- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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Willie Taggart has wasted no time since arriving in Tampa, Fla. The former Western Kentucky coach and Bradenton, Fla., native has made a strong first impression after taking over the South Florida program in December.
Taggart opens his first spring with the Bulls on Wednesday, and we caught up with him earlier this week to talk about his expectations as USF takes the first steps toward turning around a 3-9 campaign from a season ago.
Does it feel like it's been three months already?
Willie Taggart: It seems like it's been longer than that. It's like, geez, can we just out here and play a little football? It seems like it's been forever, but it's been good though. It gives us a lot of opportunities to get to know our players and pretty much get to know everyone around here. In a new environment you want to get a good feel for how things operate around here and try to get to know everyone, so it's been awesome from that standpoint.
How nice is it to finally take off the suit and get to work with this group?
WT: Oohhhh, it's nice. Can't wait to put on the shorts and go out and have my whistle on, go back to -- this is what I do, coach ball. And more importantly just to get around our guys. I'm really anxious to get out there, watch our guys compete. They've done a great job this offseason, winter conditioning. I'm really seeing them compete in football. I think that's what we all are waiting to see and see what we're going to have going into the fall.
You've promised to kick up the intensity. What are the challenges of doing that with a first spring?
WT: I think more than anything it's just teaching them how you're going to do things, and once they see how you do it, you do it constantly day in and day out. Then it becomes a part of them. We always talk around here,"We've got to train them." Either you're trained or you're untrained. And we've got to train them to do it how we want and come out every single day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.
Think they're used to your enthusiasm yet?
WT: It seems like they've bought in. They get fired up and we get them going every day. When we went out for winter conditioning they had a lot of juice, a lot of excitement. I know spring ball, whether it's me or anyone else here, beginning of spring ball, those guys come out fired up. But I think our guys now are more anxious to go out and learn the new system and impress the coaches. They all have to do that. They all compete for jobs, so I think they'll all be fired up about that.
What are you looking for from the quarterback position?
WT: A smart guy, first and foremost. Guy's got to be smart, a workaholic. Football is everything to them. That they're going to be in that film room constantly to get better. Guys that are competitive, competitive guys. And they've got to be tough. I think that's one position you've really got to be tough, mentally and physically, and being a leader. But I want those guys to go out and compete and lead this football team on and off, the way they carry themselves and the way they compete. It's hard to be a leader if you're not making plays.
What about running back?
WT: I know Mike Pierre and Marcus Shaw have done a great job this offseason in winter conditioning and in the weight room. They've done a great job of doing all the things we've asked them to do. Really been impressed with those guys. Looking forward to seeing those guys come out and competing on the football field. Want to see them translate what they've been doing in winter conditioning to the football field. Marc is one of those guys I sat down with when I first got here, told him he looked the same way he did when I first met him when he was getting recruited. It's time now. We don't have much time. It's time now to be the player that we all intend for you to be and that you intended to be when you decided to come to school here. I think he's taken that and used it to motivate himself to be the player that he wants to be. Now we need to see it on the football field on Wednesday. And I told him -- this offense, it's been pretty successful for running backs. So if any one of these guys is not successful, it's not the offense. They proved it, the last few backs. There's a high standard that you're living up to right now and we're going to keep that standard going. But they're excited about it.
What do you think of the UCF game being played on Black Friday?
WT: I haven't even thought about that, to be honest with you. To be flat-out honest with you, I haven't thought about it being on Black Friday and really haven't thought much of playing Central Florida. Been all about playing McNeese State [in the Aug. 31 opener] and even before them, just playing each other this spring. I haven't thought that far ahead. Now's just more getting our guys together. But I think it's going to be great -- just the rivalry, which I think drives college athletics, is these rivalries. Great to have one.
I know UCF catching up in recruiting isn't ideal for you guys, but between your arrival and them joining the Big East, how invigorating is it to have that kind of local rival as you start at USF?
WT: It's a good thing. Both of us in the same conference and we're competing, trying to do the same thing, win the conference championship. And we all know that it all starts with recruiting. You've got to get the players in that can play football and help you win and coach them up. It's awesome. Anyone we're playing and competing against, we've got to beat them all. Not just on the field but off the field, too, we're trying to.
I don't want to say easier, but how much different has it been on the I-4 corridor talking to coaches, kids and parents as a South Florida coach?
WT: I think it's easier because a lot of kids we're recruiting are here in Florida and we're not trying to convince them to come to Kentucky, to leave and go up in the cold and play ball. So I think from that standpoint it's a little easier. But if it's anything, it's just that we have a lot of contacts down here, a lot of previous relationships that are helping us. It's not like we're trying to get to know anyone; we know them. A lot of these kids nowadays, especially in this area, they've been growing up wanting to be a South Florida Bull, unlike when I was growing up around here -- I wanted to be Florida, Miami or Florida State. That's changing with these kids as they grow up. I think a lot of their parents grew up like I did, enjoying those schools. But these kids now are growing up and they're seeing South Florida around now. And a lot of them are intrigued and a lot of them wanted to be a Bull from way back when, and that's exciting to see, especially when we're coming off a 3-9 season. To get the interest and seeing the kids that are excited about being South Florida Bulls has been really, really impressive.
Defensively, what's your philosophy? I know you want to blitz a lot. Anything you're specifically looking to see this spring from that side of the ball?
WT: You want to be sound. You want to be a tough, physical defense. When teams play us I want guys saying, "That's a physical football team. That team's going to hit you no matter what. They're going to hit you and make plays." I do believe defense wins championships, and we've got to have a great defense. There's too many good offenses out here now, you've got to be able to stop them, and we have a lot of talent on this team. There's no reason for us not to be really good on defense, but you've got to be sound, you've got to be disciplined at what you do. And then at the end of the day you've got to make plays. Once you get in those positions and the coach puts them in those positions, the kids make that play. But we've got to find the right kids that can make those plays and then put them on the field so they can do it.
One of those kids is a pretty talented recruit, he had a great first year at Notre Dame, Aaron Lynch. What's it been like being around him so far, and how do you think not playing for a year has maybe put a bit of a chip on his shoulder?
WT: It's been fun being around Aaron. He's one of those guys, my first days on the job I sat down and talked with him, talked with him about expectations on this football team and him making himself better as a football player. And he's been committed to doing that. His winter conditioning has been great. Watching him go out and run and compete, making himself better. He's becoming a mature kid. He got married last year. He's one of the guys on the team that's married. He just came back from spring break and he cut all of his hair off, looks sharp now. First it was wild. We had a team meeting, I'm looking for all the wild hair and I don't see him. I'm at the whole team, I'm like, "Where is Aaron Lynch?" And they're like, "Oh, he's back there, Coach." I'm like, "Wow, this is what spring break'll do for you! Can we have another week of spring break around here?" Again, to me when a guy does something like that it's a sign of maturity, and a guy that's willing to change and make himself better. I know nowadays it's hard to do that when a lot of your peers are doing it and look at those guys. But for a guy like that to cut his hair off and get himself sharp and think about the way people look at him and want to represent himself the right way, it's really impressive. And if he'll continue to work hard and do those things it'll pay off on the football team. He can be everything that he wants to be, and I don't think he'll fail at football.