Taggart: Bowl game 'a must'
TAMPA -- He'll open his second preseason at USF Monday morning with some three-tight end formations, maybe some four-wide sets. His defensive front will be a hodgepodge of looks. He'd prefer to hide the redshirts from most of his rookies.
But if there's one area in which Coach Willie Taggart leans toward the conservative, it's in the long term. Bowl or bust? Nah, Taggart won't go quite that far. But as he tries to pick his program off the canvas in 2014, Taggart says reaching a bowl is an absolute prerequisite -- if not prediction -- for the Bulls.
"I wouldn't say bowl game or bust," Taggart told local reporters Sunday afternoon. "But bowl game's a must."
The team Taggart unveils at today's 10 a.m. public workout (veterans only) promises to be brawnier, faster, deeper and better versed in the playbook than last year's 2-10 club that managed a nation-worst 11 offensive touchdowns.
Sixteen total starters (including 10 on offense) return, and 24 of the 28 signees from a recruiting class widely considered the American Athletic Conference's best are set to begin practice. On Sunday, Taggart said he expects competition at every spot, and for the Bulls to be capable of matching up with every team on the schedule.
"Last year with everything being new, our guys had to look out for themselves," Taggart said. "That's just kind of the world we live in when there's change and you've got a coach coming in that hasn't recruited you and new faces you're trying to learn and grow trust. ... This year, we look for our guys to put themselves below the team and everybody above it."
BALL-CARRYING COMMITTEE: One of the most scrutinized positions in August will be tailback, where sophomore Darius Tice (35 carries, 141 yards in '13) is the only player on the depth chart to have taken a collegiate handoff.
Marcus Shaw -- last season's leading rusher -- graduated, junior Willie Davis transferred to Tennessee Tech, and senior Michael Pierre was forced to give up the game after suffering a neck- and spinal-cord related injury. Pierre will remain on scholarship and assist the coaches, Taggart said.
Battling Tice for handoffs: redshirt freshman Sta'fon McCray and incoming four-star recruits Marlon Mack and D'Ernest Johnson.
"I'm not concerned at all," Taggart said. "I'm excited about all our backs. ... You can't have enough running backs, and it's good that our coaches did a great job of finding really two outstanding players to come and help us. But we can't just sit back and relax on those guys; it will be a running back by committee. The thing is, no one has proven anything, so I'm excited to see those guys compete and get ready to play."
ROSTER TWEAKS: Of the four signees not expected to suit up today, three are expected to re-join eventually. The only wholesale departure is Estero TE Nick Nataro, who reportedly left school after only a few days for undisclosed reasons.
Former Nature Coast High DE Rohan Blackwood is dealing with some lingering eligibility issues, team spokesman Brian Siegrist said, but coaches are hopeful he can join the team when classes start at USF later this month. Elsewhere, former Sickles OT Zach Hudson will redshirt after surgery to repair a torn labrum, and junior college DE Eric Mayes -- a partial qualifier -- won't be eligible until 2015.
NAMES THAT JUMP OUT: USF's 105-man preseason roster released Sunday features a handful of prominent walk-ons including former Plant High WR Austin Aikens. A sophomore who signed with Taggart at Western Kentucky, Aikens averaged 27 yards on eight catches as a Hilltoppers freshman in 2012.
He's joined by sophomore DB Rodney Mills -- a former Jefferson standout -- and freshman DB Cameron Gergley, who had six interceptions at Winter Park High last season. Gergley's grandfather, Larry Gergley, is a former longtime Winter Park head coach.
ODDS AND ENDS: Senior DT Todd Chandler, whose videotaped 700-pound squat in the Bulls' weight room became viral, said he received some negative feedback along with the acclaim. "Just (people) saying, 'You're crazy, you're gonna mess up your knees and your back,' stuff like that," he said. ... Senior C Austin Reiter said the offseason bulk he gained (from 273 to 296 pounds) resulted from pure strength and conditioning, lots of grilled chicken and no desserts. "My mom would always want to give me a cake for my birthday, but I'm just not too into desserts," he said. "I guess that's a good thing when I get older that I'm not too keen on sweets."
AUDIBLE: "It's a job for somebody to take, and that's at every position. We do a depth chart just so you can rep some things, but that's going to be one of those moving depth charts. ... We want consistent players, guys that can do good all the time." -- Taggart, when asked if the quarterback job is incumbent Mike White's to lose
AUDIBLE PART II: "We've got a lot of guys on the defensive line who are very quick and agile. ... We can do a lot of things with a 3-4 front, we can move around a lot more, disguise a lot more of our fronts. ... It plays upon our assets. We've got guys like Reshard Cliett who can walk down, become an edge rusher. So it complements the guys that we have on our roster." -- Chandler, whose unit is expected to digress from its conventional 4-3 alignment at times
USF's opening-week practice schedule (open to public):
Monday, Aug. 4, 10 a.m.*
Tuesday, Aug. 5, 10 a.m.*
Wednesday, Aug. 6, 10 a.m.*
Thursday, Aug. 7, 8:30 a.m.
Friday, Aug. 8, 3 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 9, 2 p.m.
*-Veterans only (freshmen will practice at undisclosed time)