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LAKELAND, Fla. -- Keeping local talent home has proven to be a key in building and sustaining a successful college football program.
Former Western Kentucky player and head coach Willie Taggart took over at USF on Dec. 7 after the program fired Skip Holtz. Taggart -- who was a star at Bradenton (Fla.) Manatee -- went right to work building the walls around the familiar-to-him Tampa area.
The class of 2013 brought six players from within city limits and another seven from a 75-mile radius around campus. By comparison, the three classes that signed under Holtz had only five players come from Tampa and just four from within that same 75-mile boundary.
Tampa (Fla.) Chamberlain prospect Anthony Davis has taken notice of the change.
At the Rivals Camp Series presented by Under Armour that was held at Lakeland (Fla.) Lake Gibson, the 6-foot, 220-pound outside linebacker said that having a coach aggressively recruiting him and other prospects in the area could pay dividends for the Bulls.
"It's good," he said. "It shows that they really want you now. Before, they weren't really attacking Tampa guys and Tampa guys didn't really want to go to USF.
"I can't say it was good ... and nobody wanted to be at USF, but now they are trying to get everyone to come. If they got everybody from Tampa, USF would be studs."
The class of 2013 filled late and rose to the No. 49 spot in the Rivals.com rankings -- after sinking to an all-time low of No. 63 under Holtz.
Of the 24 players who signed with USF, 18 committed after Taggart took over. Ten were from inside 75 miles of campus.
Taggart said his time in Florida can only benefit the program and bolster his recruiting efforts.
"You always hear that recruiting is all about relationships," Taggart said. "If that is true, we should be in a great spot here because there are guys who I have known for 20 years already and I am only 36.
"There are so many assistant coaches and some head coaches in the area -- and down into South Florida -- that I played with and played against. We have been friends since we were sophomores in high school, and they know who I am and what I am about, and we have to take advantage of those relationships."
Taggart took advantage of a longstanding relationship with his former head coach Joe Kinnan to land Derrick Calloway in January. Calloway was a four-star defensive lineman from Manatee, and he was the highest-ranked player in the 2013 recruiting class for the Bulls.
The bricks are continuing to be laid around the local area with the beginning of the recruiting cycle for this class.
So far in the class of 2014, USF has received verbal commitments from Largo (Fla.) High teammates Francisco Hernandez and Jarvis Stewart. Largo is just over 23 miles from Tampa across Old Tampa Bay.
The program also has a commitment from Immokalee (Fla.) High four-star athlete Jimmy Bayes, who could join former teammate Deadrin Senat in Tampa.
Taggart is not alone in returning to his old stomping grounds.
San Jose State head coach Ron Caragher played high school football at San Jose (Calif.) Bellarmine Prep, and recently hired Sean Kugler played college football at UTEP and has returned as the coach, much like Kliff Kingsbury is doing at Texas Tech and Paul Haynes at Kent State.
Kingsbury, like Taggart, made an immediate impact in recruiting.
After taking over in Lubbock when Tommy Tuberville resigned to go to Cincinnati, Kingsbury took a class that was ranked No. 86 just over two weeks before signing day and pushed it to the No. 51-rated class in the country.
He has hired six former Texas Tech players as assistants and has turned his attention to selling his love for the program to recruits.
"West Texas people are some of the finest I've ever met in my life," Kingsbury told Rivals.com. "They're so welcoming and so warm. The people here are what make it such a special place."
Kingsbury takes his fondness for the people and the location with him on the recruiting trail.
He has bought into the idea of bringing in the best players available.
"It's about players, not plays," Kingsbury said. "I'm all in for recruiting. We all have to pull our weight on that. ... Going to school here and the things I learned here and the people I met here are what carried me to this point. I'm selling a place where I actually lived. To me, there's a lot in that."
Kugler returned to El Paso after more than a decade in the NFL. He was a letterman in each of his four years at UTEP in the 1980s.
His knowledge of the city and the campus is paramount in returning the program to better days.
Since posting back-to-back eight-win seasons in 2004 and 2005, the program has become stagnant with just one bowl appearance in the past seven years. The win total decreased in each of the last three seasons before hitting three in 2012.
Not coincidentally, recruiting has fallen off with the lack of success on the field.
The past three have been the three lowest-ranked classes for the program since the 2005 season. Its 2013 recruiting class ranked No. 121 of 124 FBS schools.
Kugler said understanding the community and the school helps him in conversations with prospective student-athletes.
"There is no doubt it makes it easier to relate to the guys," he said. "When they know you have lifted in that weight room and have gone into those classrooms, it is an honesty level that they can buy into. It is a place I chose to go to school and I chose to come back and coach at. When you can say those things it shows that it is a special place, and I think that says a lot.
"Being able to have a knowledge of the area and answer any questions that kids or parents have because I have been there for more than just a couple of months on the job makes a difference."
He said that being back in the San Francisco Bay Area is special for him and that he hopes his ties will maintain the level of play to which former coach Mike MacIntyre pushed the program.
"It was really why I wanted to come here," Caragher said. "Being back up near family and friends is nice. Having relationships with a lot of the coaches will help in everything you do."
The hope for players such as Davis is that the coaches who say they want to keep kids home stay true to their word.
Recruiting local players will be a major victory for all involved.
"Why not win (recruiting at) home," Davis said. "Why not win at home."
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