TAMPA — So much is new for the University of South Florida football program.
There's a new head coach in Willie Taggart. There's a new league in the American Athletic Conference, a 10-team conglomeration of Big East holdovers and Conference USA defectors.
And during Sunday afternoon's USF FanFest at Raymond James Stadium — when a few thousand fans gathered to get autographs and photos with coaches and players — there was significant attention paid to a pair of high-profile new Bulls.
Sophomore defensive end Aaron Lynch, a transfer from Notre Dame who practiced with the Bulls last season during a redshirt year, and sophomore quarterback Steven Bench, a June transfer from Penn State who is immediately eligible to play this fall, are two of the most eye-catching names on USF's roster.
Lynch, a freshman All-American at Notre Dame, has been mentioned as a high NFL draft choice before ever playing a down at USF. Bench should be strongly in the mix to start at quarterback, although returning veterans Matt Floyd and Bobby Eveld are the training-camp leaders at that position.
“They're coming along just like the rest of our guys,” said Taggart, taking a cautious approach. “They're working hard, competing for jobs. We look for those guys to compete. Hopefully, they can come out and help us this fall.”
Under Taggart's policy, Lynch can't speak to the media until he plays a game. But if his recent Twitter posts are any indication, Lynch's goals seem especially high.
“What makes people think we can't win a NATTY,” Lynch wrote, referring to a national title. “Notre Dame got the opportunity. Now it's time for USF to be heard throughout the world.”
USF was picked to finish fifth in American's preseason media poll. But if the Bulls have a successful season, most observers expect leadership from Lynch and the defensive line.
“We will be the most feared front seven,” Lynch wrote. “They will name us, 'The Green Plague.' ”
“I'm definitely expecting big things from Lynch,” said USF fan Josh Bailey of Tampa. “I hope he stays and isn't gone (to the NFL) after one year. He's intriguing.”
“A lot of it depends on how the quarterback plays and I'm curious about the kid from Penn State (Bench),” said USF fan Art Jones of Seminole. “He's having to fight for a position. It's not a walkover. But I think he's going to give us the muscle we need.”
Taggart hasn't released a depth chart and said there's still a week of intense training-camp competition ahead before preparations begin for the Aug. 31 opener against McNeese State. He wants to build a home-field advantage — “I can't wait to make Ray-Jay into a snakepit for anybody who comes here to play the Bulls” — and asked everyone for their support.
“I'm going to stay here until I meet every last one of you,” Taggart said into the microphone as the FanFest began.
And he did, signing autographs and posing for photos, satisfying every request.
“I signed a baby,” Taggart said, chuckling. “On the back. It was ticklish, too.”
Midway through the event, there was a brief rainstorm. That didn't diminish the fans' desire to meet Taggart, even though they were doused.
“It was well worth the wait,” said USF fan Lauren Gornoski of Tampa. “He's a great guy. We're excited to have him.”
Taggart, likewise, was excited to be there.
“When teams come in there, we want to win games at Ray-Jay,” Taggart said. “It's not just us and our football team. But it's the 40,000 or 50,000 fans that help us do that. We know we have to earn our support. But the people out here, they're already on the bus.”
It was a reference to the well-circulated USF video, based on Taggart's comments at his introductory news conference, when he said, “What we have to do now is put everybody on the bus, put them in the right seats and let Coach T drive this bus.”
Taggart might need a bigger bus.
“We can get a convoy full of buses,” Taggart said. “I'm sure one of the bus companies would love to rent a couple of buses out for us. … But we know we have to earn their support. … We have to put out a good product.”
Coming off a 3-9 season, so much is new for the Bulls. USF fans said they're excited.
“Coach Taggart has more intensity and more fire than Skip Holtz,” said USF fan Ian Behnk. “We've got some new exciting players and it's like a fresh start. I can't wait to get started.”