TAMPA — Only three summers have passed since Willie Taggart gazed toward his left and right flanks — and slots, for that matter — and saw a wasteland.
In his play-action, power-driven scheme, nothing flourished in those nether regions. Only four times in 12 games did a quarterback throw a touchdown to a wide receiver, proving mirages can surface at South Florida as erratically as they can in the Sahara.
But three solid recruiting classes — and a few prominent transfers — later, destitution has been supplanted by overgrowth. These days, north Tampa subdivisions don't seem as congested as USF's receiver depth chart.
"Sometimes it's really hard to judge these receivers," position coach T.J. Weist said recently, "because I've got 13 on scholarship."
Welcome to USF football 2016, where the biggest depth issue at the skill positions may be too much of it.
Four receivers — Rodney Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Chris Barr and Ryeshene Bronson — have at least 20 career Division I-A catches. A trio of sophomores — redshirt Stanley Clerveaux (back from a torn ACL), Plant High alumnus Jordan Reed and Tyre McCant — appear poised to break through.
By many accounts, freshmen Darnell Salomon and DeVontres Dukes — 6 feet 3 and 6-4, respectively — shined in preseason camp.
"We call ourselves the Flight Squad," Bronson said, "because we take flight on everybody."
Throw in the promising tight end tandem of Kano Dillon and Tarpon Springs High alumnus Mitchell Wilcox, and Taggart finds himself with a decision most would consider delightful.
How does he balance ball distribution and, for that matter, egos?
"I don't think you necessarily distribute it to eight, nine or all of 'em, you make sure you distribute it to the right ones," Taggart said. "We've got some guys that are proven already, so we make sure we get it to them first and foremost."
None are more proven than Adams, a Lakewood High alumnus who enters his final season 10th on USF's career receiving yardage list (1,145 yards). Watch for him to slide into the slot to make room outside for Valdes-Scantling, another former Lakewood star who sat out last season after transferring from N.C. State.
Already a scout-team legend, Valdes-Scantling (6-5, 205 pounds) often could team with Bronson (6-3, 200) to give USF arguably the rangiest wideout tandem in the American Athletic Conference.
"I turn the film on and these guys are blocking," said Weist, the former Connecticut interim coach who spent last season as a senior offensive analyst for Jim Harbaugh at Michigan.
"Most of the time I take over a group of receivers and I always have to get it out of 'em to block. But these guys will do it. Coaching receivers for 28 years, I rarely find a receiver group that likes to block physical. These guys do, these guys take some pride in it. And to me, that's impressive."
Question now is, can they block out pride? At its peak of efficiency, Taggart's offense will maximize the key components and make prudent use of the other ones.
That means featuring Adams, getting a steady supply of handoffs to tailback Marlon Mack, allowing quarterback Quinton Flowers to improvise, and liberally targeting tight ends, a position that averaged more than 38 catches in Taggart's first three seasons at USF.
Gaudy stats — for anyone — are likely to be sacrificed. The Bulls finished fifth in the AAC in total offense last season (441.6 ypg), but no receiver finished among the league's top 10 in receptions per game, and only Adams cracked the top 10 (ninth) in receiving yards per contest (63.2).
Translation: An unprecedented season (i.e. a conference title) may require some unprecedented humility at the receiver spot. Can the Bulls achieve such a balance?
"That's a hard question, but I'm gonna say it like Coach Weist says: When you get the opportunity, make a play," Bronson said.
"When you're winning, everyone's happy," Valdes-Scantling said.
"That's all we care about is winning. We don't care about who gets the ball. We don't care about who scores the touchdowns. As long as we win games and go after the championship and win that, that's all we care about."