TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Willie Taggart relishes the challenge of trying to make South Florida more competitive in the Big East.
The former Western Kentucky finished a busy first two months on the job Wednesday when he announced a recruiting class of 23 prospects that he's counting on helping the Bulls contend for championships in a new-look conference that's been in decline because of the departure of several members to other leagues.
Taggard replaced Skip Holtz on Dec. 8 and wound up landing a promising group headed by highly regarded defensive tackles Derrick Calloway and Deadrin Senat and defensive back Lamar Robbins despite not having most of his coaching staff in place until well after New Year's Day.
"I think it's a class that can help us. ... We have some real good talent. And more importantly, we've got guys who want to be here and want to be part of building this program into what we want it to be," Taggard said.
Holtz was fired after dropping nine of 10 games following a 2-0 start last season. The 3-9 finish was the worst in USF's relatively brief football history, and the Bulls leaped at the opportunity to bring in Taggart, a former Stanford assistant who turned a struggling program around at Western Kentucky.
The Hilltoppers lost 20 consecutive games before Taggart, who grew up in the Tampa Bay area, returned to his alma mater three seasons ago. He went 2-10 in his first year, then followed with consecutive 7-5 records that heightened his profile.
In USF, the 36-year-old coach inherited a team that's largely been perceived as underachievers since being ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation in 2007.
The Bulls have lost 14 of their last 16 games against Big East opponents and finished last in the conference the past two seasons.
Taggart's first recruiting class consists of 21 high school prospects and two junior college transfers. The new coach is known for running a high-octane offense, but 14 of the newcomers are defensive players.
Calloway is a 6-foot, 300-pound tackle who helped Taggart's high school alma mater, Bradenton Manatee, win a state championship in 2011. Senat is a 6-1, 311-pound tackle from Immokalee, and Robbins is a 6-foot-3 cornerback out of Miami Southridge who figures to get a chance to compete for playing time in a secondary that was one of USF's biggest weaknesses last season.
The Bulls finished with just two interceptions in 2012, one of them by a defensive tackle.
"Defense wins championships," Taggard said. "If we want to build this program the way we want to, we have to play great defense."
Taggard also landed one quarterback. Mike White completed 69 percent of his passes for 2,201 yards, 22 touchdowns and two interceptions while leading unbeaten Fort Lauderdale University School to the Florida Class 3A state title.
The Bulls were happy to sign running backs Sta'fon McCray of Kissimmee Osceola and Darius Tice of Miami Northwestern, too. Over their last two seasons in high school, McCray rushed for 3,248 yards and 42 TDs and Tice gained 1,587 and scored 25 TDs.
Taggart expects plenty of competition for jobs.
`"They're all going to have the opportunity to come in and take somebody's job," the coach said. "It's going to be highly competitive."