TAMPA — Go back to the beach. Specifically, Daytona Beach, home to what was then Bethune-Cookman College. Backpedal to the era when the Wildcats frequently got sand kicked in their faces, only to spit it right back.
The Wildcats of a quarter-century ago, handcuffed by limited resources and — later on — a one-year NCAA probation, oozed far more grit than glamour. And few were grittier than Raymond Woodie.
A versatile defensive end who led far more by example than exhortation, Woodie bowed his head and lowered it with equal fervor. On game days he'd pray, then prey. He typically rushed off the edge, but didn't live on it. Some teammates figured if the pros didn't come calling for Woodie, the pulpit would.
"To be honest with you, we probably kind of thought Raymond would end up being a preacher. He was a real religious guy," said former B-CC teammate Jerrell Cogmon, a Plant High alumnus who watched Woodie evolve into a Division I-AA All-American.
"Always a smart guy, very intelligent and aware of his surroundings and things like that. Never really hung out and dabbled into the negative aspects of life."
Fast forward to Wednesday, and Woodie's back at the beach — only this time on the Gulf Coast. USF coach Willie Taggart has given the Bulls a respite from two-a-days with an afternoon on the Clearwater coast. Woodie, Taggart's first-year defensive coordinator, is along for the ride as a teacher, mentor, motivator.
Just so happens the would-be pastor is leading a 4-2-5, not a flock.
"Just blessed," he says.
All's quiet on the defensive front
Truth be told, Bulls defensive players were jarred when last year's coordinator, Tom Allen, left for the same gig at Indiana. Also a man of deep-seated faith, Allen — who brought the 4-2-5 system to USF — pumped fists and decibels in the air, often growing hoarse before the first team session of practice.
He hugged guys after big plays. In turn, they embraced his scheme, and the "Bull Shark" moniker he gave the unit. USF ranked 13th nationally in tackles for loss (7.5 per game) and 14th in interceptions (17) last season.
Woodie, previously the linebackers coach, preserved Allen's scheme, which stood to reason. Not only had the Bulls flourished in 2015, but B-CC — now Bethune-Cookman University — ran a lot of 4-2-5 in Woodie's day.
Thing was, Woodie, 42 and a married dad of three, wasn't as audible or animated as Allen. Never had been.
"He wasn't a very vocal guy; you didn't hear bad things out of his mouth," said former Wildcats teammate Reggie Roberts, a Zephyrhills High alumnus who returned to coach his prep alma mater. "But you could see some of the younger players would take to him and other teammates would take to him."
"He worked hard in the weight room, he was one of the strongest guys on the team. You knew he was there."
So for all the Bulls' experience (seven starters returned), an adjustment period was inevitable, as evidenced by the first spring scrimmage.
On a wet, overcast Saturday, quarterback Quinton Flowers dissected Woodie's unit. On his second possession, Flowers tossed a 30-yard touchdown strike across the middle to senior Rodney Adams. He then led a nine-play, 70-yard scoring drive capped by Darius Tice's 4-yard score.
Later, he exploited a safety blitz with an 80-yard touchdown to Adams on a post route.
"We really were accustomed to Coach Allen," fourth-year junior middle linebacker Auggie Sanchez said. "We were accustomed to what he did, we were accustomed to his energy. … When we went from (former coordinator Chuck) Bresnahan to Coach Allen it was an adjustment and we had to get used to Coach Allen. We didn't necessarily like change."
Then the darndest thing happened.
The guys got to know Woodie.
The coaching bug bites
Raised in Palmetto (the same hometown as Taggart), Woodie — Raymond Sr. and Linda Woodie's middle child — knew better than to bring anything other than an A/B report card home.
"My parents, they would have taken sports away," he said.
Woodie considers his two-parent upbringing among his greatest blessings, even if he didn't always appreciate his folks' strictness. The elder Woodie managed a Sarasota Winn-Dixie for 36 years, never missing a day. Linda spent more than three decades as a nurse.
And though they were fixtures at the younger Raymond's games at Palmetto High, books were the priority. Woodie's older brother is a Coca-Cola executive, his younger sister has a doctor of pharmacy degree. Woodie earned a bachelor's degree in criminology, and a master's in curriculum and instruction.
"My goal wasn't to go and play in the NFL, my goal was to get a college degree," Woodie said. "Then after that, it was dessert."
He barely tasted the frosting before it was yanked away. After Woodie's career at B-CC, where he was named a GTE Academic All-American and set a Wildcats season record for sacks (141/2) as a junior, he spent a year with the CFL's British Columbia Lions but was released after an injury.
He returned to Palmetto and volunteered as a defensive coordinator, then applied for the coaching job at Bradenton Bayshore High, never presuming he'd be seriously considered.
"I mean, 30 applicants," he recalled. "They had experience. I'm a guy coming straight out of the Canadian (Football) League, not knowing how to really organize schedules and different things like that."
He was giving pro football one more shot, with Tony Dungy at a 1997 Buccaneers minicamp, when Bayshore called to offer him the job. Woodie was 23.
"I had to make a decision," he said. "And you know how it is when you come in (to minicamp) as a free agent. I wasn't getting a whole lot of reps and different things like that, so I said, 'You know what, at the end of the day, my love is to coach, teach.' "
Florida's youngest head coach upon his hiring, Woodie went 44-50 in nine seasons, leading Bayshore to five berths and a district title, before moving to Palmetto. Over time, Taggart — then a Western Kentucky assistant — became an annual visitor during recruiting season.
"He didn't have much (at Bayshore), but he did a great job of changing those kids into winners and getting them to believe," Taggart said. "I always told him, 'Hey, Woodie, if I ever become a head coach I'm gonna come get you.' "
He did just that late in 2009, after being hired as coach at Western Kentucky. The two have been together since. For Taggart, Woodie has coached defensive ends, linebackers, even special teams. In 2014, Rivals named him the American Athletic Conference's top recruiter.
But he never had been a college coordinator.
"Well you know, change is always a little tough," Woodie said. "But sometimes people … need to realize that kids get over things quicker than adults. I mean, they're on to the next person."
On surer footing
The Bulls gradually warmed up to their third coordinator in as many years. Woodie reciprocated by letting players assume partial ownership. He established a leadership committee and awarded "gray shirts" to defensive players who consistently maximized their effort in practice.
Moreover, he leaned on his assistants. "The thing with Wood is, Wood is an unselfish guy," veteran defensive line coach Eric Mathies said.
"Any time it's the first time doing anything, you're gonna make your mistakes. But the thing about Wood is, Wood has got enough self-confidence to ask guys, 'How can we make this better?' And I think Coach Taggart has really put it on us as assistant coaches to help this thing work."
By all accounts, it is. Last Saturday, after the Bulls' first major situational scrimmage of the preseason (closed to the public), Taggart said the defense dominated the offense. That night in the Bulls' meeting room, video captured Woodie gyrating as O.T. Genasis' Cut It blared from the room's sound system.
Players circled him, whooping in exhortation. Woodie, once the studious, soft-spoken leader, had found his groove.
And the Bulls were back in theirs.
"You don't really like change as a person," Sanchez said, "but now we've gotten used to it because now (Woodie) has taken us under his wing."
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.