TAMPA — Ask USF's Mike McFarland about the prominent role a tight end can play in a Willie Taggart offense, and his eyes light up with excitement.
"It gives me chills to think about the things we can accomplish," said McFarland, a Blake High graduate who totaled five catches in his first two years at USF but could be a major contributor this fall. "Our offense kind of revolves around the tight ends. … It's a pretty amazing feeling, just to be associated with this type of offense, to see the success he's had."
Fellow Bulls tight end Sean Price emerged in the second half of last season, catching 21 passes in the final six games as a freshman. He wants to build on that strong finish and, like McFarland, recognizes his position's central role in Taggart's West Coast offense.
"Knowing you can be that guy on such a great football team … it's an overwhelming, exciting feeling," Price said. "I thank God every morning for sending me a coach like coach Taggart, making tight ends a very important role. Growing up, tight ends really weren't used much."
Taggart's affection for tight ends goes back to his days as a Stanford assistant, learning under Jim Harbaugh — five tight ends during his time there are now in NFL camps. A name you might not recognize, but one that brings excitement to Price, McFarland and other Bulls, is Jack Doyle, a tight end who led Taggart's Western Kentucky teams with 50-plus catches in each of the past two seasons.
"It's a blast to play as a tight end in that offense," said Doyle, now a rookie in camp with the Titans. "You've got to be able to do a lot of things. He asks you to block, asks you to go out and make a catch. You can't ask for a better offense to play in."
Prove yourself reliable as a tight end, and Taggart will reward that trust — in 2011, Doyle had as many catches (52) as all the Hilltoppers' wide receivers combined. He remembers the immense time spent in practice working on certain specific plays — one in particular was extremely effective in third-down situations, even when defenses knew it was coming.
"That was our go-to play for me, and it had a very high success rate," said Doyle, who caught five touchdown passes as a senior. "I always knew it was coming on third and short."
As recently as 2009, USF's tight ends had a total of 12 receptions all season, but expect big contributions now. Doyle said a Taggart tight end is a versatile threat — blocking as an extension of the line, flaring out as an extra receiver and everything in between.
"Our tight ends, we use them in so many different ways," Taggart said. "Our guys have to be able to block, read coverage, run routes, protect in pass coverage. We actually do a lot of different things. It's a lot on their plate from a tight end's standpoint, but a lot of those guys like it because they're always doing something, always having fun."
Price and McFarland give quarterbacks a big target downfield — Price has added 10 pounds since last fall and is 6 feet 3, 255 pounds, while McFarland is 6-5, 245.
The Bulls lost three key tight ends from last year, including Evan Landi, who spent time with the Bucs this spring. But in Price, McFarland and Jake Carlton, Taggart will count on the position in a big way.
"It's critical for us because we're going to play with multiple tight ends sometimes," he said. "It's important we have some athletic, tough, highly competitive guys at that position."