NEWPORT, R.I. — Looking back at his disappointing 2013 debut season as the University South Florida’s football coach, Willie Taggart felt the tone was set from the opening game.
The Bradenton native’s remarks at Tuesday’s American Athletic Conference Media Day took Taggart back to one of the most disappointing defeats in his career. The Bulls were routed by McNeese State 53-21, the worst loss ever suffered by an FBS program against FCS opposition.
It was the beginning of a 2-10 campaign, one that closed with six losses and a 2-6 record in league play.
“For us to go out and stub our toe against McNeese State was probably the worst thing that could have happened to a football team that was trying to get over the stigma of failure,” Taggart said. “That was hard.”
But if Taggart’s personal history and the votes of the conference’s media are any indication, the Bulls should be on the upswing in 2014.
“You don’t just build a program in one season,” Taggart said. “You’ve got to build it brick by brick. There are no shortcuts and we’re not going to take any shortcuts.”
USF was picked sixth in the AAC preseason poll. Cincinnati received 17 first-place votes and occupied the top spot, followed by defending champion Central Florida (seven first-place votes) and Houston (six first-place votes).
USF’s 26-20 win against the Bearcats and a late-season nail-biter against the Golden Knights — a 23-20 defeat — are what the Bulls choose to remember entering this season.
“It definitely gives us some confidence,” receiver Andre Davis said. “I feel like we’re able to compete with any team, point blank, period. We’ve just got to go out there and do what we’re supposed to do.”
The Bulls will be bolstered by what several scouting services consider the conference’s top recruiting class. USF hauled in 27 three-star players, according to 247sports.com, including 12 from the Tampa Bay area. Familiar names such as former Tampa prep stars Vincent Jackson (Jesuit), Tajee Fullwood (Tampa Bay Tech), Mazzi Wilkins (Plant), Josh Black (Sickles), Zach Hudson (Sickles) and Juwuan Brown (Jefferson) give the Bulls hope for the future.
“We helped ourselves athletically,” Taggart said. “We’re probably more athletic this year than we were last year — I’m sure we are.”
“He’s doing everything he can to get those Tampa Bay area guys,” said Davis, who starred at Jefferson. “Even for guys like me being here before, Coach knows how to recruit.
“He knows how to treat his players.”
Taking more ownership of the program has been a focus for the players during the offseason. Defensive tackle Todd Chandler said doing the little things — showing up early, reporting regularly for treatment and additional film study — has fostered a different feeling compared to his previous years in the program.
“We changed our mind-set,” Chandler said. “Last year I’d say there was more dreading coming to the workouts or dreading to do things. A lot of guys just missed certain workouts last year. This year there’s been a huge turnaround. People are showing up and doing the little things.”
Chandler and Davis are among 16 returning starters the Bulls project to have on the field opening the season. Finding more consistent quarterback play is likely the key to a successful season; Steven Bench and Mike White each saw significant action last season but failed to secure the job full time.
“We’re trying to build our own legacy,” Chandler said. “Last year is in the past. We want to come back with a strong season.”