HOUSTON — University of South Florida coach Willie Taggart has been to Houston many times for recruiting. The last trip, he believes, was during his days as a Stanford University assistant, a home visit with quarterback prospect Andrew Luck.
That must seem like eons ago.
What a concept: Having a dynamic quarterback capable of producing touchdowns with a flick of his wrist.
Tonight, Taggart brings the offensively challenged USF Bulls (2-5, 2-1 American Athletic Conference) to Reliant Stadium for a matchup against the Houston Cougars (6-1, 3-0). USF hasn’t scored an offensive touchdown in 12 straight quarters and only has six, a national low, all season.
“For us, we’d love to have Andrew Luck, but we’re just looking for a little luck,’’ Taggart said. “We’d like to get there. Just a little bit. Not the whole Andrew, but just a little bit.’’
Seeking luck and pluck, Taggart has turned to true freshman Mike White, 6-foot-4, 186 pounds, his fourth starting quarterback in eight games.
By all accounts, White is a feisty leader and tireless worker with a big arm. Considering he’s only 10 months removed from leading Fort Lauderdale University School to the Class 3A state championship, he must also be a quick study.
Taggart doesn’t seem worried about the prospect of starting an 18-year-old at quarterback.
Houston coach Tony Levine isn’t concerned, either. Since losing established junior David Piland to a series of concussions, the Cougars have gone with their own true freshman, former Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas quarterback John O’Korn, a former USF recruiting target. In seven games, O’Korn has 19 touchdown passes and four interceptions.
“If you ask most coaches around the country, ‘Hey, do you want to start a true freshman QB?’ I don’t know that a bunch would jump up, raise their hand and say, ‘Absolutely!’ ” Levine said.
Piland’s concussions forced Levine’s decision.
Taggart is going with White because nothing else has worked. He has no other options to jump-start USF’s anemic offense.
But either way — due to year-round preparation, seven-on-seven competitions and more sophisticated high-school offenses — the prospect of starting a true freshman quarterback isn’t nearly as scary as it was a few decades ago.
This season alone, major college programs such as Penn State (Christian Hackenberg), California (Jared Goff) and Texas Tech (Davis Webb) have entrusted their seasons to true freshmen. In recent years, USC’s Matt Barkley, Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor and Baylor’s Robert Griffin III distinguished themselves in the first year.
Florida State hasn’t started a true freshman quarterback since Chip Ferguson in 1985. Two years ago, injuries forced Florida to start Jacoby Brissett at No. 1-ranked LSU with predictable results, a 41-11 loss.
But in 2003, the Gators turned to Chris Leak, who led UF to the largest comeback in school history during his first start, coming from 18 points down to defeat Kentucky. Leak also guided victories against nationally ranked LSU, Arkansas and Georgia that season.
Now, USF’s Mike White, for better or worse, can add to the narrative. Will Taggart plan to start White for the rest of the season?
“My plan is to find a guy to get us going,’’ said Taggart, whose offense should be aided by the return of leading rusher Marcus Shaw, out since Oct. 5 with a hamstring injury. “We’re just trying to find some answers. Hopefully, Mike can give us some of those answers.
“We know he’s going to make some mistakes here and there. I’m fine if they’re honest mistakes, going all-out, being smart. We’re not looking for Mike to win the game for us. We’re looking for him to take care of the ball and manage the game, help his teammates win the ballgame for us.’’
Already, White’s work ethic has impressed Taggart, who noticed his late-night film study. White’s arm strength, displayed intermittently during scout-team practice reps, also was duly noted.
“He can sling it,’’ USF junior offensive tackle Darrell Williams said.
“When we did scrimmages with the young guys, it was almost like sometimes Mike was a man among boys out there,’’ USF offensive coordinator Walt Wells said. “That’s when we first started realizing, ‘Hey, he might be a guy who can come into the fold this year.’ ”
Now White has his chance.
The script might seem appropriate for a Halloween movie — national television, road game, facing a defense that leads the nation with 27 takeaways. Frightening? Taggart and Wells are undaunted.
“He doesn’t need to be Joe Montana,’’ Wells said. “He just needs to be Mike White. If he can perform like we know he can, like we’ve seen in practice, we’re comfortable with that. Or else we wouldn’t be playing him.’’
Wells reiterated that times have changed in modern football. High school players already are well-versed in offensive schemes. Many have played on national television.
“It’s just not that big of a deal when they get out there,’’ Wells said. “There are the jitters of a big game, but once you get hit the first time, they go away. Hopefully for him, he’ll have jitters throughout the game because he hadn’t been getting hit.’’