The offense has scored 43.6 points per game. Only four teams average more yards per play, and the quarterback is averaging eight yards per rush, with a running back over 1,000 yards, too.
This is not the way it’s always been for Willie Taggart’s South Florida teams, but it is now. And it should sound quite familiar and appealing to Oregon.
On Wednesday, ESPN and other outlets reported that the Ducks will name Taggart their new coach, replacing Mark Helfrich. It’s their first outside head coaching hire since Rich Brooks was hired from UCLA’s staff in 1977. Helfrich was fired last week after Oregon fell from the national title game in 2014 to 4-8 in 2016, due in large part to a broken defense.
Taggart — who, according to ESPN, received endorsements for the job from Jim Harbaugh, Tony Dungy and Oliver Luck, Andrew’s father– will be charged with rebuilding Oregon’s identity. Under Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly and, initially, Helfrich, the Ducks became known for their forward-thinking approach, with expensive facilities — with the help of mega booster Phil Knight — seemingly millions of uniform combinations and a revolutionary up-tempo spread offense. None of that is unique anymore, and issues on defense have led to an Oregon collapse.
Creating that unique identity allowed Oregon to improve its recruiting in a location otherwise unsuited to attracting top-tier talent, given the lack of prospects within the state. The Taggart hire will be an interesting fit. While he has spent much of his career in the east, this isn’t quite like Matt Rhule leaving Temple for Baylor in the state of Texas. In Texas, coaching staffs having a familiarity with in-state recruiting is essential. In Oregon, the job is to recruit California and nationally — including Texas and perhaps even Florida, where Taggart’s recruiting is best known. He grew up in Florida and has now risen to prominence at USF.
Taggart played at Western Kentucky under Jack Harbaugh, Jim’s father, then coached under him, too. In 2007, Jim Harbaugh hired Taggart to be running backs coach at Stanford, where he coached Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart and helped increase the Cardinal’s talent pool during the program’s rise to prominence. That work led Taggart back to Western Kentucky, where he led his alma mater from 0-12 the year before he took over to 2-10 his first year to back-to-back seven-win seasons and the school’s first bowl bid in its sixth season of FBS play.
At South Florida, the transition initially didn’t go smoothly. Taggart inherited a 3-9 team from Skip Holtz, and the Bulls were unable to find their footing on offense the first two years with a 6-18 record. Entering 2015, Taggart, who is the team’s primary play caller, promised a change to a tempo offense — “Fast. Exciting. Big plays,” he said at the time. That’s exactly what he has delivered, with the help of quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Marlon Mack, blending his Harbaugh-like power football into more of an up-tempo spread package.
In Taggart’s first season in 2013, the Bulls ranked 122nd in scoring and 121st in yards per play. It didn’t get much better the next year. Last year, they broke out with an 8-5 record, winning seven of their final nine games. While they fell short of winning their division because of a loss at Temple, this year has been another step forward. USF is in the top seven in scoring and yards per play, putting up at least 30 points in every game and at least 45 in seven of 12. Flowers has been one of the nation’s most productive quarterbacks as a junior, rushing for 1,425 yards, passing for 2,551 yards and accounting for 37 total TDs. Mack has rushed for 1,137 yards, and both average over seven yards per carry.
It’s led to a 10-2 season in which USF’s only losses were to Florida State (55-35) and AAC champion Temple (46-30). USF has looked a lot like an American Athletic Conference version of what we expect from Oregon.
One concern could be that the Bulls’ defense hasn’t been up to par this season, giving up 31 points per game after defensive coordinator Tom Allen left for Indiana, but they were solid last season, and Taggart has proven to be an adaptable coach who has surrounded himself with quality assistants. The staff he builds at Oregon will be key, as he’ll likely need to bolster West Coast ties and find a way to turn around a Ducks defense that has given up more points than everyone but Texas Tech and California this season.
Taggart does, however, check a lot of boxes. He has rebuilt two programs, both at a relatively young age for coaching — he’s only 40. He’s learned from the Harbaughs. He’s had success as an assistant at one of Oregon’s rivals on the West Coast. He’s been a strong recruiter. And over the past two years he’s developed one of the nation’s most exciting offenses, one that looks a bit like Oregon’s.
Taggart is the type of coach who will work to recapture success in Eugene in part by doing what has made Oregon so successful in recent years, but by also bringing fresh ideas that can allow the Ducks to start moving forward again.