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Why Willie Taggart’s Tampa to FSU pipeline might just be starting

Seven of his 10 assistants also have ties to the area.
Chaz Neal (60) was one of two Wesley Chapel players that Willie Taggart landed from the 2018 class. (Times file)
Chaz Neal (60) was one of two Wesley Chapel players that Willie Taggart landed from the 2018 class. (Times file)
Published Feb. 8, 2018

TALLAHASSEE — Florida State recruiting coordinator David Kelly had plenty to celebrate during Wednesday night's signing day party.

He helped the Seminoles salvage a crumbling recruiting class. FSU's haul ranked No. 11 nationally.

And after years of futility, FSU had finally tapped into one of Tampa Bay's biggest football powerhouses.

"We finally broke that quote-unquote Armwood curse," Kelly said.

Yes, the Seminoles' new coaching staff proved it can recruit Armwood by signing four-star teammates Warren Thompson and Malcolm Lamar. 

But the message extends beyond Seffner and past 2018. By landing FSU's largest local class since 1982, new coach Willie Taggart showed that his Seminoles are poised to reestablish themselves as one of the biggest forces in Tampa Bay recruiting.

"I think it'll definitely be a trend with Willie Taggart up there in Tallahassee," said Ricky Sailor, who runs the local recruiting non-profit Unsigned Preps.

The Seminoles didn't ignore Tampa Bay under previous regimes. Bobby Bowden averaged 1.6 local recruits per class. Jimbo Fisher signed 10 prospects from the area in his eight years as head coach.

But FSU was picky about who it targeted in Hillsborough and Pinellas. The Seminoles landed nationally heralded recruits like Plant High athlete James Wilder Jr. and Wharton High receiver Auden Tate, who led the ACC with 10 touchdown catches last season. For the next tier of talent, however, FSU prioritized other areas, like Miami or Georgia.

"It seemed like they only wanted the top guys in the country from this area," said Sailor, a former Leto High standout who played collegiately at Texas Tech.

FSU routinely lagged behind the rival Gators. Fisher signed only seven blue-chip recruits from Tampa Bay high schools. Florida signed 12.

Out-of-state programs started to pass FSU locally, even though the Seminoles are only four hours north. From 2014-17, Clemson landed five local blue-chip prospects. Auburn signed four, including Tampa's top recruit in 2016 (Tampa Catholic receiver Nate Craig-Myers) and 2015 (Armwood defensive end Byron Cowart). FSU took only three.

The field has started to shift. In addition to the Armwood pair, FSU signed four-star defensive back Isaiah Bolden and three-star lineman Chaz Neal from Wesley Chapel High. The quartet of locals was as many as FSU signed in the previous four classes combined.

Some of the local focus came out of necessity. Taggart had less than two full months to assemble a recruiting class, so he focused on players his staff already knew. That meant going back to some prospects he first recruited at USF – players like Thompson, one of the nation's top 30 receivers.

"He just made it all the reason to go," Thompson said of Taggart.

But Taggart also said the Seminoles made a conscious effort to recruit Tampa Bay, an area the Palmetto native has successfully mined throughout his career.

From 2010-17, Taggart's classes at Western Kentucky, USF and Oregon included 20 players ranked among the area's best by the Tampa Bay Times. That's more than double FSU's haul (nine) in the same timeframe.

Local recruiting analyst Corey Long said FSU will still have to be choosy about which locals it targets, but Taggart's local roots will help him identify talent and get prospects interested.

"The area's going to be covered," Long said. "He's not going to leave any stones uncovered here with him and his staff."

That staff knows the region well; seven of Taggart's 10 assistants previously coached at USF. One of them, offensive line coach Greg Frey, is a Clearwater native who helped build a recruiting pipeline to Tampa Bay when he was an assistant at Indiana; no school in the country signed more locals in 2017 than the Hoosiers (five).

"Those guys Willie has brought on staff – there's some bulldogs when it comes to recruiting," said Largo High coach Marcus Paschal, whose Packers have a pair of top 2019 recruits and another in 2020. "They have really good relationships when it comes to coaches down here."

It showed Wednesday with FSU's biggest local recruiting class in three-plus decades.

Don't be surprised if the momentum continues for years to come.

Times staff writer Bob Putnam contributed to this report.


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