College football | Manatee's Taggart vows 'it will get better' after tough first year at USF

Manatee High grad has proven track record turning losers to winners

adell@bradenton.comDecember 15, 2013 

Miami South Florida Football

Head coach Willie Taggart presided over a disappointing 2-10 season in his first year at USF. He said recruiting players who can thrive in his style of offense will be key to improvement in 2014. ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

CHRIS O'MEARA — AP

TAMPA

Willie Taggart had seen it before.

He was familiar with the tell-tale signs of a football team that was not ready to win.

Still, he hoped his first year as the University of South Florida head coach would be different. He had more players with potential than when he took over a Western Kentucky team that had lost 20 straight games in 2010.

Turnarounds were nothing new to Taggart. In his second and third seasons at WKU, the program became bowl eligible for the first time. He was on the staff at Stanford when Jim Harbaugh turned a perennial loser into a national contender.

As a player, Taggart was a key factor in saving Jack Harbaugh's job as the head coach at WKU. Taggart started for four years and finished with 3,997 yards rushing, setting an NCAA Division I rushing record for quarterbacks while running for 47 TDs and throwing for 30.

He stayed on to coach at WKU and was the co-offensive coordinator on the Hilltoppers' I-AA national championship team in 2002 that enabled the elder Harbaugh to end his career with a 61-24 run.

When Taggart took over USF in December 2012, he saw similarities to what he encountered at WKU when he became head coach.

The Bulls were coming off a 3-9 season and had lost nine of their past 10 games. In the previous two years, they were 8-16 and 2-12 in the Big East under Skip Holtz, who was fired.

Taggart wanted the best and believed it was possible. But things gnawed at him. He was worried about the attitude of the players and was troubled by their practice habits.

The opening loss to Football Championship Series member McNeese State might have been a shocker to the fans, but Taggart was not all that surprised, though he was disappointed.

"We didn't get into this predicament overnight, and they hit us in the mouth," Taggart said. "It told me how some guys handle adversity. That is the first thing you look for when you come to a program that's not winning. The hardest thing is fighting against adversity."

The Bulls would finish with a 2-10 record behind one

of the better defenses in the American Athletic Conference. The problems were on offense, which was particularly gnawing to Taggart because offense is his forte.

"I do think the infrastructure part of things is going well, such as the way we go about going to class, to meetings and to the weight room," Taggart said.

'Always energized'

Willie McNeal, a former Braden River High standout who was part of Taggart's resurrection at WKU, said he believes Taggart will do the same at USF.

McNeal was an All-American kick returner as a freshman at WKU. The junior receiver missed his second year because of knee surgery, but returned to full health this year in helping the Hilltoppers to an 8-4 record and earning All Sun-Belt Conference honors.

"He is a young coach who is always energized and running around. He gives off a vibe that makes everyone want to work harder," McNeal said. "When we were going through our losing streak he told us to stay positive, that change would come and we would get the monkey off our back. He always had that fire and you could tell he was a good player."

He also showed he cared about his players, which McNeals says creates passion.

"When I got out of surgery for my knee, he was there and said if anybody could bounce back from this it was me. That meant a lot," McNeal said.

'Not efficient enough'

Taggart's blueprint for success includes a run-first offense similar to the one used by Stanford. It stresses a power running game and deep passes. He also wants players who are emotionally attached to each other.

"I think it's important that the guys are starting to care about each other. I don't think when I first got here everyone wanted to do that," Taggart says. "The first thing we did was improve the practices. It was disappointing that we couldn't translate that onto the field."

One of the problems for Taggart is that he inherited a team whose personnel was geared more for running the spread than his type of offense.

"Our biggest demise this past season is that we didn't run the ball well enough and were not efficient enough," Taggart said. "We were not big enough and not strong enough and we were trying to do what we're doing with spread personnel. We have to recruit players that fit our system, but we also want to develop the guys that are here. You can't always count on freshmen."

Taggart's biggest problem was lack depth on the offensive line, the core to his offense.

He was successful using a variety of running backs at his previous stops, including with little Bobby Rainey at WKU and the bulky Toby Gerhart at Stanford, because he had an offensive line that was efficient.

"We didn't have competition on the offensive line and that was huge," Taggart said. "Getting bigger and stronger up front is crucial and I am a firm believer that competition makes you better."

'I have a plan'

Some people called out for Taggart to run a different offense that emphasizes the spread or less reliance on the running.

"I have a plan, a vision and patience to see it through and we are going to see it through," Taggart said. "We are not changing. How can we get better if we change? We are not trying to be like everyone else. We are trying to do what we do. This offense works."

USF assistant coach Ray Woodie, who has been with Taggart since he took the head job at WKU, says his staying power and ability to turn things into a positive are among his best attributes.

"We are building a bully, and I believe coach Taggart will do it," said Woodie, a former head coach at Palmetto and Bayshore. "He sticks with it and is a grinder. Coach Taggart never gets too high or too low and understands what it takes. He has learned from the best and one of his mottos is you've got to recruit guys who are better than you have. We are doing that."

Taggart says he is sticking with his offense because it's what he used as a player in variations going back to Manatee and then at Stanford and WKU.

It emphasizes a heavy dose of running with big, athletic offensive linemen who want to smash you in the mouth and a passing game that does enough to keep defenses honest. A mobile quarterback is nice, but not a necessity.

"A lot of coaches have contacted us wanting to learn this offense. They key is getting the guys who are able to do the things you want to do," Taggart said. "We also want guys who hate losing, and I think that happens when you start to care about each other. We want guys with the right attitude, which is loving football, competing every day in practice and thinking about taking somebody's job. To be honest, there were some guys here who I would not have recruited."

'I don't worry'

Taggart has heard the critics complaining that he is utilizing the wrong schemes and he might be the wrong guy for the job.

"My whole thing is that if you are really not in it here you really can't tell me what to do," Taggart said. "I don't think we are far off. I don't worry about whether I am going to get fired. I get up every morning and give one-hundred percent to our program. We might be very close. We need to improve our offense.

The key to next season is getting more consistency at the quarterback position, he said. True freshman Mike White started the last five games and shows promise.

"Mike did some good things under difficult circumstances, but like everything else we want competition at every position," Taggart said. "The difference between my first year here and at WKU was that we had a running game there. We've got to have that, and to do that we need to get the right people here. I understand the misery of the Bulls fans and I tell them it will get better."

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