MADISON - With his new college program located in the middle of one of the more fertile recruiting areas in the country, it didn’t take long for Willie Taggart to figure out that recruiting Florida the simplest way to turn around a South Florida program stuck in a slump.
After only one full recruiting cycle, the talent is starting to provide a change in results.
Blending in 17 returning starters with the top recruiting class in the American Athletic Conference last season, USF is starting to fit the right pieces into the puzzle heading into its matchup with No.19 Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium Saturday morning.
Going 2-10 in his first season, dropping the program at 10-26 the past three seasons, Taggart’s inaugural year was a mixed bag. On the field the Bulls finished 2-6 in conference, failed to reach double digits in four games and fell victim to a FCS opponent when McNesse State pummeled them 53-21 in the season opener.
But Taggart saw promise with the players he was recruiting. USF signed 28 players this past season and didn’t have to go far to recruit most of them. Twenty-two recruits came from the state of Florida, including two four-star recruits, former UW commit Rohan Blackwood and impact freshman running back Marlon Mack, who Taggart describes as a big back who doesn’t flinch at anything thrown his way.
“He’s a quiet kid who just loves to play the game,” said Taggart. “I think with most freshmen, especially running backs, a lot of times those guys just want to get out, take off and run. What makes Marlon special is he has an ability and an understanding of being patient and allowing his blocks to happen. He does a great job setting up blocks, too.”
Bursting on the scene with a school-record 275 rushing yards, not to mention four touchdowns, in a season-opening win over Western Carolina, Mack – listed at 6-0 and 195 pounds – muscled his way to a 103-yard, one-touchdown game in a 17-14 win over Connecticut in adverse weather conditions last Friday.
“Our guys didn’t flinch at all,” said Taggart.
Although still in the beginnings of his scouting work, Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen received an advanced scouting report on Mack over the summer thanks to USF running back coach Telly Lockette, who played college football at Idaho State, one of Andersen’s former coaching stops.
“(Telly) really likes this guy, so that tells me he's a very good player, and film would back that up,” said Andersen. “He's a talented young man from what you see on film, but because of the fact of what Telly Lockette says, the young man is a good player.”
Mack’s play has helped take some of the pressure off the Bulls’ quarterback situation. Completing 39.3 percent of his passes and averaging 97 yards per game on the season, sophomore quarterback Mike White was 13-for-42 in his first two full games (he was knocked out of the 24-17 loss to Maryland with an arm injury) before going 10-for-18 in the win over the Huskies.
“We’ve just got to do what we do best,” said Taggart. “I think Mike showed that last week. He didn’t press, he did a great job leading the offense and more importantly he was great on the sideline being a great leader and just running the offense.”
After going outside the comfort realm with last weekend’s task of slowing down an up-tempo Bowling Green offense, Andersen’s description of USF should have an air of familiarity to it. A huddle-up team, USF likes to establish the run with Mack and utilize play-action passes, quick throws to the perimeter and fly sweeps off the run look.
It’s essentially the same thing the Badgers try to execute, which they did to near perfection in the 68-17 win over Bowling Green, registering a school-record 756 yards of total offense and a Big Ten record 644 rushing yards.
“You watch that film and you’re like ‘wow,’” said Taggart. “You hope the football gods are with us on Saturday. That was an impressive showing by those guys. Our defense will have to come play our A-game.”
Through four games, the Bulls rank 62nd against the run (142.0 ypg), 70th against the pass (234.3 ypg) and 93rd overall in points per game (29.5). Acknowledging the challenges Wisconsin will present, Taggart said it will be important for his defenders to play fundamentally sound, utilizing discipline play, low level and gang tackling.
“We can’t get caught up in what Wisconsin did the week before or any game before that; we’ve got to be sharp at what we do,” said Taggart. “We’ve got to have a great week of practice doing better than we’ve done before. It’s really not about who we’re playing. It’s about us doing a great job at what we do.”