Some might have thought Doug Marrone was using some typical coach-speak this week when he said South Florida's defensive line was playing better now than a year ago.
After all, the Bulls had first-round NFL pick Jason Pierre-Paul and former Big East defensive player of the year George Selvie at defensive end last season. This year, the group is talented, but far more anonymous.
Yet there is something noticeable about both South Florida's defensive front and its defense as a whole. It is playing with more discipline. Credit that to new defensive coordinator Mark Snyder.
"What Doug was talking about was our base fundamentals," Snyder said. "That's just my background and Coach [Skip] Holtz's background. We're going to strike people, use our hands and get off blocks. We're not a run-around defense.
"One liability I saw last year was we were all up-the-field, run-around blocks. And when we got against people that pounded us, who got big on us, we weren't very good."
Just take a look at last year's box scores against Rutgers and Pittsburgh for proof of that. These Bulls are still fast on defense, and Snyder will unleash them at times with blitzes and movement. But for the most part, he's stressing technique over chaos.
"I feel like we're a very versatile defense," linebacker Sam Barrington said. "We definitely can go out and get turnovers, tackles for loss and sacks. But at the same time, we play within the scheme. We don't have too many MA's [missed assignments]. We're a smart defense, in my opinion."
Smarter doesn't mean weaker. South Florida ranks in the Top 25 nationally in total defense, scoring defense and pass efficiency defense. Yes, those numbers are inflated somewhat by games against Stony Brook, Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic. But in the real test this season, the Bulls stymied Florida for a half before offensive turnovers and poor field position finally doomed them in a 38-14 loss.
"We are where we need to be going into conference play, but we've got a long ways to go," Snyder said. "We're new. We've got a lot of new faces out there and this is a new defense for them. But with where we're at, I'm pleased. We'll find out a lot more this week."
Syracuse presents some interesting challenges. The Orange base a lot of what they do off the running game, starting with the power of Delone Carter and the speed of Antwon Bailey. The passing game is much improved under sophomore quarterback Ryan Nassib. Snyder said Nassib creates problems with his mobility, and that he's farther ahead this year of where Greg Paulus was a year ago. The Orange also had last week off after playing two straight FCS opponents; you can bet that Marrone has installed some new offensive wrinkles that he has kept from putting on film.
Saturday, then, will provide a good test of just how disciplined South Florida's defense is.
"We're going in there with confidence like we're going to win the Big East," Barrington said. "But we're not taking anything for granted."