It was the worst of times for the USF Bulls in 2013. It was a 2-10 season in Willie Taggart’s first year at South Florida. But it was also the best of times on the recruiting trail, where USF assembled the top group in the American Athletic Conference. And it showed in the coming years.
D’Ernest Johnson, USF’s rising senior running back who was then a high school standout at Immokalee, remembers what Taggart told him: “We are gonna change the program around.” Even coming off the worst season in school history.
Johnson’s class, which included a three-star athlete out of Miami Jackson named Quinton Flowers, did so over the next three years, culminating in an 11-2 2016 season — the best in school history — that launched Taggart to a new job as the coach at Oregon. But that class remained at USF, and now entering their senior years, they have dreams of a first-ever conference crown, and more.
The lynchpin holding those aspirations together is Flowers, the senior quarterback who carries more hype than any quarterback in program history. He finished last season with multiple school records including most total single-season yards in program history, most single-season passing touchdowns (24) in program history, most single-season rushing touchdowns (18) in program history and most overall single-season touchdowns (42) in program history. He enters this season on the Davey O’Brien Award watch list, the Walter Camp Award watch list, the Johnny Unitas Award watch list, and according to BetOnline.ag, Flowers faces 20-1 odds of winning the Heisman Trophy.
He will have to do so under the direction of new coach Charlie Strong, who arrived at USF after getting fired by Texas, where he compiled a 16-21 record over three seasons. Before that, Strong was a two-time Big East Coach of the Year at Louisville, where he led the Cardinals to a Sugar Bowl victory in 2012 and a 12-1 season in 2013. He brings deep connections to the state of Florida, having spent 2003-2009 as defensive coordinator at UF.
“His motto is ‘Win the Day,’ ” Johnson said. “So we’ve gotta come out here and work.”
From changing the direction of the program to winning the day, tenured members of the Bulls are hoping Strong’s attention to detail will allow them to pick up where Taggart left off in their final season. Deatrick Nichols, a senior corner from Miami Central, said Strong’s attitude is a literal (and cliche) “one-day-at-a-time” approach. Do they have goals they want to achieve? Do they talk about them?
“Of course,” Nichols said. “But that’s just on paper.”
On paper, those goals include winning the school’s first American Athletic Conference championship. The Bulls’ loss to Temple in 2016 prevented that a season ago, even though it was their only conference loss. Their other loss came against Florida State.
This season, the Bulls face easier nonconference opposition and were voted as the media’s pick to win the conference. But again, to the players, that’s just on paper. They’re just trying to work hard in practice every day.
Flowers said for him, the thought of battling with his teammates is what motivates him through those moments of training. So does his daughter, Amayah, who will be 1 on Sept. 26. He said since her birth, his attitude about football — and about life — changed.
“I know I have a little one that I have to take care of,” Flowers said, “and I’ll do whatever it takes to see her happy and see my team happy.”
He’s hoping that carries over to an AAC title and beyond, as do his teammates.
“We got more goals this year,” Nichols said. “More expectations. Just trying to be one of the best teams in the country.”
Résumé: Florida graduate assistant, 1984; Texas A&M graduate assistant, 1985; Southern Illinois wide receivers coach, 1986; Florida outside linebackers coach, 1988; Ole Miss wide receivers coach, 1990; Florida defensive ends coach, 1991; Florida associate head coach/defensive tackles coach, 1994; Notre Dame defensive line coach, 1995; South Carolina defensive coordinator, 1999; Florida defensive coordinator/defensive ends coach, 2000; Florida interim head coach/defensive coordinator/defensive ends, 2004; 2005 Florida assistant head coach/co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach, 2005; Florida associate head coach/defensive coordinator/linebackers coach, 2008; Louisville head coach, 2010; Texas head coach, 2014; USF head coach, 2016.
▪ Defensive coordinator for Florida’s 2006 and 2008 national championship teams.
▪ Defeated Florida in 2012 Sugar Bowl.
▪ In 2013 season at Louisville went 12-1.
What keeps him up at night: The thought of failing again, like he did at Texas.