal move-in day. As of 4 p.m., the staff was waiting on a couple of late arrivals, but all were expected on campus.

The university's Summer B session of classes begins Monday.

Meantime, the Bulls veterans have long since been engaging in pre-dawn summer workouts, which include one exercise straight from Mr. Miyagi's dojo. Check out these clips of DT Deadrin Senat and DT Bruce Hector from defensive tackles coach Sean Cronin's Twitter feed.

We'll be sure and ask Strong about this at his "Summer Stampede" booster event Wednesday night at Ulele in Tampa.

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Former USF star Courtney Williams finds her WNBA groove

Former USF standout Courtney Williams has served as the offensive catalyst for the WNBA's Connecticut Sun during its four-game win streak.

Photo provided by the Connecticut Sun

Former USF standout Courtney Williams has served as the offensive catalyst for the WNBA's Connecticut Sun during its four-game win streak.

Brimming with her trademark confidence in the wake of a sparkling preseason, Courtney Williams informed her Connecticut Sun coaches she had a goal for the 2017 WNBA season.

Befitting the Williams swagger, it was hardly modest: win the league's Sixth Woman of the Year award.

"At that time I thought it was a very realistic goal," Sun coach Curt Miller said, "because of what an offensive spark plug she can be off the bench."

But as Williams has learned, circumstances change and roles are modified over the course of a professional season. As a result, the No. 2 scorer in USF history is slipping out of contention for that sixth woman of the year honor.

Because lately, she's playing like the sixth-best woman in the whole darn league.

Thrust into the Sun starting lineup when veteran G Alex Bentley took a hiatus (to play for Belarus in the EuroBasket Tournament), Williams (12.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg) has responded by producing stats -- and sleekness -- reminiscent of her dazzling collegiate career.

In her last four games (three of them starts), Williams has averaged 19 points and seven rebounds, propelling herself into all-star consideration.

The Sun (5-5) has won all four.

"The one thing is, she's so confident offensively that she can go score and get her shot against anyone," said Miller, whose team plays Friday against the New York Liberty.

"We're a transition-based team, so she really thrives in the up-tempo transition game too. But in the halfcourt you can really put her on the move -- just like South Florida did -- and run her off a bunch of screens. She's really, really hard to run around with, and then obviously she's got that ultimate confident swagger about her that makes her special."

The surge stands in stark contrast to the funk in which she found herself last year. Drafted by a veteran team (Phoenix Mercury) for whom she never seemed a good fit, Williams languished on the bench (playing 25 total minutes over six games) before being traded to the Sun on June 25.

In Connecticut, she found her niche in providing a spark off the bench, averaging 8.1 points and 3.6 boards in 19 games. Following an offseason in the Turkish League, she took first-team reps in the Sun's training camp while Bentley nursed an ankle injury, and flourished.

"You could see coming out of training camp, she had great confidence," Miller said.

It hasn't dissipated in her new role. Williams is generating all-star discussion, with the Sun launching a campaign on her behalf. (Fans can click her to learn how to vote for her.)

"Certainly these last four games, she should be in the discussion," Miller said.

"And our team is playing really, really well. Despite being 5-5 we have three two-point losses, and another game that we lost that was tied with under three minutes to go. It's hard not to think about the what-ifs...but this young group is starting to learn how to win close games and starting to learn who to play through in those types of situations."

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USF a consensus preseason top-25 pick...so far

USF linebacker Auggie Sanchez (43) and the Bulls appear in the top 25 of all prominent preseason rankings released so far.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

USF linebacker Auggie Sanchez (43) and the Bulls appear in the top 25 of all prominent preseason rankings released so far.

If the preseason ended today, USF would be a consensus top-25 squad.

Alas, a bit more forecasting and prognosticating looms (it's only mid-June), but so far the Bulls appear in every prominent summer top 25. Here they are, broken down by publication:

Lindy's: 17th

Athlon: 24th

Street & Smith's: 23rd

Phil Steele: 18th

The Sporting News: 22nd

We're still awaiting the preseason rankings from ESPN and Sports Illustrated (not to mention the Associated Press), but aren't expecting any shockers. The Bulls were 19th in the post-spring rankings compiled by ESPN's Mark Schlabach, and SI.com had the Bulls 25th in its way-too-early top 25 released in January.

And of course, USF finished 19th in last season's final AP poll.

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Mets draft USF's Joe Cavallaro in 24th round

Junior RHP Joe Cavallaro became the third current Bull to see his name go off the big-league draft board when the Mets took him Wednesday in the 24th round.

Arguably USF's most effective reliever down the stretch, Cavallaro was among five right-handed pitcher with a USF connection to be drafted. Senior Ryan Valdes -- an Alonso High alumnus -- also was drafted Wednesday (Pirates, 33rd round).

A 6-foot-4 converted starter, Cavallaro -- the 727th overall pick -- posted a career-best 2.28 ERA in 30 appearances, all out of the bullpen. He finished 5-3 with five saves, striking out 77 in 59.1 innings.

USF Draftees
Round; Player; Club; Overall pick

CBA (A): SS Kevin Merrell, A's (33)
7: RHP Jackson Tetreault, Nationals (223)*
10: RHP Phoenix Sanders, Rays (289)
15: RHP Tommy Romero, Mariners (453)*
24: RHP Joe Cavallaro, Mets (727)
33: RHP Ryan Valdes, Pirates (988)
*-USF signee

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Rays select USF pitcher Phoenix Sanders in 10th round

USF senior right-hander Phoenix Sanders was drafted by the Rays in the 10th round Tuesday.

Photo by Travis Pendergrass | USF

USF senior right-hander Phoenix Sanders was drafted by the Rays in the 10th round Tuesday.

His anxiety level increased with each passing round of the big-league draft Tuesday, though Phoenix Sanders really needn't have stressed.

He was soaking in good USF karma all along.

The Bulls' Friday night starter the last two seasons, Sanders was at the Niceville home of former USF C Scott Hemond -- highest-drafted player in program history -- when he got the call that the Rays had taken him in the 10th round (with the 289th overall pick).

Sanders' girlfriend, Haleigh, is the daughter of Hemond, taken by the A's with the 14th overall pick in 1986. The A's, in fact, were the first team to phone Sanders on Tuesday.

He'll gladly take the Rays, known for their affinity for guys with crafty sliders.

"They sent me a questionnaire and I met with them once," Sanders said. "And it wasn't until about the eighth round rolled around, their area scout gave me a call and was like, 'Hey, what's your signability? Are you good to sign for this dollar amount?' I was like, 'Yeah, I'm ready to go.'

"I hadn't heard anything from them, and (USF assistant) Chris Cates had called me and said, 'Hey, a couple of teams are gonna look at you in the 10th round.' And then I looked up and the Rays selected me. It was a feeling of relief."

Sanders, who turned 22 last week, was the second pitcher with USF ties to be drafted Tuesday; signee Jackson Tetreault -- a former Lennard High standout -- was drafted by the Nationals in the seventh round.

Though his approximate pick value is $136,000 (according to MLB.com), Sanders indicated he'll likely sign for a bit less.

"I think they did the whole senior-saver kind of thing," he said. …

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The top 5 draftees in USF baseball history

USF shortstop Kevin Merrell was selected by the Oakland A's with the 33rd overall pick Monday night in the Major League Baseball Draft.

CHRIS URSO | Times

USF shortstop Kevin Merrell was selected by the Oakland A's with the 33rd overall pick Monday night in the Major League Baseball Draft.

Candidly, we didn't expect Bulls junior SS Kevin Merrell to go off the Major League Baseball Draft board so quickly Monday night, and neither did he.

"I'm pretty speechless right now," Merrell said by phone from his Odessa home, roughly 30 minutes after the Oakland A's drafted him with the 33rd overall pick in a sandwich (i.e. Competitive Balance) round immediately after Round 1. "So thankful."

Officially, Merrell is the third-highest draftee in Bulls history. And since we know you're wondering (because we certainly were), here are the top five:

1. C Scott Hemond, A's, 1986, first round (14th overall)
2. SS Jason Dellaero, White Sox, 1997, first round (15th overall)
3. SS Kevin Merrell, A's, 2017, Competitive Balance Round A (33rd overall)
4. SS Brett King, Giants, 1993, second round (72nd overall)
5. LHP Mark Hubbard, Yankees, 1991, third round (89th overall)

Naturally, Merrell oozed as much modesty as shock in the immediate wake of his selection. He said he's slated to meet with A's representatives Thursday, when he conceivably could sign his contract and get his minor league assignment.

"I guess it's time like this you just think about all the people that have just made an impact, have invested so much time in my life," Merrell said. "It's been an awesome journey, and I guess the next step's with A's, so I'm excited."

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USF's Shane McClanahan named freshman All-American

USF left-hander Shane McClanahan struck out 104 batters in 76 innings this past season.

Photo by Travis Pendegrass | USF

USF left-hander Shane McClanahan struck out 104 batters in 76 innings this past season.

Bulls LHP Shane McClanahan, a likely big-league draftee this time next year, has been named a first-team freshman All-American by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA).

A power pitcher who redshirted the 2016 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, McClanahan finished 4-2 with a 3.20 ERA as USF's Saturday night starter. Brandishing a fastball that can reach the upper 90s, McClanahan struck out 104 batters in 76 innings. His 12.32 strikeouts per nine innings ranked eighth nationally.

He's the first Bull to be recognized as a freshman All-American since Kevin Merrell (2015), who was expected to be drafted as early as Monday night.

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Draft wait likely short for USF's Kevin Merrell

USF shortstop Kevin Merrell (right) is expected to become the first Bulls player taken in the first five rounds of the Major League Baseball Draft since 2006.

CHRIS URSO | Times

USF shortstop Kevin Merrell (right) is expected to become the first Bulls player taken in the first five rounds of the Major League Baseball Draft since 2006.

Last week's encouraging news for Bulls baseball fans (Coach Mark Kingston appears set to stick around) now seems destined to be offset by some a little tougher to absorb.

SS Kevin Merrell almost certainly has played his last game for USF. RHP Joe Cavallaro -- a fellow junior -- conceivably also could depart. There's even a modest chance OF Duke Stunkel Jr., who wielded USF's hottest bat in the postseason, may exit too. …

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Nick Saban makes satellite debut at USF

Alabama football coach Nick Saban (right) made a late cameo at USF coach Charlie Strong's mini-camp Saturday.

JOEY KNIGHT | Times

Alabama football coach Nick Saban (right) made a late cameo at USF coach Charlie Strong's mini-camp Saturday.

With one casual step through the east gate of the Morsani Football Practice Complex, Alabama coach Nick Saban took a giant leap for satellite camp proponents nationally.

Previously an outspoken satellite-camp detractor, Saban made what is believed to be his first appearance at such a gathering Saturday afternoon, arriving in the waning stages of USF coach Charlie Strong's one-day mini-camp that attracted hundreds of state and local recruits.

Saban offered neither instruction nor a group speech, but sought out a handful of notable campers and met with them to the side. The first with whom he met: Armwoood ATH Jerome Ford and Hawks ATH Warren Thompson, deemed three- and four-star prospects, respectively, by 247Sports.

Crimson Tide OL coach Brent Key and WRs coach Mike Locksley were among the dozens of other college coaches from various schools on hand Saturday, arriving well in advance of Saban. Key got some quality face time with 6-foot-6 Berkeley Prep four-star OT Nicholas Petit-Frere.

Saban created a national stir this time last year, when he said he was against satellite camps because they incorporate third parties into recruiting.

The NCAA recently established some new guidelines on satellite camps, mandating they be conducted on university facilities or facilities used by universities for games or practices. The new rules also limit 10 days to be used for camps in both June and July.

Saban wasn't finished. He was believed to be slated for a satellite twin bill Saturday, concluding with a Butch Davis camp at FIU. …

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Former Bull Geno Thorpe bound for Syracuse

Guard Geno Thorpe, last season's top scorer for USF, graduated in May.

CHARLIE KAIJO | Times

Guard Geno Thorpe, last season's top scorer for USF, graduated in May.

Former Bulls G Geno Thorpe, arguably the most prominent departure from the 2016-17 team, also has found the most prominent landing spot.

Various media outlets reported Friday afternoon that Thorpe will spend his graduate-transfer season at Syracuse, helping fortify Jim Boeheim's backcourt depth issues.

"It's a team-oriented program," Thorpe told Syracuse.com. "It's only about winning. My role will be to play both guard spots alonog with Frank (Howard), Tyus (Battle) and Howard (Washington)."

Thorpe, who began his career at Penn State, sat out the 2015-16 season at USF (per NCAA transfer rules), and led a decimated Bulls lineup in scoring (15.1 ppg) and assists (4.6).

His announcement Friday means four Bulls who transferred since last December have found new homes:

G Michael Bibby: Undecided
G Malik Fitts: Saint Mary's
C Ruben Guerrero: Samford
PG Jahmal McMurray: SMU
PF Luis Santos: Undecided
G Geno Thorpe: Syracuse
F Bo Zeigler: Undecided

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Locals Kevin Merrell, Alex Faedo named All-Americans

USF junior Kevin Merrell is the 10th All-American in program history.

CHRIS URSO | Times

USF junior Kevin Merrell is the 10th All-American in program history.

Bulls junior SS Kevin Merrell, expected to be taken in the early rounds of next week's Major League Baseball draft, has been named a second-team All-American by Baseball America.

A Steinbrenner High alumnus, Merrell and Florida RHP Alex Faedo (who starred at Alonso, were the only players from a state school to make the first or second team. FSU LHP Tyler Holton and Gators closer Michael Byrne made the third team.

Merrell, the subject of a Tampa Bay Times profile last month, is the only USF player to lead the team in hitting three consecutive seasons. He led the American Athletic Conference in batting average (.384) this past year, and also led USF in runs (48), hits (83), slugging percentage (.569) and stolen bases (19).

He becomes the 10th All-American in program history, but the first since P Kevin Quackenbush in 2011.

Faedo (7-2, 2.70), has held opponents to a collective .221 batting average. He enters this weekend's NCAA Super Regional with 123 strikeouts, second-most in the SEC.

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USF's Mark Kingston expected to stay put, get raise

Mark Kingston has compiled a 100-78-1 record in three seasons as USF baseball coach.

CHRIS URSO | Times

Mark Kingston has compiled a 100-78-1 record in three seasons as USF baseball coach.

Third-year USF baseball coach Mark Kingston, whose name recently has been attached to at least two Power Five vacancies, is expected to remain with the Bulls.

At least two sources close to Kingston have indicated he has decided to stay put. It's almost certain Kingston, who has led USF to the NCAA Tournament twice in three seasons, will get a significant bump from his current $140,000 annual salary. 

Baseball America's Michael Lananna reported via Twitter on Wednesday that Kingston was on Virginia Tech's campus, presumably to discuss the Hokies coaching vacancy. He also had been listed as a candidate for the opening at Alabama.

Widely considered one of the nation's premier recruiters, Kingston, 47, has amassed a 100-78-1 record at USF, reaching the 100-victory mark faster than any USF coach not named Eddie Cardieri. In eight seasons as a head coach, including five at Illinois State, he's 273-180-1 with only one losing season.

The 2017 Bulls finished 42-19, winning 19 games in a row during non-conference play and posting road victories against FSU and Florida.

"Mark is phenomenal," ESPN college baseball analyst Mike Rooney said recently. "When he was hired by USF, everyone across the country just basically said, 'Okay, there you go, look out.' For them to make the regional in (Kingston's) first year, that was incredible."

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Bulls bound for Peach Bowl...or so they say

If the collection of preseason predictions are to be believed, USF coach Charlie Strong will lead his team into the Peach Bowl on New Year's Day.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

If the collection of preseason predictions are to be believed, USF coach Charlie Strong will lead his team into the Peach Bowl on New Year's Day.

Go ahead, Bulls fans, book your hotel in Hot-lanta. Make your dinner reservations in Buckhead. Fly or drive? Better decide, and soon.

USF is headed to the Peach Bowl.

That is, if every preseason forecast holds true.

The Sporting News is the latest to predict a USF-Auburn matchup in the New Year's Day game at brand-spanking-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. So does Street & Smith's and Athlon. Lindy's also pegs USF for the Peach, albeit against Oklahoma.

And by picking USF, the pundits essentially are saying the Bulls will win the American Athletic Conference, earning the coveted slot in a New Year's game by virtue of being the College Football Playoff committee's highest-ranked Group of Five team.

No pressure or anything.

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