How Willie Taggart salvaged a top-15 recruiting class from shambles

The Seminoles' class rose from outside the top 50 to inside the top 15.
Florida State coach Willie Taggart finished his first Seminoles recruiting class well. MATT BAKER | TIMES
Florida State coach Willie Taggart finished his first Seminoles recruiting class well. MATT BAKER | TIMES
Published Feb. 7, 2018|Updated Feb. 8, 2018

TALLAHASSEE – When Willie Taggart took over Florida State in December, the Seminoles' recruiting class was in shambles.

Eleven oral commitments – including six blue-chip recruits – bailed in November or December. The Seminoles' class tumbled from inside the top 10 to outside the top 60. FSU secured only seven prospects during December's early signing period.

Taggart didn't seem concerned.

"It's not how you start," Taggart said in December. "It's how you finish. We're going to finish strong."

Seven weeks later, Taggart's Seminoles finished as strong as almost any program in the country.

FSU picked up four big targets – two blue-chip prospects and two flips from Tennessee – during Wednesday's traditional signing day to close with a class ranked No. 11 in 247Sports' composite rankings.

It featured the heaviest Tampa Bay flavor in three decades with two players from Armwood High (four-star receiver Warren Thompson and four-star defensive end Malcolm Lamar) and two from Wesley Chapel High (three-star lineman Chaz Neal and December signee Isaiah Bolden).

Taggart's 21-player haul snapped the Seminoles' run of four consecutive top-six classes. But FSU still finished third in the ACC, topped Florida, Oregon and Texas A&M and represented a remarkable rebound from how bad things were less than two months ago.

The previous coaching staff cooled its recruiting as Jimbo Fisher began flirting with Texas A&M. Seven commits defected in the days surrounding his departure.

The Seminoles' December crop wasn't close to rivals Florida, Miami or Clemson. It was barely ahead of USF.

But FSU had two key advantages it used over the next month and a half: A blue-blood reputation and a staff full of top-notch recruiters.

"They have something that very few programs have," ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill said. "They have a perception that, I think, affords a new, incoming coaching staff a little bit of a wait-and-see approach amongst prospects."

Some of those top prospects who didn't sign in December were willing to consider Taggart's Seminoles. He built his staff quickly and used the December dead period to prioritize targets for the 23 days of contact in January.

With a tight time constraint and many needs to fill, the Seminoles focused on recruits they already knew. At least seven of Wednesday's 13 signees were recruited by FSU coaches at their previous stops.

"That helped big time in getting some of the guys," Taggart said.

Four-star receiver Tre'Shaun Harrison committed to Taggart at Oregon before choosing FSU on Wednesday. Another top-200 prospect, Ohio defensive end Xavier Peters, was a priority for defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett when he was still at Michigan State; Peters flipped from Kentucky last week. Taggart offered two other defensive ends – Georgia native Jamarcus Chatman and Kissimmee Gateway's Dennis Briggs – at Oregon and fended off Miami to sign both Wednesdayy.

But the longtime connections showed up most notably with how Taggart, a Palmetto native and former USF coach, attacked Tampa Bay. Taggart had known the area's top prospects for years. He first offered scholarships to Lamar and Thompson in 2016 when he was still coaching the Bulls and eventually lured them to his new school.

"It was pretty much FSU all the way," said Lamar, who chose the Seminoles over UF on Wednesday. "They were after me pretty hard and they just built good relationships and a family bond."

Those relationships led to historic results.

The Seminoles' four local signees are the most since 1982 and as many as they inked in the last four classes combined. After never signing a player from Armwood, FSU landed two from the Seffner powerhouse in one day, snapping a message-board conspiracy theory called the "Armwood curse."

"I think three years of relationships finally broke the curse," Taggart said.

And helped the Seminoles transform a recruiting class from tattered to one of the best in the country.

Times staff writer Bob Putnam contributed to this report. Contact Matt Baker at Follow @MBakerTBTimes.