Willie Taggart is determined to make Oregon football fun again

EUGENE, Ore. -- Inside a sleek, glassed-encased conference room adjacent to his office, Oregon coach Willie Taggart is hunched over a long meeting table, his infectious smile growing. His feet are firmly planted on special, supposedly unscratchable walnut hardwood flooring laid throughout portions of Oregon's 145,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art football facility, but Taggart might as well be floating while discussing his new team.

He's an equal mix of charisma and humility and is genuinely excited about the chance to rebuild a program that is three years removed from a national championship appearance, having fired former coach Mark Helfrich last year after the Ducks had their first losing season since 2004. Equipped with more talent than he had at the beginning of his two previous stops at Western Kentucky and USF, Taggart relishes restoring not just the respect Oregon has lost, but also the fun.

"It's a challenge that I always wanted. I worked really hard to be in this position," Taggart told ESPN earlier this month. "I never thought that I'd be at Oregon, but I'm so glad that it is Oregon. To me, you have all the ingredients to be successful here.

"I told our guys, it's about earning that respect to getting that Oregon hat; we lost that. No one's going to give it to you. You can't plead for it or ask for it. You gotta go and take it and earn that respect."

Taggart is a powder keg of energy and positivity, and he's legitimately having fun at his new job. And after the first two games with their new coach, the Ducks appear to be having fun as well. Still very much an enigma -- even to Taggart -- this Oregon team is at least exciting to watch again, and Taggart's more spirited approach and personality has gone a long way to helping the Ducks rediscover a sense of joy.

"I can't even explain the energy he brings to the building because it really is second to none," linebacker Troy Dye said of Taggart. "He really uplifted the building from the first time he stepped in here, from the first meeting we had with him.

"You'll do anything for a head coach like that."

Fittingly, the Taggart era started with a Tony Brooks-James 100-yard kickoff returned for a touchdown on the Ducks' first play of the season in a 77-21 drubbing of Southern Utah, and it got its first real stamp of national approval with Saturday's 42-35 home win over Nebraska. The Ducks have outscored their opponents 119-56, averaging a staggering 634.5 yards per game. They've also had a Pac-12-leading 20 plays of 20-plus yards and 59 first downs.

Quarterback Justin Herbert, who is completing 77.8 percent of his passes and whom Taggart believes is a future NFL first-round draft pick, is the best-looking Pac-12 quarterback not named Josh Rosen.

Charles Nelson has already gone over the 200-yard receiving mark, while Royce Freeman is averaging 151.5 rushing yards per game. Defensively, this young flock of Ducks will no doubt go through intense growing pains but has snagged six interceptions (four against Nebraska) and collected seven sacks in two weeks.

"I want them to understand the way they play is a gift to their teammates," Taggart said. "... It actually works when you play for each other and not for yourself. The beauty is that our football team has been very unselfish."

These first two weeks have been light years different from what Taggart saw from the Ducks' tape when he arrived. Game film he reviewed showed zero energy, blown coverages, missed assignments, a sideline devoid of enthusiasm and, as Taggart put it, guys who "didn't like each other."

"It definitely is night and day. You can ask anybody on the team and people actually enjoy coming to the building now. People enjoy being here and are happy and grateful. "The past is the past, and we just buried that."
Oregon LB Troy Dye

Before Taggart could worry about X's and O's, he had to change the cultural makeup of his team.

To start, Taggart dragged his players back to Oregon's off-campus, space-age facility. Players told Taggart they'd go days without seeing each other during the offseason because they didn't hang out together or congregate at the lavish facility. Taggart added dinners three nights a week at the facility, with coaches' families coming on Thursdays, and mandatory breakfast checks in the dining hall.

Taggart created team-building outings, such as a day at the pool, a senior retreat, video game tournaments and movie nights. During camp, Taggart split the team into nine units and had them talk about their lives away from football. "You learn so much about an individual and what makes them tick," Taggart said. "... Guys, they learn more about each other and they start to have a little more compassion for each other."

Taggart said this year was the fastest he saw a team buy into his message. Even after a controversial start that saw three players hospitalized after grueling offseason workouts in January, players said this team has become much closer than it was before Taggart's arrival.

"It definitely is night and day," Dye said. "You can ask anybody on the team and people actually enjoy coming to the building now. People enjoy being here and are happy and grateful. "The past is the past, and we just buried that."

What might be the most encouraging sign is that win over Nebraska. The Ducks sprinted out to a 42-14 halftime lead, only to watch it crumble in the second half. Taggart admitted that he saw flashes of Texas A&M's epic, 34-point opening-weekend collapse against UCLA swirling through his brain, as his offense slowed down and the Huskers hacked away at his defense with a 21-0 run.

But as his offense stalled, the defense held Nebraska to five plays and two punts on two of their three fourth-quarter drives before Ugochukwu Amadi sealed the game with an interception of Tanner Lee with 2:17 left.

"Our guys didn't fold when adversity came, and that was something I was concerned with coming in," Taggart said. "... That was a great team victory. That's what you call a team, and it was great to see.

"Hopefully, we don't have that situation again, we find a way to put our foot on their throat and keep it there."

To keep this very early momentum going, Taggart knows his youngsters will have to grow up quick. Underclassmen Dillon Mitchell, Johnny Johnson III and Brenden Schooler have provided Herbert with some big plays to help a very unproven receiving corps, while true freshmen defensive starters Nick Pickett, Thomas Graham Jr. (two interceptions vs. Nebraska) and Austin Faoliu have all become key components.

"What really gets you fired up is that they actually can play," Taggart said of his freshmen. "They're making plays and look like they belong there. They're hungry and they came to turn the program around."

And so is Taggart. He and this team are still very much a work in progress, but at least there's some real, intriguing buzz around the Ducks again.

"I'm so proud of this football team and how the guys are working together and playing for one another," Taggart said. "That's what we see more than anything -- you see a group of young men having fun and playing for each other -- and when you get that, the winning comes easy."