Sources have confirmed with SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey that Oregon will hire South Florida’s Willie Taggart as its head football coach. ESPN’s Brett McMurphy first reported the news on Wednesday morning.
Wednesday afternoon, the Ducks made it official.
Welcome, @CoachTaggart.#GoDucks— Rob Moseley (@DuckFootball) December 7, 2016
Taggart has been the head coach at USF since the 2013 season, posting a record of 24-25 over his four years, which includes a 10-2 record and current No. 25 AP ranking in 2016, already the most wins in a season in school history. The Bulls will play South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl.
Before that, he was the head coach for three years at Western Kentucky, going 14-10 in 2011 and 2012, which included the first bowl bid in school history.
Previously, Taggart was Stanford’s running backs coach under Jim Harbaugh. He was the position coach for Toby Gerhart, who mounted a strong Heisman run as a senior.
Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will be targeted as Taggart’s replacement at USF, a source told SB Nation. Kiffin has interviewed for Houston’s head coaching job and is LSU head coach Ed Orgeron’s top choice for OC.
Kiffin’s considered a “top” candidate for the Cougars, but sentiment is building for interim head coach Todd Orlando, especially if Orlando can keep current offensive coordinator Major Applewhite. Kiffin is attractive to Houston, but establishing a heavily consistent transition from the Tom Herman era would sway decision makers. Kiffin has connections with the Tampa area.
Taggart’s proved he can adapt and win with what he’s got.
After arriving at USF, he realized his Harbaugh-like style wasn’t a fit for the state of Florida’s speedy talent. So he found a middle ground between power football and modern spread styles, building something that has a lot in common with Oregon’s balanced, up-tempo spread system. From our 2016 profile on him:
He embraced what he saw in his Floridian roster: raw athleticism, as fast as possible.
“That’s so important to us. That’s why we have the respect. Because you don’t normally see coaches do that,” senior running back Marlon Mack said after the win vs. UCF. “I don’t know of coaches at this level that would listen to players asking to change things. We said, ‘Please, let’s go fast, let us go and we’ll show you,’ and he did.”
“At first it was, well, let’s just run West Coast, but see how it looks in the ’gun,” Taggart said. “And then it got intriguing, because we started seeing all the options available that we didn’t have under center. And then we started running all the practice reps, Quinton in the ’gun, spread out, but with the shifts and motions. And it was like … wow.”
It didn’t pay out overnight, but there was faith enough in the experiment to keep going. USF started 2015 1-3, but lost to surging Memphis by only seven. Taggart was hot-seat fodder.
“When we made the change, we were beating ourselves up over, ‘What is it? What are we doing wrong?’ It wasn’t the schemes. We just needed to get more and more reps,” associate head coach David Reaves said.
“We’d see USF when I was coaching against them. You’d watch their tape and say ‘Man, they’ve got athletes, they just need to get them the ball more,’” new co-offensive coordinator T.J. Weist said. “It jumps out at you. But unless you’re a true power team, with a big offensive line like Michigan, it’s hard to make it work.”
If you like offense, you’ll like Taggart.
He’s in the business of scoring points, and for USF, business has been good. The Bulls have been around the top 10 in scoring offense all year, averaging better than 40 points per game. The advanced stat S&P+ also sees a top-10 unit, so it’s not just a matter of the Bulls playing non-power defenses in the American Athletic Conference.
USF’s offensive improvement under Taggart has been fairly remarkable. The Bulls were 106th in scoring offense the year before Taggart arrived, then 122nd and 119th in his first two years. They jumped to 41st in 2015, and now they’re elite.
Taggart has built a USF offense that, in addition to being good, is plainly fun. The Bulls rank atop the country in IsoPPP, a measurement of explosive plays, and are near the top of the sport in 20-plus, 30-plus, 40-plus, and 50-plus-yard plays. They love to grab chunks of yardage at once, and they’ve gotten quite good at it.
The Bulls have made a dual-threat quarterback work brilliantly. Junior Quinton Flowers is one of the country’s most efficient passers, and he’s also USF’s leading rusher. Taggart calls plenty of designed runs for him, like this one that led to a 63-yard score against Navy:
Flowers’ prolific year on the ground (over 1,000 yards) is no small thing, given that junior Marlon Mack is one of the nation’s top running backs. The Bulls have kept good offensive balance, and they’ve lit teams up.
At Oregon, he’ll have a promising QB in rising sophomore Justin Herbert, who posted the Pac-12’s No. 4 passer rating after taking over in September. He’s mobile enough, ranking No. 4 on the team in carries per game and scoring a couple TDs on the ground.
The major concern for Oregon has been defense, since longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti’s retirement after the 2013 season. USF was solid on defense in 2015, ranking No. 46 in S&P+ as a mid-major, but this year ... let’s just say the Bulls were great at outscoring opponents.
And he can recruit.
USF’s signing classes have ranked in the AAC’s upper half each year since his arrival, including No. 1 in 2014 and No. 2 in 2015. That 2014 class completely dominated the Group of 5, by the way, and includes several players who’d play big roles in the Bulls’ current run of success, including Flowers.
His connections to younger players include more than just signings.
Last summer, he put on a free football camp for kids in his hometown in Florida. (Not a satellite camp, but a “Dreams, Goals, and Aspirations” camp for kids in first through eighth grade. There were no recruits here.)
Taggart was on the pro-player side of the Great Satellite Camp Debate that reached a crescendo in the spring of 2016. He’s spoken passionately in favor of coaches bringing camps to players, rather than having players pay and travel to see schools.
As he told SB Nation in 2015:
I think the wrong message has been put out. No one's really talking about how good it is for the kids. If you really think about it, this is the right thing to do. Kids are going to camps all over the country, spending all this money to try and get the most amount of exposure, when it's the schools that have all the money. The schools should be moving around so the players can get a larger variety of teams.
“Climbing is easier than hanging on.”
Taggart’s used that line in a couple of media appearances over the years, and a sign bearing that sentence reportedly hangs in his office.
His South Florida tenure has been a good endorsement of that approach. The Bulls were 2-10 his first year, then 4-8, then 8-5. Now they’ve emerged as one of the best non-power teams in all of college football. The could cut it in a Power 5 league better than a handful of teams who are currently in them. They’re good, and they’ve not stopped getting better.