Willie Taggart is not new to Florida, even though he has been in his job at USF for only a little more than a month.
He knows exactly what type of talent is in this state, and what type of feeding frenzy this state produces every single year in the intense world of recruiting. He knows not just because he is from the area, but because his main job the past three seasons was to pluck overlooked guys from the Florida hotbed for Western Kentucky.
So perhaps more than anyone, he knows what he has to do to elevate his newly inherited USF program with talent in his own backyard, even with the "Big Three" and just about every program in America lurking at every turn.
"We’ve got the same size stick now as the rest of those guys [Florida State, Florida, Miami]," Taggart said. "Before, we didn’t. We had a switch. Now we’re with those guys. We don’t have to sell guys on Kentucky. That was the hard part, to get them to visit.
"A lot of guys want to stay home and build their program. Every year, there’s probably 300 players from the state of Florida who play Division I football. Those three teams can’t get ‘em all. You can only sign 25. So there’s a lot of players out there that are left over. What we have to do is do a great job of trying to keep those guys from coming to our state and taking our players. We have to do a good job of keeping them here."
For Taggart, the recruiting philosophy is simple. Do not recruit players based on star ratings. Go after players who fit your system, who truly want to be a part of your program, who want to be around good people. He primarily wants to own the I-4 corridor that spans from the Tampa Bay area through Orlando and east to Daytona Beach. That does not mean the rest of the state will be ignored. It means he has placed a premium on securing talent within a drive from the campus, to establish a USF territory.
And he is not concerned much with competing against the so-called Big Three. When asked what he would sell about his program to a player choosing between USF and Florida State, a team that just finished in the top 10, he had a quick reply.
"We want guys who want to be here, and if it’s between us and Florida State, there’s a good chance the kid wants to be here," Taggart said. "If we’re in the boat, we feel we have a good chance. For me, it all comes down to relationship and people. Everybody’s going to have a stadium, everybody’s going to have a weight room, lockers, some stadiums bigger than others. It comes down to the people.
"A lot of people sell their program on the past and the tradition, but you have to be a realist on how things are going now, and make them understand a lot of teams sell their program on championships they won 15 years ago. It’s different now. A lot of these kids want to be around good people, in a good program, in a program where they’re going to be mentored. We have to do a great job of mentoring them and letting them know they’re going to have that here at the University of South Florida, not just a guy who’s going to coach football, but help them in life, and not just be talk, but some action."
Ultimately, Taggart wants his program to be known not for signing flashy classes, or beating a "bigger" school for a recruit, but for player development.
"You get a three-star by the time he’s a junior or senior, he should be a four- or five-star guy," Taggart said. "That’s been our approach. If there’s a guy that we’re looking at that one of those schools are recruiting, we’re going to compete against the best of them. We feel we have a lot to sell here. The beauty of it for us is we’ve done a lot here in just 16 years of football. We have a lot to sell. And there’s a lot of players here. They can’t get them all."