TAMPA — For Willie Taggart, the University of South Florida’s first-year football coach, the honeymoon has ended. “It has been fun,’’ said Taggart, reflecting on a busy offseason. “Everything has been peaches and cream. Everybody has been smiling and laughing. I haven’t heard many negative things about me, but it’s coming. That’s part of it. “This is our football team. We can’t let anybody else label us. It’s on us to get it done.’’ Already, there are familiar characteristics for Taggart’s Bulls, who are a three-touchdown favorite against the McNeese State Cowboys, a Football Championship Subdivision opponent, in tonight’s opener at Raymond James Stadium.
Taggart wants toughness. Taggart wants precision. Taggart wants urgency. And without question, he wants those qualities reflected in USF’s quarterback. Redshirt sophomore Matt Floyd was named USF’s starter after a tight training-camp competition with senior Bobby Eveld and sophomore Steven Bench. Floyd started the final two games of last season (3-9), but Taggart doesn’t consider that especially relevant. Floyd, he said, has transformed into a much different player. “I was shocked,’’ Taggart said. “He really improved. His poise in the pocket, the way the ball was coming out, he just got better. He’s the best fit for us right now.’’ Floyd said he gained confidence by playing last season, following injuries to B.J. Daniels and Eveld. Then everything changed in the spring. Instead of running the familiar spread, he was indoctrinated into Taggart’s offense, filled with an assortment of pre-snap shifting and motion. “It was really eye-opening,’’ said Floyd, a 6-foot-1, 202-pounder from Milton High in Florida’s Panhandle. “That first day, we were like, ‘How the heck are we supposed to do this?’ But now, it’s second nature. You say the play and everybody knows what to do. “Going into the spring of not knowing this offense at all, never having played this style of offense, it kept us from doing extremely well. But over the summer, working with the receivers and running backs, getting better individually, getting better at mechanics, when we came back for fall camp, it was all things we knew. In the spring, we didn’t know. For me, that’s what it was. I was more comfortable.’’ Even with that comfort zone, though, Floyd has a small margin for error. Taggart is a former quarterback himself, having led Bradenton Manatee to a state title, then becoming one of the best leaders in Western Kentucky University history. Taggart’s background makes him an excellent mentor — and pointed critic — of USF quarterbacks. “I want guys who are highly competitive and who love the game,’’ Taggart said. “The ones who are big time, they’re in the film room, day in, day out. I told Matt, ‘There’s a part of you (that) your teammates can’t have. It comes with the position. You can’t do and be like everyone else. It’s different now. “I think you’ve got to be hard on those guys. This is a tough game. It’s hard. Everybody’s watching. … You get blamed for anything. You’ve got to have thick skin and not worry about those things. Lock in, day in, day out. Do your job and get better every single day.’’ Floyd steps into a position that has been mostly stable throughout USF’s history. Marquel Blackwell, Matt Grothe and Daniels each were four-year starters. Floyd will have to prove whether he is a stop-gap solution or the long-term answer. Either way, Taggart will be watching closely. And that’s a good thing. “He has experienced it,’’ Floyd said. “He knows what it’s like back there. I’ll drop back, make a pass and think it’s a good read. Then he’s like, “That was a good ball, a good read and everything, but … this guy was even more wide open. Drop back and sling it to this guy.’ “Coach Taggart is very, very smart. It’s great to have a guy who knows the offense so well. Sometimes, he’ll say something and you’ll be like, ‘Wow! Where the heck did you come up with that?’ But it’s exciting to have him back there.’’ USF offensive coordinator Walt Wells, who primarily works with the offensive line, said Taggart will have a profound influence on the program’s quarterbacks. Wells, once an Eastern Kentucky University assistant who opposed WKU when Taggart was the quarterback, said Taggart “probably sees the field as good as anybody I’ve ever been around.’’ “Willie’s not afraid to get on the quarterbacks, but he makes sure they learn,’’ Wells said. “We’re happy moving forward with Matt, but he knows he has to keep working, because two guys are right there, coming after him. “Matt, he’s calm under pressure, and that’s what you like. When things go bad, it’s like it doesn’t faze him. It does, because he does care. But he doesn’t get rattled. He just keeps rolling.’’ [email protected] (813) 259-7353 Twitter: @JJohnstonTBO