The University of South Florida football program turns 20 years old this season, and head coach Willie Taggart turned 40 on Aug. 27.
Taggart, the Manatee High School quarterback legend, is hoping to celebrate both birthdays Saturday night in the season opener against Towson at Raymond James Stadium.
He has been waiting a long time for this moment.
When Taggart arrived at the USF campus in 2012 to take over the program, he had an image of how he wanted it to look, but not the personnel to fit that look. Now after three seasons of trials and tribulations, he has that team.
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South Florida is explosive on offense with three program record-setters — quarterback Quinton Flowers, running back Marlon Mack and receiver Rodney Adams. The defense returns seven of its top nine tacklers and is ranked among the most disruptive in the country.
“This is the first time with our football team that we’re going in and we’ve got other people believing in us, and I want to see how our guys respond to that,” Taggart said.
The Bulls were 2-10, 4-8 and 8-5 in his first three seasons, and last year qualified for their first bowl game since 2010.
USF has a program-record seven players nominated to 12 national award watch lists, and the Bulls are the consensus pick to win the American Athletic Conference East division title.
It’s among many reasons Taggart is warning his players not to take Towson lightly. He suffered perhaps his most embarrassing defeat when the Bulls lost to McNeese State in his first game as their coach in 2013.
“Our kids know they haven’t accomplished anything. We didn’t win our bowl game, and didn’t win the conference,” Taggart said. “But we go out and expect to win now, not hope that we win. I think that came with time. It’s part of the whole building process of creating a whole culture.”
Towson went 7-4 after coming off a 4-8 rebuilding year. In 2013 it went 13-3 and reached the FCS national championship game.
The Tigers averaged nearly 170 rushing yards per game last season, and senior Darius Victor needs 45 more rushing yards to reach 3,000 for his career.
“They are a blue-collar team and run with power,” Taggart said. “They get downhill and they’ve got a really good running back. They find a lot of different ways they can run the power play.”
It will be the job of new defensive coordinator Ray Woodie to keep Towson in check. The former Palmetto High School and Bayshore head football coach who has been Taggart’s assistant for six years was promoted prior to the season.
“He understands our defense; he recruited half of our guys on the defense and we want some continuity on our defense,” Taggart said. “I wanted to promote from within. He deserves it and I think he will do a great job.”
Woodie plans to keep the 4-2-5 defense that Tim Allen used last season because, among other things, he wants his players to react quickly.
“We want to swarm and punish; we want 11 hats around the ball,” Woodie said. “Our guys should play faster. Year 2 in similar schemes; you want them to play fast. We’re going to run to the ball.”
Woodie’s presence has been positive and he got a ringing endorsement from linebacker Auggie Sanchez, the leading returning tackler in the AAC.
“We are all buying in. We are believing in what he is preaching,” Sanchez said.
Who: Towson at South Florida
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa
TV: Great38 (Ch. 6 on Bright House)
Radio: 970 AM