The days of second-guessing an upper-tier USF recruiting class are over. For the first time in nearly six years, USF football means business and has brought in the players to take another leap forward.
USF coach Willie Taggart described the 2016 recruiting class as the “best since he’s been here,” and he has every right to be excited heading into spring practice.
For years, USF has been that team everyone expects to flip the switch and turn things around. Until week five of the 2015 season, that was true.
After rattling off seven wins in eight attempts, USF fell just one game shy of an appearance in the inaugural AAC Championship Game. Instead, it lost to Western Kentucky in the Miami Beach Bowl, but that’s neither here nor there.
USF’s push down the stretch did nothing but aid Taggart’s recruiting.
“I think what it did was solidify the guys that we had committed,” Taggart said. “If you look at the guys that signed today, they’ve been committed to us for a long time.”
It also helped bring in two four-star studs in safety Craig Watts and receiver Darnell Salomon.
Salomon, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound playmaker, can take the top off a defense or slip into a more slot, over-the-middle role. Pair him with fellow signee DeVontres Dukes and the stacked receiving core already in place, whoever the quarterback is — either Quinton Flowers or UCLA transfer Asiantii Woulard — will have an arsenal of weapons at his disposal.
USF’s lone running back signee, Elijah Mack, is a 6-foot, 215-pound truck looking to roll through opposing defenses.
In an offense that likes to run up-tempo and keep a defense on their heels, Mack (the freshman) will be a change of pace ready to punch opponents in the mouth.
A pair of concerns on offense — and there aren’t many — are two monster holes on the offensive line with seniors Thor Jozwiak and Brynjar Gudmundsson departing.
Luckily for Taggart, he’s replaced them with two behemoths.
Both towering 6-foot-6 and 300-plus pounds, junior college transfer Glen Bethel and incoming freshman Christion Gainer will look to plug up the gaps — or in this case, open some.
Flipping to the other side of the ball, newly appointed defensive coordinator Raymond Woodie had the daunting task of replacing one of the more versatile players on USF’s “Bull Shark” defense in husky Jamie Byrd.
Now called the “striker” position, Josh Dunn and Watts will come in and compete immediately for that spot. Both with good size and speed, they can provide run support without compromising coverage skills.
Taggart said today that USF will remain in the 4-2-5 scheme, and with the success they had with it last season — ranking 35th in total defense and 21st in points per game — there doesn’t seem to be any reason why they would make a change.
“We’re not changing much,” Taggart said. “We’re going to keep the terminology the same over there. (Changing) wouldn’t do us any justice right now.”
With Deadrin Senat returning as the plug in the middle and the quarterback of the defense in Auggie Sanchez leading the pack, USF’s defense has nowhere to go but up.
Helping in run support and rushing the passer, Tramal Ivy comes in as the No. 4 junior college defensive end and has one of the fastest first steps of anyone, according to Woodie.
It’s a class Taggart can hang his hat on, despite losing his AAC recruiting crown to Houston’s Tom Herman.
For once, USF will enter spring and summer workouts with expectations rather than doubts, something that comes with added pressure. Although, Taggart seems to be setting expectations of his own.
“I have big dreams for USF football,” Taggart said. “When I saw that the national championship game was going to be here in Tampa, I said ‘this is going to be something really special here.’
“I believe it can happen. We have the players here to do it, we have the schedule to do it.”
Although it’s not time to crown USF college football champions just yet, a bright future is definitely in the cards for the Bulls.
A full list of USF’s signees can be found here.
—Follow on Twitter @JacobHoagUSF