After USF's dismal 3-9 season in 2012, Willie Taggart was hired as the new Bulls head coach. Taggart returns to southern Florida, where he was a high school football star. Taggart is fresh off transforming a Western Kentucky program that had lost 20 consecutive games into one that soon had back-to-back winning seasons and made its first bowl appearance.
On Tuesday, CBSSports.com chatted with Taggart about, among other things, how his first offseason at USF is going, the development of former Notre Dame freshman star Aaron Lynch and what spurred the changes in the freshman All-American defensive lineman.
Q: How's your first offseason as the USF head coach going since spring ball ended?
Taggart: I've been going everywhere. Planning out recruiting for our coaches. I've been meeting some of our donors and our fan base, and I've been going to a couple of galas here and there. It's going well. The kids are buying in. And that's enjoyable. They're hungry and they want to win. Guys want to win and are doing what we're asking them to do.
Q: I've heard some good buzz about how your Notre Dame transfer, Aaron Lynch, has looked this spring. How's he doing there?
Taggart: Oh yeah! He's for real.
Q: What stands out about him?
Taggart: Even before we talk about the football, the thing I really like is how much he has grown as a person in just the short amount of time that I've been here. I came in, and I heard he was this and he was that. That he wasn't accountable. That he was undisciplined. That he did things his own way. But the kid has been totally different since we've been here. He's really taken care of his business, on and off the field. You don't have to worry about him being on time. He's doing it all.
When I really realized that the kid had grown up and maybe hit that button that says it's time to get it together (was after the team came back from spring break). He had a big ol' afro, and he cut it off. To me, in this day and age, that can be a big ego thing for some of these kids to cut their hair off and look a lot sharper now. I think that says a lot about him and where he's trying to go. He's really matured over the time since I've been here. And, when it comes to football he's the ultimate competitor.
Q: When did he cut his hair?
Taggart: It was before spring ball.
Q: Why do you think he did it?
Taggart: He and I have had talks. We'd talk about life in general. Talk about him and his future. He's married. He has a wife. We'd talk about the way he presents himself. He's a sharp young man. He doesn't have to look like that. And then all of a sudden, when he came back to school. I didn't even realize he was in the team meeting 'cause I was looking for the afro. I asked the team, 'Where is Aaron Lynch?' And they all pointed back there. We all were like, 'Wow!'
Q: What do you think changed in him?
Taggart: I'd like to say it was our coaching staff, myself, his new position coach reached him. I'd liked to say that.
With Aaron, I don't talk about football much with him. I don't think he'd fail at football. It'd either be something either academically or socially that could get in his way. In football, he's a beast out there, so you just try to make sure he has everything else in perspective and help make sure that he's a great husband because that's something that is important to me. We talk about that constantly.
Q: What kind of examples do you use when you talk to a guy like that who has all the talent but maybe things almost come too easy for him?
Taggart: I try to go back to a lot of talented kids that had potential but didn't make it or didn't do the things they needed to to accomplish all their goals. I try to hit him on that so he can learn from it. I ask him about the people he knew that had a lot of talent and probably should've played in the NFL and ask him what they're doing now and why. We also talk about my experience being out at Stanford [as an assistant] and being around Andrew Luck and those guys that carry themselves like pros. At the end of the day, [Aaron] can have it all. You can play a sport that you love and it can become your job and make yourself a lot of money for you and your wife. You can set the future up for your kids someday.
Q: He was this five-star recruit and a freshman All-American at Notre Dame. How was he compared to what your expectations of him were once you get him out on the field?
Taggart: He was even more. Some of things he does. He just has a nature feel for the game. He plays with fanatical effort. He just goes. I know if he continues to play with that fanatical effort, the sky is the limit for him.
He is really good with his hands. He's quick and really long. And the other thing that was impressive was he was doing things with knee braces on. I make all of our linemen practice with knee braces, and he was still getting it done.
Q: I noticed you guys list him at 244 (pounds). Did he lose a lot of weight when he got there?
Taggart. Yes, he did. He played at 270 at ND. In the year that he had off, he wasn't really motivated to do anything, from what I was told and heard from everyone. He'd tell you that he wasn't really locked in, knowing that he couldn't play. Now, doing what he's doing and hearing some of that noise about how he can be this or be that, he's really taking pride in trying to be the best football player he can be.
Q: Do you want to see him back up in the 260s?
Taggart: I'd like him in the 250-260 range. He's well put together. When he walked in the door the first time I saw him, I was like, 'Wow!' Without even watching him on film, you could see what everybody's talking about. Then you watch him on film -- Jeez!
He's built like Jevon Kearse. He's long and lean and athletic but he can put on the weight. In the spring he actually played at like 235. I think he's at 245 now.
He has not been an issue at all. He sees the future in front of him and knows that he has a really bright future if he keeps his head on straight. He goes in the weight room and he works.
I tell Jim Harbaugh a lot that he reminds me of his guy Aldon Smith especially when they do a lot of those stunts, he's really good at that stuff. He can come in tight around that corner and he is really good with his hands. Except he's longer and taller (than Smith). He's not as fast Jevon Kearse but he's built like him. And he is explosive.
The thing about Aaron is he can play DE or he can play D-tackle or stand up. We have different packages for him. He's such a good athlete that he can drop back in coverage. What's really impressive is he's playing outside backer and getting his hands on the No. 1 receiver and you're thinking 'Jeez! This guy can cover a lot of ground.'
He's a freak. If he can continue to develop like he's doing, he's going to have a really good year. What's gonna help him is that we're really talented up front, so it's gonna be hard for (other teams) to just focus on him.
Q: Who else really impressed you this spring on your new team?
Taggart: Our entire defensive line did. I think our D-line is gonna be the strength of this football team. Luke Sager can be a really good D-tackle. He just plays with so much effort. He runs things down 20-30-40 yards down the field. If I had to pick an MVP of the spring, it'd be him. He was just so consistent. He's gonna give you everything he's got. He is a really good football player.
Q: Where are you with figuring out what you have with your QBs?
Taggart: Our guys got a lot better from the first week of spring ball to the end. We're still not there yet, but they're working at it. The thing that we did see was is, once they figured out what we were doing, our offense started to go. Early on our defense was really getting after us. Once we started repping those plays more and more, we started to see our offense come alive. Those guys completed passes, and it gave us a lot of confidence in those guys. We have a freshman (QB Mike White) coming in and we're going to allow him to compete for the job too. We'll see how it goes.