TAMPA – Willie Taggart called it “probably one of the hardest decisions I've made'' as a head coach.
In a close call, Taggart said Monday he's going with redshirt sophomore Matt Floyd as the University of South Florida's starting quarterback for Saturday night's opener against McNeese State at Raymond James Stadium.
Taggart said Floyd was selected over senior Bobby Eveld, the other holdover from spring drills, and sophomore Steven Bench, a transfer from Penn State who was limited at times by an ankle injury. True freshman Mike White, also a factor in the competition, is a logical candidate for a redshirt season.
“One thing we noticed with Matt, he has gotten a lot better than where he was in spring ball (or) when he came to training camp,'' Taggart said on Monday's American Athletic Conference teleconference. “Matt was night and day better than what he was then. Even from a leadership part of it, you see him starting to be a little more vocal.
“He doesn't get rattled easy. He made a lot of plays for us throwing the ball, but also running the ball. Whenever you have a guy who can get you at least two first downs with his feet and can throw the football, you've got a really good chance to have some success on offense. He was able to do that consistently and get us in the right plays. He made the plays that he needed to.''
Floyd, a 6-foot-1, 202-pounder from Milton High School in Florida's Panhandle, was recruited by Skip Holtz's staff and redshirted during 2011. Last season, Floyd played in seven games and started the final two, following season-ending injuries to B.J. Daniels and Eveld.
Floyd completed 51.8 percent of his passes with five interceptions and no touchdown passes. His ball-handling was a concern. Last season, Floyd led USF with seven fumbles, losing three.
“I've heard him (Taggart) talk about being consistent and being a leader, that's what he's really looking for,'' Floyd said last week before the decision was announced. “We need to be consistent, to try and earn Coach T's trust. That's the main thing for him, consistency and leadership, the typical things quarterbacks need to lead a team to a championship level.
“I just have to go out there and perform. Whether I get the starting job or don't get the starting job, it's not going to change who I am.''
Taggart said he expects the quarterback competition to continue – indeed, Bench wrote Monday on Twitter: “Don't ever count me out'' – but Floyd has earned some latitude.
“Matt understands we're not going to go in game by game, (him) worrying about that position and we take it (away),'' Taggart said. “We're going to get behind Matt and support him. But he also knows that we need production from that position. He's got to do something, too, just like the rest of our guys.
“We know we have some other quarterbacks who are capable of getting it done, too, and those guys will continue to compete. I think it's just going to make us a better football team overall.''
USF football, heading into its 17th season, has mostly enjoyed stability at quarterback since the program's inception. Chad Barnhardt played the first two seasons. Marquel Blackwell, Matt Grothe and Daniels were each four-year starters.
Floyd said he's looking forward to operating USF's new offense, which is a complex, shifting, run-oriented version of the San Francisco 49ers, which is led by Taggart's mentor, Jim Harbaugh.
“I've never played in an offense like this with this level of difficulty and complexity,'' Floyd said. “I'm mostly played in the spread and shotgun, but this is different. This has a lot of plays that have answers to whatever they (defense) will run. You can take advantage of the defenses and it allows us to exploit the abilities we have at receiver and running back.''
USF should be a heavy favorite against McNeese State, a Football Championship Subdivision opponent, but much bigger challenges await. The Bulls travel to Michigan State on Sept. 7, then host the Miami Hurricanes on Sept. 28.
“I'm looking forward to seeing our guys go out and hit someone else,'' Taggart said. “I'm really ready to see what our guys can do. They've been trained and we're ready to see them go perform.''