TAMPA — It took a month to evaluate the recruiting options, to carefully craft a staff of assistants, but in the last week, new USF football coach Willie Taggart has built a significant surge of momentum heading into the final 12 days before national signing day.
Taggart's Bulls have picked up six commitments since Sunday, luring Bradenton Manatee defensive tackle Derrick Calloway out of a Louisville commitment and picking up some of the area's top remaining prospects in Countryside defensive end Mike Love, Northeast's Auggie Sanchez and Hillsborough linebacker Nigel Harris.
"I feel good about the whole excitement at University of South Florida football, and I think it's only going to get better," Taggart said this week, unable to speak about individual recruits due to NCAA rules.
Taggart came to Tampa with a reputation as a top recruiter — the big week has pushed USF up to the top 50 in national team rankings — with a strong finish, the Bulls could have the highest-rated class in this fall's Big East lineup. Much of the recent push has been on the defensive side, with five of the six most recent commitments on that side of the ball, impressed by defensive backs coach Ron Cooper's time at LSU and the NFL background of new coordinator Chuck Bresnahan.
Calloway has been perhaps the biggest splash in the recruiting class, pulled away from Louisville and a strong recruiter in Charlie Strong, just weeks after the Cardinals routed Florida in the Sugar Bowl. There was a built-in advantage in that Taggart starred at Manatee himself, but Calloway's position coach said that aspect might be overrated, given that Calloway only came to Manatee in 2011 after moving from California.
"A lot of people think, 'Oh, you're from Manatee, you're biased about Willie,' " said Steve Gulash, who played with Taggart on a state championship squad at Manatee 20 years ago. "I'd love for Willie to coach every kid I've ever coached. Only because I know what he's about, where he's from. ... You realize he's a dynamic young coach. He may have great success, he may have great failure. What I know is when you're an aggressive recruiter and you tell the truth, that tends to have success."
The question now is how well can Taggart close out his first recruiting class, which still has key unfilled needs at quarterback and running back. Winter Park's Asiantii Woulard, who had twice committed to USF under Skip Holtz, only to re-open his recruiting both times, just visited Clemson and will visit UCLA, so the Bulls may face tough odds there. In his place, the Bulls may turn to one of two Fort Lauderdale passers — Tyler Cogswell, a former Arkansas commitment, or John O'Korn, who is committed to Houston.
Running back is a priority in these final scholarships, with several prospects in play — DeLand's JoJo Kemp, another early USF commitment who went back on the open market, chose USF over Tennessee for an official visit this weekend, and the Bulls are bringing in Stafon McCray from Kissimmee Osceola, where he has rushed for more than 3,200 yards and 45 touchdowns in the past two seasons. Another potential local coup would be Jesuit tight end Travis Johnson, who was scheduled to visit Rutgers this weekend until he changed plans to visit USF, the day after a home visit from USF coaches.
Taggart came into the recruiting game late in the process for this class, conceding that relationships are often forged over a year or more before signing day. He has found success, especially in the immediate area, and has a chance to build on that first class over the next two weekends.
"Ever since I was a little kid, I always told my mom I wanted to go to USF," said Kissimmee defensive back Hassan Childs, who committed Sunday.