It’s now or never for Willie Taggart.
By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello
Last year, the honeymoon ended for the South Florida head coach. This fall, he tries to avoid being served divorce papers from the administration. In two seasons, Taggart hasn’t been able to guide the Bulls out of a funk that’s now lasted for four consecutive losing campaigns.
The promise of an emerging force out of Tampa has been replaced by despair, futility and lagging fan support. To address his program’s prolonged slump, Taggart fired both of his coordinators in December. The reshuffled staff will be coaching for its future, because there’s too much potential at USF for the program to continue on its current course.
South Florida needs to improve in all phases, save for possibly the special teamers. And the stewards of that progress on offense and defense will be Danny Hope and Tom Allen, respectively. Taggart is essentially entrusting his own future with a couple of coaches whose familiarity with the program and its individual parts extends barely half a year.
Of the pair of newcomers, Hope has by far the tougher assignment. He, along with co-coordinator Danny Reaves, are being asked to basically breathe life into a corpse. Yeah, the Bulls have been that inept of late, ranking no higher than 106th nationally in any of the past three seasons.
Allen’s defense is attempting to accentuate its primary strength, speed and tenacity. The Bulls, while not star-studded by any means, have long been able to attract quality attract to Tampa. And Allen, using an unconventional 4-2-5 base, is determined to make South Florida nasty on defense again. He has some pieces with which to work on the back seven, but the D-line is still hunting for linemen who can consistently win at the line of scrimmage.
The narrative has changed for Taggart and his program. It wasn’t long ago that both were considered rising stars with bright futures. But USF hasn’t had a winning season since 2010, and the coach has won only six games in two years since leaving Western Kentucky.
Making matters worse, the Bulls are lackluster and unappealing, which has thwarted local enthusiasm. The edict for 2015 couldn’t be more direct: Start performing at a more competitive, bowl-worthy level, or else this past offseason of changes will be just the beginning in Tampa.
What you need to know about the offense: Everything on offense is about to change. Including, fans hope, the results. South Florida has ranked among the country’s worst offenses over the past few seasons, the seminal reason why the program as a whole has struggled to thrive. The Bulls scored more than 20 points on just one FBS opponent in 2014, precipitating a change in leadership and philosophy. Danny Hope was hired to co-coordinate a new up-tempo spread system along with Danny Reaves. The attack is designed to let the playmakers make plays. But does USF have enough playmakers to get the new vision out of the concept stage? While RB Marlon Mack is a solid building block, and backup Darius Tice had a great spring, the drop-off after them is significant. The quarterback situation remains muddled, the program’s top receiver must be replaced and a middling line will feature three new starters. A lot of jobs in Tampa hinge on how well the offense performs, a harrowing reality based on the unit’s recent history.
What you need to know about the defense: Back in the day when South Florida was relevant on a national stage, the program was fueled by an attacking, speedy defense that oppressed opponents and sent graduates to the NFL. The 2015 Bulls are attempting to rewrite that script this fall. Willie Taggart hired as his new coordinator Tom Allen, who’s installing a 4-2-5 alignment designed to turn loose USF’s best athletes. Basically, Allen wants his most athletic individuals on the field, and he wants those kids to be pinning their ears back this season. The coach inherits a decent mix of raw talent won’t resemble some of Jim Leavitt’s best groups from last decade, but does have enough speed to be coached up. Allen will be looking to maximize the likes of DT Derrick Calloway, linebackers Nigel Harris, Auggie Sanchez and Tashon Whitehurst and safeties Jamie Byrd and Nate Godwin, whose ceilings are higher than what’s been shown to date.
What to watch for on offense: Blooming Flowers. Willie Taggart learned more about his quarterbacks in March, but he’s not ready to anoint a starter just yet. However, sophomore Quinton Flowers has made a move after looking lost in spot-duty last year. Flowers took a lot of first-team snaps in the spring ahead of upperclassmen Steven Bench and Mike White, who has since decided to transfer. While it’s a long way to the opener, Flowers has thrown down the gauntlet and turned this critical competition into a two-Bull race with his strong arm and nice feel for the new up-tempo attack.
What to watch for on defense: The scheme will match the personnel … finally. When Tom Allen was hired last December, he promised to engineer a defense that maximized the speed and athleticism that’s long typified the talent pool in Tampa. Allen has scrapped the 3-4 in favor of a 4-2-5 base alignment that has already forced some former defensive ends to move back a level. While the early returns have been positive so far, South Florida will need to use the rest of the offseason to get its troops in step with new assignments and terminology.
The team will be far better if… the offense somehow emerges from the dead. The Bulls have been home to one of the nation’s most feeble offenses three years running, including averaging 17.2 points and 304.7 yards per game in 2014. South Florida has reshuffled its staff, torched the old playbook and completely opened up its quarterback race. However, it’ll all be window dressing this fall if the players fail to execute at a much higher level than they have so far in the Willie Taggart era.
South Florida and Florida State meet in Tallahassee in Week 2 in the first game of a home-and-home series. The Bulls pulled an upset when the two last met at Doak Campbell Stadium in 2009.
– The Bulls will face two other programs from the Sunshine State, Florida A&M in the opener and UCF in Orlando the day after Thanksgiving.
– After opening with an FCS opponent, USF will need an upset to get back into the win column. The Bulls will be a heavy dog in their subsequent four games with Florida State, Maryland, Memphis and Syracuse.
– An extra week of preparation could be just what South Florida and coach Willie Taggart need to make a statement when American co-champion Memphis visits Raymond James Stadium on Oct. 2.
– If the Bulls are going to gain any traction this season, it’ll have to come in mid-October, when a trip to Connecticut sets off a five-game stretch with mediocre opponents.
– WATCH OUT FOR … Florida A&M. USF has had problems with FCS opponents in Taggart’s two years. And the Rattlers return a fair amount of starters to an underrated defense.
Best offensive player: Sophomore RB Marlon Mack. Mack was the oasis in the desert last season for the Bulls, earning a spot on the All-AAC First Team as a first-year player. And he did it with no prior experience and very little support from his teammates in the huddle. Even as South Florida begins to pivot toward a less traditional attack, Mack is going to have a central role, both as a feature back and as a skilled receiver out of the backfield.
Best defensive player: Junior LB Nigel Harris. Harris is the Bulls’ best overall defender, which is why his suspension at the end of spring is such a concern to the program. He is exactly what South Florida is seeking these days, an athletic guided missile coming off a breakthrough sophomore season. The staff is hoping to turn loose Harris, positioning him to fly all over the field in order to wreak havoc in opposing backfields. But it begins with him first getting back in the good graces of the staff.
Key players to a successful season: The quarterbacks. The last time the Bulls had a quarterback rating above 122, which is subpar nationally, was 2009. So, whether it’s Quinton Flowers or Steven Bench behind center on Sept. 5, that Bull must elevate the overall play at the position. South Florida threw just 11 touchdown passes a season ago, while ranking 116th in passer rating. Anything even approaching that degree of futility will keep the program from escaping its four-year slump.
The season will be a success if … the Bulls qualify for a bowl game. It’s Year 3 for Willie Taggart. If South Florida is unable to finish the season at .500 playing out of the American Athletic Conference, it might be time to start over once again. Winning six games would be an achievement for a squad that hasn’t won more than four since 2011. But this is a Sunshine State program, with excellent facilities and recruiting territories. Playing in the postseason is long overdue for a university that should be operating at a higher level.
Key game: Oct. 2 vs. Memphis. Good teams need to win late. The bad ones must gain momentum early on. The conference schedule kicks off on a Friday night, with a nationally-televised visit from last season’s co-champion. This is a prime opportunity for the Bulls to advertise their new looks on offense and defense, while amassing a head of steam on the back of one of the conference’s premier teams.
2014 Fun Stats:
– Points per game: South Florida 17.2 – Opponents 27.0
– Yards per game South Florida 304.7 – Opponents 403.1
– Red-zone touchdown%: South Florida 33% – Opponents 64%
Players You Need To Know
1. RB Marlon Mack, Soph.
The Bulls knew Mack was going to be a good one when they beat out larger programs to land him. But he blew past the bar by rushing for 1,000 yards and being named AAC Rookie of the Year and to the All-AAC First Team. Mack actually went for 1,041 yards and nine scores on 202 carries, adding 21 receptions for 160 yards. He’s 6-0 and 200 pounds, yet runs low to ground and possesses the spin moves and change of direction to avoid tacklers in traffic.
2. LB Nigel Harris, Jr.
Harris arrived in Tampa as an athlete, much the way Derrick Brooks did in Tallahassee 23 years ago. Harris has grown into a ferocious linebacker. Harris has always possessed elite athleticism, but he’s evolving into a defensive menace now that he’s bulked up to 6-0 and 220 pounds. The Bulls’ guided missile from inside linebacker posted 77 tackles, a team-high 10.5 stops for loss, two sacks and a nation’s-best six forced fumbles. Harris is an emerging star at USF who’s ready to take his game to a higher level, provided he can shake off a spring suspension.
3. S Jamie Byrd, Sr.
When the Bulls signed Byrd out of Iowa Western Community College, they knew they were getting a thumper. But he exceeded even the expectations of his new program in Year 1 by making a team-leading 95 tackles, 2.5 stops for loss, two picks and three pass breakups. The 5-11, 184-pounder is South Florida’s angry Byrd, fearlessly deploying opponents’ airbags. However, he plays the game smart and is going to be caught out of position.
4. P Mattias Ciabatti, Sr.
Ciabatti is back as one of the nation’s top punters, a reigning First Team All-AAC performer. He ranked No. 10 nationally at 44.4 yards per punt, while delivering the best single season by a punter in South Florida history. Despite being only 6-0 and 189 pounds, Ciabatti really drives his leg into the ball to achieve maximum distance and hang time. He’s an underrated asset to the Bull defense.
5. DE Eric Lee, Sr.
The staff has high expectations for Lee, who enters his final season bigger, stronger and more determined than ever to provide a steady spark up front. At 6-3 and 248 pounds, he’s a bit undersized for the South Florida alignment, frequently floating between the inside and the outside. Lee will be asked to become a better finisher in 2015 after he produced 28 tackles, six stops behind the line and not a single sack a year ago.
6. S Nate Godwin, Jr.
Godwin will be one of the Bulls’ most seasoned defenders this season, having started at least nine games in each of the last two campaigns. In 2014, the 5-10, 202-pounder ranked third on the team with 72 stops, while breaking up a pair of passes. Although Godwin must improve against the pass this fall, he still hits like a linebacker, and plays with a fearless approach on running downs.
7. LB Tashon Whitehurst, Sr.
Whitehurst is one of the Bulls poised to flourish at “Stinger” in a new-look defense that emphasizes speed and range. The 6-3, 220-pound senior provided a glimpse of his potential during the spring game by making 19 tackles and a pick. The performance was in stark contrast to a year ago, when Whitehurst finished fifth on the team with 49 tackles, five stops for loss and two sacks. He could be in store for his best season to date in Tampa.
8. LB Auggie Sanchez, Soph.
Not many things went right for the Bulls in 2014. But moving Sanchez from fullback to middle linebacker was one of them. He immediately fit in on defense, a credit to his smarts and his dedication to get on the field. He started every game as a rookie, and finished fourth on the team with 66 tackles. Sanchez is tough at the point of attack, and his 6-2, 241-pound frame lends itself to knocking opponents backwards in run defense.
9. TE Sean Price, Sr.
Price is a talented all-around tight end, limited largely by the shortcomings of the rest of the Bull offense. He begins his final year with 21 career starts, and no longer must compete for snaps with teammate Mike McFarland . Price is a physical and athletic 6-3, 250-pounder, with 56 career receptions for 601 yards and a touchdown. If USF can finally open up the passing game, Price has a chance to be one of the chief beneficiaries.
10. DT Derrick Calloway, Jr.
There’s cautious optimism around the program that Calloway is about to emerge into a steady force up front for the Bulls. He began to approach his potential as a sophomore a year ago with 30 tackles, five stops for loss and three sacks to rank second on the team. Now up to 6-2 and 290 pounds, Calloway is in a better position to defend the run, yet still displayed excellent first-step quickness throughout the spring.
11. WR Rodney Adams, Jr.
With the graduation of Andre Davis, Adams has a chance to become the Bulls’ most important weapon in the passing game. The transfer from Toledo started only three games at ‘Z’ receiver, yet still finished tied for third on the team with 23 receptions for 323 yards and two touchdowns. As the 6-1, 190-pound Adams fine-tunes the smaller areas of his game, he can rely on his blazing speed to stretch the field and add a little pop to the feeble USF aerial game.
|Sept. 5||Florida A&M|
|Sept. 12||at Florida State|
|Sept. 19||at Maryland|
|Sept. 26||OPEN DATE|
|Oct. 17||at Connecticut|
|Oct. 31||at Navy|
|Nov. 7||at East Carolina|
|Nov. 27||at UCF|
|Ten Best USF Players|
|1. RB Marlon Mack, Soph.|
|2. LB Nigel Harris, Jr.|
|3. S Jamie Byrd, Sr.|
|4. P Mattias Ciabatti, Sr.|
|5. DE Eric Lee, Sr.|
|6. S Nate Godwin, Jr.|
|7. LB Tashon Whitehurst, Sr.|
|8. LB Auggie Sanchez, Soph.|
|9. TE Sean Price, Sr.|
|10. DT Derrick Calloway, Jr.|