Willie Taggart has a different look this year, but the public will not see it because it hasn’t changed him.
The South Florida head football coach has become the hunted instead of the hunter.
Taggart is not complaining. He talks like he is ready to fly on the wings of an offense that was prolific during the final four games of last season when it averaged 542.3 yards and 47 points per game.
In his previous offseason tours, Taggart was answering questions about when or whether he could turn the football program.
At Pier 22 on Wednesday night before a capacity crowd, the former Manatee High quarterback was seeing excitement and enthusiasm and telling folks there is no limit to what the 2016 Bulls can achieve after last season when he took USF to its first bowl game in 2010.
USF was 8-5 last year after two losing seasons in Taggart’s first two years, and there is a lot of reason for optimism.
The Bulls return 14 starters, including single-season program-record setters quarterback Quinton Flowers, running back Marlon Mack and receiver Rodney Adams.
“We are a target. People are going to circle us on their schedule, and we will get everyone’s best shot. But that’s what we want,” Taggart said. “It feels good to have those guys back. They are better and more experienced and the guys behind them are better. We are starting to have depth and that gets my excited.”
Lindy’s magazine ranks USF’s offensive backfield the ninth best in the country, noting it averaged 33.8 points per game with Flowers accounting for 3,287 yards and 34 touchdowns and Mack rushing for 1,381 yards.
But Taggart disagrees.
“I think we have the best backfield in the country,” he says. “We are progressing and expectations are higher, but for me they’ve never changed. We are trying to win a conference (American Athletic Conference) championship.”
Last season, the Bulls set school records for total offense (5,741 yards) and touchdowns (54) and rushed for more yards per game (247) than in the previous two years combined.
The best part is that those numbers could go higher. Taggart knows it though he has told his players they’ve accomplished nothing because USF has never won a conference football title.
Taggart said he welcomes high expectations.
“There is no pressure at all. We don’t get caught up in that. Last year they had us picked to finish at the bottom, and we didn’t get caught up in that,” he said.
The Bulls defeated every AAC East opponent last year and several publications pick USF to win that division this season after finishing second in 2015.
The Bulls have a new defensive coordinator in Ray Woodie, the former Palmetto and Bayshore head football coach and Palmetto graduate. He has been with Taggart since their time together at Western Kentucky, and he was USF’s special teams coordinator last year.
Woodie, who replaces Tom Allen, has seven of his nine top tacklers returning from a defense that ranked 24th in turnovers gained with 25.
This will be Woodie’s first time as an offensive coordinator. He was special teams coordinator last season.
“I picked him because he understands our defense and recruited half of those guys on defense,” Taggart said. “We want some continuity on defense and just want to get better. I wanted to promote from within and he deserves it. A lot of people don’t know that last year was Tom Allen’s first time as a defensive coordinator.”
USF Athletic Director Mark Allen said he wasn’t surprised Taggart was able to turn things around last year even after starting the season 1-3.
“I saw a lot of good things coming off the 2014 season and how engaged everyone,” Harlan says. “Through it all Taggart just stayed to his plan and was relentless in terms of his approach. He has a strong will, shows an ability to lead young men and passion for USF. He is a true leader in every sense of the word.”