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FAU’s Willie Taggart continues to mine Tampa Bay area for football talent

The former Florida State and USF head coach looks to the region for players often, and with great success.
Then-Florida State head football coach Willie Taggart watches an NCAA college basketball game with his son's Jackson and Willie, Jr. in Tallahassee in this 2019 photo. Now at Florida Atlantic, Taggart's 2021 recruiting class is the best in Conference USA.
Then-Florida State head football coach Willie Taggart watches an NCAA college basketball game with his son's Jackson and Willie, Jr. in Tallahassee in this 2019 photo. Now at Florida Atlantic, Taggart's 2021 recruiting class is the best in Conference USA. [ MARK WALLHEISER | AP ]
Published Jul. 3, 2020|Updated Jul. 3, 2020

Willie Taggart never misses a chance to tell potential recruits that there’s nothing like Florida.

It’s where the new Florida Atlantic coach was raised and spent much of his career. And one of his main selling points to high school players around the talent-rich state. He’s been known to dip into the Tampa Bay area often, and with great success.

Taggart recently landed verbal commitments from 6-foot-6 twins Jordan and Jaden Sandlin, both three-star offensive linemen at Tampa Catholic, for FAU’s 2021 class. The class is currently the best in Conference USA and one spot ahead of USF’s.

He previously signed three-star defensive tackle Malik Jones of Zephyrhills Christian for the class of 2020.

“This is his area,” said Jaden Sandlin. “He said, ‘There’s nothing like Florida.’ And he’s thankful to be back, and I think that does have a big play in his recruitment — he knows about the schools and the players.”

Related: Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies started breaking rules a month after he left FSU, NCAA says

Taggart’s ties to the area run deep.

He grew up in Palmetto and was a standout quarterback at Manatee High. He coached at USF for four years before leaving for Oregon before the 2017 season. He returned to Florida after one year to coach Florida State, but was fired before the end of his second season.

Hired at FAU in December, Taggart is back to leaning on Tampa Bay talent. While his success recruiting the area peaked when he was coaching the Bulls, it predated his time at USF and extended past his departure.

Taggart has signed 37 players from the Tampa Bay area in just over a decade of coaching, and his highest-rated classes leaned heavily on area talent.

In Taggart’s three years at Western Kentucky (2010-2012), he signed six players from the Tampa Bay area, including two-star tight end Tyler Higbee from East Lake. Higbee was named a Conference USA first-teamer in 2015 and went in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL draft.

Related: For Willie Taggart, FSU was the right job at the wrong time

Taggart signed 24 players from the Tampa Bay area while at USF (2013-2016). He reeled in the top-ranked class in the American Athletic Conference three times, and his ability to sign some of the top area talent has been an issue for the Bulls since his departure.

“When he got to USF, I think it was just, ‘We’re gonna put a fence around the bay area, and we’ll win them over and we’ll win a lot of games,’” said Auggie Sanchez, a former USF standout who was recruited by Taggart and later coached under him at FSU.

“We did always joke that if we could get the guys that are from the Tampa Bay area to just go to USF and stay in the community, shoot, we will compete for national championships.”

In 2016 and ’17 (the year after Taggart left), USF won more games than at any time in program history on the backs of those first classes, wrought with local talent.

Sanchez, a three-time all-AAC selection and the program’s all-time leading tackler, was among eight signees from the Tampa Bay area in Taggart’s 2013 class. The haul included multiple four-year starters and all-conference players.

Related: The three beginnings that led to Willie Taggart’s end at FSU

He brought in eight more players from the region the following year.

“I think it really just set the precedent to show that you didn’t need to go too far away to just play really good college football,” Sanchez said.

Even after he left for the Power 5 in 2016, Taggart continued to poach talent from the area.

In his lone year at Oregon, he brought in two prospects from the Tampa Bay area, and in his first year at FSU, Taggart hit his recruiting peak by bringing in the nation’s No. 11 class. That 2018 crop of talent for the Seminoles also featured his first blue chip recruits from the area (Armwood’s Warren Thompson and Malcolm Lamar and Wesley Chapel’s Isiah Bolden) and four Tampa Bay signees overall — the most FSU signed in one class in three decades.

Among the players Taggart has recruited over the years are former USF cornerback Mazzi Wilkins, now with the Bucs, and Oregon defensive tackle Jordon Scott, who received all-Pac 12 honorable mention the past two years.

Related: Florida State to consider renaming Doak Campbell Stadium after petition criticized his anti-integration past

Now, with the oral commitment from the Sandlin brothers, Taggart is once again dipping into an area where he’s seen great success.

He’s adding blue-chip talent from Hillsborough County through the transfer portal, too, snagging Plant City receiver T.J. Chase from Clemson and Armwood alumnus Malcolm Lamar from FSU.

“He’s had his hand in the county, in the area,” said Tampa Catholic coach Jeris McIntyre. “And I think that’s only going to help him down there at FAU.”

Willie Taggart’s recruiting classes at a glance

(Rankings are 247Sports composite. Players listed are Tampa Bay area recruits.)

Western Kentucky

2010

National ranking: 107

Conference USA ranking: 8

Bar’ee Boyd: Three-star OLB, Lakewood

Jerome Speights: Unrated CB, Tampa Bay Tech

2011

National: 82

Conference USA: 2

Tyler Higbee: Two-star TE, East Lake

John Evans: Two-star RB, Riverview

Delryn Wilson: Two-star OT, Jefferson

2012

National: 97

Conference USA: 6

Austin Aikens: Three-star WR, Plant

USF

2013

National: 54

AAC: 1

Nigel Harris: Three-star OLB, Hillsborough

Nate Godwin: Three-star ATH, Freedom

Cameron Ruff: Three-star OG, Jesuit

Mitchell Wright: Three-star OLB, Plant

Mike Love: Three-star WDE, Countryside

Zach Benjamin: Three-star WR, Tampa Catholic

Bruce Hector: Two-star DT, Robinson

Auggie Sanchez: Two-star WDE, Northeast

2014

National: 42

AAC: 1

Rohan Blackwood: Three-star WDE, Nature Coast Tech

Vincent Jackson: Three-star OLB, Jesuit

Tajee Fullwood: Three-star CB, Tampa Bay Tech

Mazzi Wilkins: Three-star CB, Plant

Zach Hudson: Three-star OT, Sickles

Josh Black: Three-star OLB, Sickles

Devin Abraham: Three-star CB East Lake

Juwan Brown: Two-star OLB, Jefferson

2015

National: 66

AAC: 1

Billy Atterbury: Three-star OT, Clearwater Central Catholic

Jordan Reed: Three-star WR, Plant

Mitchell Wilcox: Three-star TE, Tarpon Springs

Nate Ferguson: Three-star CB, Freedom

2016

National: 66

AAC: 5

Craig Watts: Three-star S, Admiral Farragut

Chris Oladokun: Three-star PRO, Sickles

Michael Hampton: Three-star CB, Hillsborough

Devontress Dukes: Three-star WR, Wharton

Oregon

2017

National: 19

Pac-12: 3

Jordon Scott: Three-star DT, Pinellas Park

Darrian McNeal: Three-star ATH, Armwood

Florida State

2018

National: 11

ACC: 3

Warren Thompson: Four-star WR, Armwood

Malcolm Lamar: Four-star SDE, Armwood

Isaiah Bolden: Four-star CB, Wesley Chapel

Chaz Neal: Three-star WDE, Wesley Chapel

2019

National: 18

ACC: 2

No recruits, Tampa Bay

Florida Atlantic

2020

National: 67

Conference USA: 1

Malik Jones: Three-star DT, Zephyrhills Christian

2021 (verbal commits)

National: 63

Conference USA: 1

Jordan Sandlin: Three-star OT, Tampa Catholic

Jaden Sandlin: Three-star OG, Tampa Catholic

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