by Tom Zebold
AR College Correspondent
February 10, 2014
USF BULLS ROMP ON NATIONAL SIGNING DAY
TAMPA, Fla., Feb. 6, 2014 - Head coach Willie Taggart and his staff are building something really special at the University of South Florida here.
If you passed by the Bulls' football headquarters on Feb. 5, you might have thought it was game time at Raymond James Stadium. Various coaches were yelling and fist-pumping as if USF was putting it on an opponent.
The Bulls won't get a chance to translate the momentum on the game field until August, but it's safe to say the program secured its first big win of the season during National Signing Day.
Taggart and his crew posted their second consecutive top-50 recruiting class - one that ranked as the best in the American Athletic Conference, according to a consensus of national recruiting outlets. The atmosphere around USF Athletics has been electric.
"I'm very exciting about our class," Taggart said. "We got everybody we wanted and everyone that wanted to be here, which is the beauty of it. As coaches, you go out and set a vision of what you want and to go out and accomplish those things is really gratifying. We filled a lot of needs in this class."
Months of hitting the road to visit stadiums and households have truly paid off for USF and fans should really get excited about what's transpired in the Bulls' own backyard.
South Florida, one of the largest colleges in the state, signed a total of 12 players from the greater Tampa Bay area, which is what Taggart envisioned when he put on a Bulls cap for the first time during his introductory press conference on Dec. 9, 2012.
"You go back to Day 1. It's gratifying to go out and accomplish those things and to me that's how it has to be here at USF," Taggart said.
"We have to keep them here and develop those kids into great football players for us, which will ultimately make it a great program. Every year you're going to see the heart of our recruiting class is going to come from the Bay area. Then we'll go out and get the arms, the legs, the ankles, the toes, and the feet, we'll get them all," he said.
The heart of USF is pumping with authority, and the Bulls' body of work during National Signing Day shows there is a vibrant future ahead for a program that wants to take the fast lane back to the top.
The class of 28 is USF's largest since signing 30 players in 2009, and it tied for second largest in program history. The class includes nine players that earned a four-star rating from at least one national recruiting outlet, including six players rated as four-star prospects by ESPN, which also had the Bulls with 21 three-star recruits.
"I think that's big for our fans. I think it's big to see some progress and for us to continue to make positive progress," Taggart said.
"That's what we have to constantly do and that's how it should be at USF, and that's the expectation. We said that from Day 1 and we need to be that way. So it's good that we're holding up that part of the bargain and now we have to continue to build on that," the Manatee High School graduate said.
Part of staying competitive in the national recruiting landscape has included keeping top-level talent away from other big-time programs around the country.
USF's fax machine was already well into warp speed Wednesday morning when receiver Tyre McCants made his pledge to the Bulls after gaining the interest of other big-time programs.
The Class 7A second-team all-state selection from Niceville, Fla., had Florida State, Alabama and Georgia inquiring late about his college decision before he officially committed to USF. McCants also got offers from Louisville, Ole Miss, Penn State, Arkansas, Georgia Tech and Cal, among many others.
Tight end Elkanah Dillon (Ocala, Fla, Vanguard High School) got a special visit from the Wisconsin coaching staff in mid-January and also was heavily pursued by Kentucky while offensive tackle Ben Knox (DeLand, Fla.) was probably the Bulls' most sought-after recruit by SEC programs, according to special teams coordinator Stu Holt.
The four-star recruit had Auburn, Tennessee and NC State anxious to have him in for a visit and he turned down Miami and Louisville for a chance to join the Green and Gold.
Defensive end Vincent Jackson (Tampa) had more than 35 schools to choose from, including Alabama, Auburn, Ohio State, Oklahoma, USC, Oregon and Stanford, but Taggart admitted he didn't get anxious while awaiting Jackson's paperwork on Wednesday morning.
"Vincent and I talked and have had a great understanding and great relationship," Taggart said. "I was very confident that Vincent Jackson was going to be a Bull."
Quarterback Quinton Flowers, a four-star recruit from Miami, had at least 40 offers to choose from since the beginning of the process and the schools that were in heavy pursuit included Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Miami, Nebraska, Texas, Tennessee, UCF, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
Flowers was regarded as the best signee in USF's class by The Associated Press' Fred Goodall after shining on offense and defense at Miami Jackson High School.
"If he wanted to be a DB he probably could have gone anywhere he wanted in the country," said running backs coach Telly Lockette, who hails from Miami. "He's a great athlete and a great kid that can do a lot of things well with the ball in his hands."
All but about 15 or 20 schools wanted Flowers to play defensive back, but USF allowed him to pursue his desire of becoming a collegiate quarterback after he passed for 1,349 yards and ran for 641 yards with 10 touchdowns as a high school senior. Flowers totaled 6,042 passing yards, 2,002 rushing yards with 32 touchdowns in his prep career.
"I think that's what you get out of Quinton Flowers is a tough, highly competitive, smart, athletic kid," Taggart said. "I hope he's like Russell Wilson or Johnny Football. That's what we're banking on, him to be like those guys."
The Bulls also reloaded at running back with Sarasota's Marlon Mack, who was pursued by Nebraska, Purdue and Indiana, and Immokalee's D'Ernest Johnson, who received offers from Florida, Georgia, Louisville, Ole Miss, North Carolina, Minnesota and West Virginia.
Blocking for USF's new backs will be Knox (6-6, 260), along with guard Michael Galati (6-3, 283), tackle Zach Hudson (6-5, 285) and guard Michael Smith (6-3, 294), which add the size Taggart is looking for on the bulked-up line.
The school ranked 21st in total defense in 2013 and bolstered the roster with Jackson and fellow defensive ends Eric Mayes (Sarasota), Demetrius Hill (Kankakee, Ill.) and Rohan Blackwood (Brooksville, Fla.), who picked USF over Miami, Louisville, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Mississippi State, Minnesota, West Virginia, Virginia, Purdue and Iowa State among others.
The USF Bulls should again be fierce in the middle, with four-star recruit Jimmy Bayes (Immokalee, Fla.) and the additions of fellow linebackers Juwuan Brown (Tampa) Josh Black (Tampa), Nick Holman (Madison, Ala.) and LeGrande Harley (Durham, N.C.), who turned down offers from Arizona State, Oklahoma State, Oregon State, NC State and West Virginia among others.
USF also increased its skill level in the secondary with Devin Abraham (Tarpon Springs, Fla.), Jamie Byrd (Dade City, Fla.), Tajeee Fullwood (Tampa), Kendall Sawyer (Lehigh Acres, Fla.), Mazzi Wilkins (Tampa) and Deatrick Nichols (Miami), who had Auburn, Cincinnati, Clemson, Georgia, Rutgers, UCLA, LSU, Miami, Pittsburgh and Tennessee knocking on his door among others.
The team was also looking for more playmakers on offense and got them in a big way. Joining McCants at wide receiver is Ryeshene Bronson (Fort Myers, Fla.), who received offers from Florida State, Auburn, Florida, Arkansas, South Carolina, Nebraska, Virginia Tech and Miami.
The Bulls added another large target at receiver with 6-for-3, 185-pound Stanley Clerveaux from North Miami High School and the team keeps getting better at tight end with Dillon (6-5, 225), Marlon Pope (6-4, 265) and Nick Nataro (6-4, 240).
"You never know what or who is going to influence that kid to go one way or another, but we were confident in our guys," Taggart said.
"Like I said," he continued, "the guys that wanted to be here are and we had some guys fighting towards the end, which was great to see the kids hold on and really want to be a part of it.
"That gets you fired up as a coach to really want to coach those kids up when they really want to help turn this program around and that's what we need here is guys that feel that way about our program," he said.
Tom Zebold is a Senior Writer for the University of South Florida's public affairs program.