Ever since he arrived on the USF campus four years ago Willie Taggart has been spewing optimism. During his first two years he had to virtually go it alone trying to resurrect a football program that seemed to be on its death bed.
Taggart never wavered despite calls for his job. Last year he turned the Bulls around with an 8-5 record and the team’s first bowl appearance since 2010.
With 14 starters returning including three single season record holders in quarterback Quinton Flowers, running back Marlon Mack and receiver Rodney Adams, Taggart can’t keep his enthusiasm in check, not that he would want to do that.
“Now it’s fun and everything that I envisioned when I came here,” Taggart said. “Our expectations never change. We are trying to win a conference championship, which we’ve never done. Absolutely, we can do it, but we got to do what it takes to win a conference championship. We can't get caught up in all the talk about ‘good job.’ It's like the worst two words you can have in your vocabulary. It makes people get complacent.”
USF was picked to win the East Division in the American Athletic Conference preseason media poll. It was a clear-cut choice. The Bulls were 5-0 last year against AAC East Division teams. Their only conference losses were to Navy and Memphis.
In its 20th year of USF football, the former Manatee High quarterback and Western Kentucky All-American is telling his players to cherish the role of going from the hunter to the hunted.
“We embrace the expectations. There is no pressure at all,” Taggart said. “Last year they had us finishing at the bottom and we said we appreciate them feeling that way about us. Now, we have to make it happen. Our kids know they haven’t accomplished anything. We didn’t win our bowl game, we didn’t win the conference. We’ve got to get better and understand it’s going to take a lot of hard work to get there.”
The Bulls have a lot of reasons to be optimistic, particularly with its Gulf Coast offense that returns players who accounted for 93 percent of their yards gained in 2015.
USF was the most improved rushing team in the nation last year, raising its yards per game from 107.9 to 247 (plus 139.1 ypc). The Bulls ranked third in the nation for most improved scoring offense in 2015, increasing its points per game by 16.4, and improved their total offensive output by 42 percent since Taggart's first season in 2013.
USF started 1-3 last year, but seemed to turn things around in a 24-17 loss to Memphis. They finished winning seven of their last eight regular season games and exploded in their last four games, averaging 47 points per game to finish with a 33.6 point average, nearly doubling 2014’s 17.2.
Flowers was the catalyst behind the rejuvenation, displaying a magical set of escapability skills that made him a threat every time he touched the ball. Mack was the perfect complement.
Flowers was responsible for 3,278 total yards, 34 touchdowns and 991 yards rushing, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. Mack led the AAC with 1,381 net yards rushing. He enters his junior year with 2,422 career rushing yards.
The Bulls have explosive players all over the field. Adams is the AAC’s leading kickoff returner with a 29.1 yard average. Tajee Fullwood is the second leading punt returner.
“The vision that we had when we recruited all those kids and what they had is starting to come to life now,” Taggart said “Every year we have a motto: ‘We're either getting better or you’re getting worse. No one stays the same.’ Ever since I’ve been there, our football program has been getting better, not only on the field but off the field as well.”
Taggart has rebuked all the talk that USF is under pressure to have a good season to get into the Big 12 Conference, which is reportedly looking to expand by adding four teams,
“USF football is important. No other cause foreign or domestic other than winning the AAC,” Taggart said. “It's not a distraction. We always dream big, but we understand the process. We have got to take care of business in our conference and out-of-conference games. We’ve got to be locked into the whole process of getting to the championship game.”
Ray Woodie will be the Bulls’ third defensive coordinator in three years, taking over from Tim Allen. Allen left to take the defensive coordinator job at Indiana in his home state.
Woodie, former head coach at Bayshore and Palmetto, has been with Taggart for six years. He inherits a defense that has seven returning starters, including seven of the top nine tacklers. The list includes middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez, who is the top returning tackler in the AAC with 117. Other top defensive returnees include linebacker Nigel Harris who led the nation with six forced fumbles, cornerback Deatrick Nicholas, a Thorpe Award candidate who led the team with four interceptions and five pass breakups, and safety Nate Godwin, who was third on the team with 63 tackles.
Woodie will keep the 4-2-5 defensive scheme that Allen employed and add a few wrinkles
The Bulls have to replace safety (striker) Jamie Byrd, but return four of five starters in the secondary and nine of 10 players in the 2015 two-deep.
“The big thing is that we want the kids to play fast,” Woodie said. “It’s kind of the KISS Approach (Keep It So Simple) and not do too much so when you push play the kids are blowing assignments. When that happens you lose games.”
It all makes for optimistim in the new season, and Taggart is an optimistic person. But he reminds everyone that it takes work and warned his players that this year's training camp is going to be the toughest they’ve ever experienced.
“I told our guys don't let anyone pat you on the back. Tell them to shake your hand so you can see their front,” Taggart said. “Don't fall for that. This football team hasn’t done anything yet, but we are going to embrace those things. That's why we came here and now we have to learn how to handle those things.”