USF has officially reached the halfway point in Year Three of the Willie Taggart era, and to say it has been a roller coaster would be quite an understatement.
From the high points of routing Florida A&M in the opener and finally earning a victory over a Power-Five opponent with their upset of Syracuse on Homecoming to the lows of falling to a dreadful Maryland team and giving away a win against Memphis — Bulls fans have seen it all.
There have been second-half collapses, pull-your-hair-out play calls and even a bit of a public hullabaloo between Taggart and athletic director Mark Harlan over the coach’s team-wide ban of Ybor City following the tragic stabbing death of former player Elkino Watson. On the bright side, however, there has also been excitement, convincing wins and even a murmur or two of that long, lost bowl invitation.
As USF gets ready for Saturday’s conference game against SMU at Raymond James Stadium, we take a look at how each unit has shaped up in the first six games by issuing them a mid-term grade.
Can the Bulls sustain their recent success? Like many things, that remains to be seen. But it’s hard to argue with just how spirited they have played, and with the road ahead, it’s hard to find a reason why it won’t.
Talk about making a rebound, the unit’s evolution from the Maryland loss to Saturday’s win over Connecticut has been nothing short of incredible, and one explanation is that Taggart opened up the playbook. Instead of relying solely on the run — which is still a critical part of the game plan and should be — the Bulls have allowed sophomore quarterback Quinton Flowers to throw it around a little bit. As he has grown, so too has the rest of the team. Last year at this point, USF was ranked 118th nationally in total offense. Now? It’s 56th. That’s progress.
Arguably the most consistent group on the field this season, defensive coordinator Tom Allen has shaped the self-titled “Bull Sharks” into one of the best units USF fans have seen in some time. Led by senior husky Jamie Byrd and senior lineman Eric Lee, they’re fast to the ball, they get to the quarterback and they can knock you down in the backfield. After posting five sacks against the Huskies, USF now ranks 11th in the nation with 8.2 tackles for loss per game.
The Bulls have one of the finest punters in the nation in Mattias Ciabatti and have seen no drop off on punt returns with Tajee Fullwood, but the unit has some holes. For one, its coverage on kickoffs has been poor at times, allowing teams to take advantage of solid field position — see the Memphis game for example — which has given opposing offenses easy opportunities to march down the field and score. Also, we still aren’t sure what the Bulls have in sophomore kicker Emilio Nadelman, who hasn’t been tasked with many stressful situations.
To Taggart’s credit, no matter the outside scrutiny or questions about his job security, he has kept his faith in the program. Even when the temperature of his seat was rising, he said all the right things. Have there been some bad decisions? You betcha. But he’s also evolved to the talent on his roster, utilizing the receivers more and even throwing in some razzle-dazzle. Taggart and his program may have finally turned that long-awaited corner.