USF expects big things from Marlon Mack

Marlon Mack ran for a USF freshman record 1,041 yards last season, third-best total in program history. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Marlon Mack ran for a USF freshman record 1,041 yards last season, third-best total in program history. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Aug. 5, 2015

NEWPORT, R.I. — He had driven to Sarasota on a late-January night to recruit a power back, and found a poker player instead.

USF coach Willie Taggart arrived at the doorstep of Marlon Mack's house moments after coaches from Louisville — the only other school Mack visited — departed. Accompanied by assistant Raymond Woodie, Taggart engaged Mack's parents — Demetris Woods and Marlo Mack — in conversation, smitten by the depth and thoughtfulness of their questions.

Meantime, the youngest of their three boys elicited nary a grin or grimace.

"I remember that night vividly," Taggart recalled Tuesday. "We were sitting there talking and Marlon was quiet. I was trying to read him like, 'Am I getting to him? Is he comprehending what we're saying?' Marlon was hard to read."

That figurative fog — and overall stock value of USF's 2014 recruiting class — were lifted hours later, when Mack informed Taggart by phone he would be a Bull.

"It was close (between USF and Louisville), but it wasn't that much of a close race," Mack said. "(Louisville) was too cold for me, I guess."

Seven months later, as a last-minute replacement for injured starter Darius Tice, Mack galloped into USF lore with a school record-tying 275 rushing yards and four TDs in a season-opening win against Western Carolina. By season's end, he had run for a USF freshman record 1,041 yards, third-best total in program history.

Now, a constituency anxiously awaits the sequel. This time, Taggart insists he has a far more solid read on his offensive cornerstone.

In terms of sheer quality, Mack Part II might mirror The Godfather Part II, the coach suggests.

"I think he'll have a lot more than 1,000," Taggart said Tuesday at the American Athletic Conference media day at the Hyatt Regency Newport.

"I think it's gonna help because he has a lot more weapons too, to where folks won't be just keying in on Marlon. Being in the up-tempo (offense), it's gonna allow us to have a lot more plays than we had in the past, and with more plays come more yardage and more opportunities."

On Tuesday, Taggart acknowledged the goal is 85-90 plays a game. That represents a significant spike from 2014, when the Bulls — often bogged down by pre-snap shifts and struggles to get the play signaled in — averaged 61.7.

Such a glaring increase will require more defensive sturdiness and offensive simplicity. Taggart foresees both.

Unlike his inaugural 2-10 season in Tampa, the Bulls possess not only depth, but what he calls "competitive depth" at every position. The glaring question is whether a quarterback — sophomore Quinton Flowers or senior Steven Bench, at this point — can consistently manage that breakneck tempo and spread the field.

If so, Mack, who reports to preseason camp today at 208 pounds, believes he can flourish.

"It's gonna open the defense up more, so it's … more explosive plays for me," said Mack, who now boasts a 305-pound bench press and 475-pound squat. "I think I can do great in this offense."

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Alas, there's one other potential hitch in that forecast: The dude who flourished off-tackle won't catch anyone off-guard in 2015.

Everyone has a read on him now.

"I thought he did a good job, and I think probably the key to him is he has that speed you can't replace. So it will be interesting to see what happens there," UCF coach George O'Leary said. "I think he's a good football player, no question. He's got to hold up in protection, stuff like that. We'll see at the end of the year."

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.