Hundreds of student-athletes pour out of Tampa Bay area high schools each year, leaving home in search of success at the collegiate level. Coach Willie Taggart, who was a standout at Manatee High School in Bradenton, makes it a priority to ensure that this talent stays close to home.
“Our coaches work on it every day,” Taggart said. “If we don’t work on it every day, we aren’t going to get those local guys that we are getting. We just have to keep grinding and getting not only the guys around here, but also the best guys for our football team that want to be here and want to be a part of turning this around.”
According to Rivals.com, Taggart was able to bring in the AAC’s top recruiting class last year, which included 12 signees from the Tampa Bay area out of the overall 28 members.
“(USF is) the only school in the bay area where you can literally say ‘I’m back home,’” Taggart said. “Other than the conference title, you still get to play on TV, we have guys going to the NFL, and you can get a great education. We have it all here.”
The players at USF share that mentality and enjoy the close proximity to home.
Sophomore receiver Rodney Adams, who has racked up 316 yards so far this season, made the decision to leave his home in St. Petersburg for Toledo before making the trip back to where his family and friends could see him play.
“It feels great knowing that I have family members in the stands and people that actually know me here,” Adams said. “I can go see them after the game and they can come watch me play and I can go home anytime I want.”
Other players, like sophomore safety and Freedom High School alumnus Nate Godwin, never left.
“(Playing for my hometown) was very important and played a big role in my commitment here,” Godwin said. “It’s an easy transition when you’re playing in front of people you know, instead of playing out of state and have to build a new name for yourself.”
Godwin was originally committed to Minnesota, but switched his commitment after Taggart was hired.
“Coach Taggart didn’t have to say much,” Godwin said. “When he was hired, I looked up his background and saw what he did at Western Kentucky. I was always interested in South Florida, so when coach Taggart and (linebackers coach Raymond Woodie) recruited me, I just thought about my family and thought, ‘why leave if you don’t have to.’”
Taggart knows how important the coach-to-player relationship is and strives to make that a focal point of his pitch to recruits.
“I think a lot of these kids around here want to stay home,” Taggart said. “They want to feel important and rep their city. A lot of these guys grew up wanting to go to South Florida and I think that gets overlooked. We build the relationship with them and they see the opportunity to come here and that helps. The kids want to be around here with the team, school and coaches.”
Taggart’s recruiting has started to pay off with young players earning starting roles and making a difference, which is a good sign in Taggart’s eyes.
“It shows that we’re doing a good job evaluating kids and developing and competing,” Taggart said. “You try to recruit guys that are winners and competitors and what’s exciting about it is telling when you’re recruiting them to go take somebody’s job … and you see some guys doing that and being excited about it.”
One of these young playmakers is sophomore linebacker Nigel Harris who leads the nation in forced fumbles. Harris played his high school football at Hillsborough and was teammates with junior
punter Matias Ciabatti.
“We all knew he was a rising star when I was a senior,” Ciabatti said. “He was playing fullback, breaking 50-yard runs all the time, and linebacker, shutting those running backs down.”
The two rekindled their friendship when Harris was recruited to USF. Ciabatti said he has remained close with not only Harris, but his father as well. The two Bulls make a point to go and see him after games.
“It’s great when times get tough,” Harris said. “At times when I need that extra support, I have those guys right there to fall back on.”
Godwin calls it a brotherhood, where the Tampa players have each other’s back, especially when arguments break out.
“We know who the Tampa guys are and sometimes there are arguments about whether Tampa is better than this city or that state, so we stick together,” Godwin said.
None of Godwin’s high school teammates play for USF, but he did play on the Tampa 7-on-7 team with Harris and freshman cornerback Devin Abraham.
One of the most notable Bay Area talents at USF is senior receiver Andre Davis, who wasn’t recruited by Taggart but maintains his Tampa roots.
“The people drew me here,” Davis said. “Even though I was recruited by coach Holtz, it had a great family atmosphere and that drew me to come (to USF). That’s really why I came to USF, to be around my family and so my family can come see me perform without worrying about traveling.”
In his four years at USF, Davis has accumulated 12 receiving records and has become one of the faces of USF Athletics.
“It’s a blessing to be the face of a university like that because not many people get that opportunity,” Davis said. “Seeing those billboards and having my family seeing them and texting me about it, it’s real nice.”
Davis knows the importance of his community and the role it played in his development. Over the past two summers, Davis has returned to the Loretta Ingraham Recreation Center — a place he frequented as a boy — to mentor kids and give back to his community.
“The kids grew up the same way I did, in the same place,” Davis said. “A lot of them play sports as well, so just to be that mentor to them — boys and girls — it’s awesome to go back and see them. They love seeing ‘coach Dre’ and I love giving back.”
Taggart said USF remains a prominent part of the Bay Area community and will continue to draw the local talent.
“It’s all about getting passionate people in here that care about winning and care about South Florida and their families,” he said. “There are a lot of places you can go, but I don’t think there are any schools in their hometown Bay Area that they can go to.”