TAMPA — He'll open his second preseason at USF this 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 long-term forecasts. 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 said 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 11 offensive touchdowns, fewest in Division I-A.
Sixteen 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. 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 2013) 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 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."
ROSTER TWEAKS: Of the four signees not expected to suit up today, three are expected to join eventually. The only wholesale departure is Estero TE Nick Nataro, who reportedly left school after 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 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.