Speed Kills. Look around the recruiting landscape of the state of Florida and you will find speed all over the place. Successful college football programs for decades have been able to utilize these Sunshine State recruits in space to put up video game numbers and in 2015, South Florida head coach Willie Taggart was finally able to tap into the skillsets of his most highly touted players to produce the most prolific offense in school history, a complete 180 from his previous two seasons at the helm.
But how in the world could an offense that ranked near the bottom of FBS in offensive efficiency in 2014 make such a significant jump? The answer to that question can not only be found in significant changes in philosophy, but also simply playing to his players’ strengths and allowing open play-calling that was missing in the borderline unwatchable slow, Pro-style play that permeated the previous two seasons.
The offseason began with the firing of offensive coordinator Paul Wulff and the decision for Taggart and staff to switch to an up-tempo, run-heavy scheme with West Coast principles, a look the coaching staff would later dub the “Gulf Coast Offense.” The next move was to name quarterbacks coach David Reaves and new offensive-line coach Danny Hope as co-offensive coordinators with Taggart himself calling the plays. With the conclusion of spring camp and the decision for two-year starting quarterback Mike White to transfer from the program after taking mostly third string reps, the decision was finally made for sophomore Quinton Flowers to be named starter heading into the season. Taggart perfectly described the Miami native’s talent in an interview with Fox Sport’s Bruce Feldman “He’s the real deal. He’s an electrifying player who reminds me of Tommie Frazier in that he’s so savvy. You think you have him, and you don’t. Guys can come scot-free on a blitz and he’ll still be able to get out of it.”
With several changes being made all-around the offensive side of the football and the status of a patchwork offensive-line, including the availability of Stanford transfer Reilly Gibbons, up in the air, questions arose as to how exactly Taggart would make all of this work in a season where many viewed 2015 as do-or-die for the Bradenton native. Well, the first month was not pretty by any indicator.
The Beginning Turmoils
After beating down Florida A&M in a borderline scrimmage to open the season, the USF offense went through the awkward growing pains accompanied with learning a new system while still leaning towards conservative tendencies. The Bulls offense would stall in contests with Florida State, Maryland, and Memphis, at times showing that nothing much had changed from the previous seasons. South Florida’s 1-3 start was highlighted by the lack of big, impact plays from defending AAC rushing leader Marlon Mack along with Quinton Flowers’ early struggles to connect with his receivers (running back D’Ernest Johnson led USF in receiving by a wide margin through the first four contests).
After a hard-nosed 24-17 defeat at the hands of then ranked Memphis, Taggart knew he had his guys exactly where he wanted them heading into a must-win date with Syracuse. “The guys were hurt, crying,” Taggart told Feldman of Fox. “I went home and I told my wife, 'I think we’re onto something.”
Onto something he certainly was as everything changed from that point forward.
The symbolic second half to USF’s season began on a third quarter flea-flicker play against the Orange that saw Mack pitch the ball back to the QB Flowers who launched a 42-yard bomb to WR Ryshene Bronson. That loose style of play-calling was something South Florida fans had not become accustomed to for years and served as a revelation for Taggart as his team cruised to a 45-24 victory that afternoon. And I was only the beginning.
Down the stretch, the Bulls offense hit their stride at the right time, would averaging 37.5 points per game and quietly creeping up the standings in the AAC east. The quick decision making of Flowers and his ability to extend plays with his elusiveness allowed for a variety of different plays to be called in the right situations as the Bulls offense increased in efficiency down the stretch. They would average a booming 6.2 yards per play and regularly put up over 400 yards per game, including a few 500+ yard games, a significant increase from 2014.
Most notably, their overall performances against Temple and Cincinnati emphasized how good Taggart’s offenses can be when playing at full potential in coming. The Bulls dropped 44 points on a top-25 Temple Owls squad featuring all-American linebacker Tyler Matakevich while the next week, they would do their best Baylor impression with a 65-27 bludgeoning of pre-season conference favorite Cincinnati.
By season’s end, the offense would set overall and individual school marks including:
-Yards of total offense (5,741), rushing yards (3,205), and touchdowns (54).
-Yards averaged per game (441.6).
-437 points scored second in school history.
Quinton Flowers: School records 3,278 yards and 34 total touchdowns. QB rushing records of 991 rushing yards and 12 rushing TDs on season.
Marlon Mack: Broke Andre Hall’s single season rushing record with 1,381 yards. School record nine one-hundred-yard rushing games.
Rodney Adams: 822 yards and 9 TDs single season school receiving records.
“We stuck to what we believe in, and we could see it coming from what we were seeing daily in practice,” Taggart reflected on his team. "Our guys are growing up and they see I have a great staff and how close we are, and they’re all in."
After Monday’s 45-35 loss to Western Kentucky in the Miami Beach Bowl, their offseason now begins with a mount of expectations, with students, fans, and pre-season pollsters projecting the Bulls as AAC East favorites. The same pieces and characters that made the dramatic turnaround in 2015 will return in next season with the additions of QB Asiantii Woulard, WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and an entire 2016 recruiting class all eligible to contribute. The competition will be fierce throughout spring and fall camps, but should the right pieces remain intact and healthy, there is no reason why Taggart and company cannot achieve bigger heights.