As he begins his third season as coach at USF, Willie Taggart sees plenty of familiar faces.
By bringing in three recruiting classes ranked near or at the top of his conference rankings since leaving Western Kentucky to replace Skip Holtz in Tampa, this is now Taggart’s team.
Yet despite all the familiarity, the Bulls hope they look plenty different.
After winning just six games in his first two seasons — four last season — Taggart fired his offensive and defensive coordinators.
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The Bulls, who open the season Saturday at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium against Florida A&M, will speed things up offensively with a new spread scheme.
“When you’re taking on a job that’s struggled, you have to have a vision, have a plan,” Taggart said at the American Athletic Conference media day in Rhode Island. “You have to have unbelievable work ethic and, most importantly, the patience to see it through. I think our guys have done that. Our coaches have done a great job recruiting. Our first class are juniors now. You have to change the culture of the program, and I think it’s where we want it to be now. That makes things so much easier.”
After going with three quarterbacks to pedestrian results last year, the Bulls hope to settle on one this season.
Senior Steven Bench and sophomore Quinton Flowers came into camp battling for the starting position after Mike White, who played in 11 games last season, transferred to Western Kentucky following the Bulls’ spring game.
Flowers, from Miami Jackson, was named the opening-night starter last week.
“I come out every day and don’t think about last year,” said Flowers, who played in five games last year and attempted just 20 passes. “It’s my opportunity now, and I need to take it while I can. I can run with it, or let it be like last year, which I’m not.”
Said Taggart: “Any great quarterback will separate themselves, show their teammates they are ready to lead.”
Sophomore running back Marlon Mack was one of the bright spots for USF last season. Mack tied a school record with 275 yards and four touchdowns in last year’s season-opening victory over Western Carolina.
Mack set a school freshman record with 1,041 yards.
“Not only do we have depth this year, but we have competitive depth,” Taggart said. “That’s really going to help our team grow.”
There is plenty of pressure on Taggart to turn USF’s fortunes around.
Taggart inherited a mess when Holtz was fired after three seasons, and the Bulls haven’t had a winning season since going 8-5 in 2010. Two years later, Holtz went 3-9 and was fired.
Taggart says success is on its way.
“I expect to have a lot more wins this year,” Taggart said. “Our guys have the right attitude, have been working their tails off. [Our focus] was to come together as a team, learn to care for each other and play for each other.”
USF has just eight starters back from last year’s 4-8 team, and although it likely wins its opener against the Rattlers, the Bulls travel to Tallahassee and a date with the Seminoles in Week 2.
The Bulls also have a nonconference date at Maryland on Sept. 19 before opening AAC play against 2014 co-conference champion Memphis.
USF visits predicted AAC champ Cincinnati (Oct. 17), Navy (Oct. 31), East Carolina (Nov. 7) and cross-state rival UCF on Thanksgiving. The media picked USF to finish fifth in the AAC’s East Division behind Cincinnati, UCF, Temple and East Carolina.
“We have a tough schedule,” Taggart said, “but we have tough people in our program. They’re working their tails off to make this right.”