Sports

Willie Taggart Era Begins At South Florida

FRED GOODALL, AP Sports Writer
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(Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

(Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Willie Taggart knows what he’s in for at South Florida.

The Bulls once were widely regarded as one of the fastest rising college football programs in the nation, but they’ve mostly been viewed as underachievers the past five seasons.

Taggart is determined to change that perception.

The first-year coach comes to Tampa after turning around a struggling program at Western Kentucky, his alma mater. Before that he was an assistant at Stanford under Jim Harbaugh, who led the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl last season.

Part of the lure was a chance to lead a BCS program. But Taggart also grew up in the Tampa Bay Area and found it difficult to resist an opportunity to return home to continue his career.

He expects to be successful right away.

“We have some players on our football team that are pretty good, and obviously we’ve got to do a great job recruiting and adding on to it,” Taggart said.

“But we’re a program that really hadn’t live up to our potential. But it’s on us,” Taggart added. “And a big reason why I’m the head coach now is to try to get our guys to live up to the potential.”

Florida is one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the country, and USF’s inability to win the Big East over the past eight seasons was never considered an issue of talent.

The defection-weakened league has been replaced by the 10-team American Athletic Conference, and Taggart believes the Bulls — 3-9 a year ago — are good enough to win the title this season.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for us,” the coach said. “You look at our schedule, and I think every game we have … is winnable,” the coach said. “But we gotta go out and and take care of business ourselves.”

The Bulls have preseason conference favorite Louisville, as well as three other teams projected to be in the mix for the title — Cincinnati, Rutgers and Central Florida — on the schedule.

The nonconference slate includes dates against Michigan State and Miami in September.

“You hear a lot … our program is a sleeping giant. But we can’t rely on anybody else to say that for us. It’s on us to go out and do it,” Taggart said.

“We’ve got to stop making excuses or blaming anyone else. … I’m excited about it. Our players are excited about it.”

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Five things to watch for as the Bulls begin the Taggart era:

1. WHO’S UNDER CENTER: Holdovers Bobby Eveld and Matt Floyd shared playing time after four-year starter B.J. Daniels suffered a season-ending injury last fall. The player to watch here is Steven Bench, a sophomore transfer from Penn State, who’s eligible immediately.

2. TAGGART STYLE: Taggart likes a tough running game, smart quarterback, utilizing tight ends, much like Harbaugh did at Stanford and now with the 49ers. Tight end Jack Doyle was Western Kentucky’s leading receiver each of past 2 seasons. The Bulls have an inexperienced group of running back and may have to rely on freshmen to carry the load.

3. CAN THEY STOP ANYBODY? The defense was a liability last season, finishing with nine takeaways. Taggart hired Chuck Bresnahan, who has eight years experience as a defensive coordinator in the NFL. The defensive line in a strength with tackle Ryne Giddins trying to rebound from a season in which he was hampered by a shoulder injury and sophomore end Aaron Lynch, a transfer from Notre Dame who already is being mentioned as a potential high first-round draft pick set to make his debut.

4. SCHEDULE: Taggart wants USF to be big-time, so he welcomes nonconference dates on the road at Michigan State and Miami in September. Winning either one of those would provide a huge lift heading into conference play.

5. NO MORE BIG EAST: CONFERENCE: The newly-named 10 team American Athletic Conference still has a BCS automatic qualifying berth. Louisville (ACC in 2014) is the heavy favorite. USF never finished better than 4-3 in eight years in the Big East. Now the Bulls must wonder if they’re even the best Florida team in the league. Many believe Central Florida is better. USF at UCF on Friday after Thanksgiving in Orlando could mark the beginning on a real rivalry. So far, USF is 4-0 vs UCF all time.

Projected AAC finish: Fifth

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Online:

AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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