TAMPA — It is precisely 5:01 p.m. Saturday, and panic takes over the small meeting room, sending a USF football staffer suddenly running down the hallway with a tiny folded piece of paper in his hand.
The White team's two-minute window for the opening pick in the elaborately staged spring game draft is nearly up, and nobody's sure how closely commissioner Willie Taggart is watching the clock.
The pick gets to the podium in time, and Taggart, speaking to his entire team in the main team meeting room, proudly announces the top pick to be linebacker DeDe Lattimore, who puts on sunglasses and smiles as he walks to the podium for a handshake with his "new" White jersey.
Equal parts silly fun and cold-blooded competition, USF's spring game will take place Saturday at Raymond James Stadium with two squads that have embraced Taggart's enthusiasm and competitive spirit, with assistants Chuck Bresnahan and Ron Cooper stepping up as head coaches.
"Sometimes, we get so caught up in trying to win, we forget to have fun," said Taggart, who made sure his players saw the order of selection for his top 30 players, providing confidence and/or motivation at all positions. "I'm okay with them having fun, as long as we work and we're doing things to help us become a better football team. … To me, it gives me a good feel for what our staff thinks of our team."
Taggart first saw such attention placed on a spring game at Stanford under then-coach Jim Harbaugh, and Taggart did the same at Western Kentucky, tweaking the details each season.
"It gets really competitive. It's fun to sit back and watch those guys go at it," Taggart said. "You walk in those rooms and listen to why they're going to take a guy, why they shouldn't. You laugh at some of them, then some, you say, 'That's not smart.' But they've been pretty evenly matched games."
Lots of schools "draft" their spring rosters, but Taggart took it another step, with a "free agency" period that allowed each team to "sign" one offensive and defensive player, luring them with any perk the NCAA would allow.
Defensive tackle Luke Sager was swayed by a first-class seat for a road game; talented defensive end Aaron Lynch negotiated an offensive cameo as part of his deal.
Taggart has added real incentives to the spring game as well: the teams will eat together Saturday night, but the winners get steaks, while the losers eat hot dogs.
The teams' strategies were wildly divergent. Cooper used five of his top six picks on defense, while Bresnahan used four of his top six picks on offensive linemen to protect top quarterback Bobby Eveld. After selecting 12 players, USF's defensive coordinator had only one defensive back and no linebackers; he also allowed White to select the top two running backs in Marcus Shaw and Mike Pierre.
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"I wanted to establish the offensive and defensive line first," Bresnahan said. "We got four of five of what we consider right now the starting offensive line, and three of the four starting defensive linemen. Those were the things we were looking at, rather than taking something like a DeDe Lattimore right away. DeDe's only as good as the guys in front of him."
Cooper said his first priority was landing Lynch, knowing that the spring game doesn't allow for blitzing, so he needs a strong pass rush from his front four. He had offensive line coach Walt Wells in his draft room as the other team took four offensive linemen with top picks, but Wells felt the backups at both tackle spots — Quinterrius Eatmon and Jake Kaufman — were comparable to the current starters.
The teams were just as different in their draft-room atmosphere. Cooper's coaches were holed up in a tiny meeting room, with a pair of Diet Coke 2-liter bottles nearly empty as they shifted magnets on depth charts on the wall. Bresnahan's staff was in the spacious (and soon-to-be-renamed) Big East room, with a spread of chicken wings, three coolers of cold drinks and rows of chairs for drafted players.
"We were working. They wanted to have a party," said Cooper, clearly enjoying the pregame banter. "On a couple of their picks, I think they were busy fighting over wings down there. We're fine. We're going to celebrate after the game."
Bresnahan has been busy setting up team activities: a "Green Machine" event for fans tonight at the Lee Roy Selmon's in Carrollwood, with fans earning the right to be a guest waterboy or girl, or an honorary captain for the coin toss. Commissioner Taggart will attend.
"We want people to come over and meet the Green team. We're going to have players with team pictures to give out," said Bresnahan, noting that discounts will be given to fans wearing green.
Come Saturday night, after a running clock in the second half, the Bulls will return to being one team instead of two. Taggart likes the way his players and coaches are enjoying something that can be just another practice at some schools.
"What we're trying to create is competition throughout the team," he said. "I hope guys want to show up and show out under the lights at Raymond James Stadium. No matter where you were picked, it's time to show up."