2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Willie Taggart turned back-to-back 7-5 seasons at Western Kentucky into the head coaching gig at South Florida for the 2013 season.
To say his first year was underwhelming would be a gross understatement.
The Bulls dropped their first four games by an average of 23.3 points. The disparate average of defeat was nothing compared to the embarrassment the team endured when it was routed, 53-21, by FCS foe McNeese State in the first week of the campaign.
Some brightness began to show when the Bulls knocked off Cincinnati and Connecticut in consecutive weeks midway through the year, but a six-game losing streak to end things made optimism evaporate quickly.
To be fair, Taggart inherited a program clearly on the way down, having increasing loss totals in each of the previous two seasons, including a 3-9 campaign in 2012. Those types of excuses won't fly if Taggart can't show some improvement this year.
"You don't build that program in one season. You got to build it brick by brick," Taggart said. "There are no shortcuts. We're not going to take any shortcuts. We're going to continue to build it brick by brick, build something sustainable."
OFFENSE: Disaster is the word that best describes USF's offensive performance last year. The Bulls ranked third-worst among FBS teams in total offense, scrounging up a measly 256.4 yards per game.
Uncertainty and poor play at quarterback didn't help matters, as Mike White Bobby Eveld and Steven Bench all saw time, with none of the three showing much to warrant any job security. Eveld is no longer in the fold, so White and Bench will have to duke things out for the top job. White seems to be the choice right now, even though he threw three times as many interceptions (9) as touchdowns (3) last season. Bench had 2 scores to 3 picks, but connected on just 40.6 percent of his passing attempts, while White hit on 53.1 percent. Taggart may have options in this area, but neither is particularly enticing. If things go south for both, freshman Quinton Flowers could get a look.
At least there is some semblance of familiarity under center. The same cannot be said of the running back spot, which was vacated by Marcus Shaw, who tallied 765 yards on 156 carries last season. Michael Pierre (114 yards), Darius Tice (141 yards) will likely be the first prospects to get a chance at the starting job. Even if Pierre and Tice play well, Taggart still envisions utilizing freshmen D'Ernest Johnson and Marlon Mack as well.
"Those two guys, we feel like they're going to have to play for us this year," Taggart said of Johnson and Mack. "We're going to count on those guys to help us this season."
What will help both the running game and the unsure quarterback situation is how stacked the Bulls are at wide receiver and on the offensive line.
Andre Davis has the size and talent to be an elite wide receiver. Unfortunately he has not had a consistent quarterback getting him the football, which has hurt his numbers. Despite this, the 6-foot-1 senior hauled in 49 passes for 735 yards, more than doubling the next-best receiver in both categories. Like Davis, although on a smaller scale, Deonte Welch (8 receptions, 123 yards) and tight ends Mike McFarland (23 receptions, 288 yards, 2 TDs) and Sean Price (21 receptions, 185 yards) are all talented pass- catchers who just need a better option under center to really succeed.
Whether it is White or Bench starting at quarterback, there should not be much worry when it comes to pressure. There are four returning starters along the offensive line in tackles Darrell Williams and Brynjar Gudmundsson, as well as center Austin Reiter and guard Quinterrius Eatmon.
DEFNESE: The abysmal failure that was the USF offense really took away from what was a stout defensive squad in 2013. The Bulls ranked 21st nationally in total defense (350.8 ypg), despite constantly being on the field. Coordinator Chuck Bresnahan's unit will need to grow up quickly to replicate last year's results for the team to take a step forward.
There are only four starters left from last year's squad. leaving a lot of holes, but also tons of opportunity.
Elkino Watson (9.0 TFL) is the leader up front, where junior college transfer defensive end Demetrius Hill may have an immediate impact as well. With no Aaron Lynch (6.0 sacks) and Ryne Giddins (5.0 sacks) around, any and all contributions will be welcomed.
Linebacker is where the Bulls are perhaps deepest, although that is in comparison to the shallow waters of the line and secondary. Reshard Cliett (56 tackles) and Nigel Harris (35 tackles) both started last season and will do their best to make up for the departure of DeDe Lattimore (98 tackles).
Safety Nate Godwin (49 tackles) is excellent at making stops, but he still needs work in defending the pass. Entering his sophomore season means there is still plenty of time for him to develop. He will be doing so along a secondary group that is made up of juco transfers and plenty of raw talent. If not for the arrest and subsequent transfer of Kenneth Durden, this unit could have been a strength.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This is perhaps the only area in which the Bulls should be more than satisfied. Marvin Kloss nailed 18-of-23 field goal attempts and Mattias Ciabatti averaged 40.2 yards per punt in 2013. They are both back for the 2014 campaign.
Durden was the primary punt returner last year, but Chris Dunkley had the team's lone return for a touchdown. He may pull double duty on kickoffs and punts this time around.
OUTLOOK: A quick scan of the schedule should have USF fans at least somewhat hopeful. After all, the Bulls play five of their first six games at home. However, a closer examination shows real challenges, as several of those games are against tough non-conference foes like Maryland and NC State. USF will also face Wisconsin and Cincinnati on the road, while finishing the year with four road tests in the last six weeks. That means the Bulls will need to capitalize on their slate of early home games.
Taggart has had a year to put his stamp on the program, so expectations should be higher, but not by much. Until White or Bench, and some of the new starters on defense prove themselves, it is difficult to predict more than a one or two-win bump.