By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA, MARCH 7, 2014 – Tight ends played an important role in USF’s pro-style offense in the first year under head coach Willie Taggart and fans can expect much more from them in 2014.
Senior Mike McFarland is the team’s second-leading returning receiver and continues to sky over defenders for catches in spring practice. Junior Sean Price is primed for a big year after shaping up in the weight room this offseason. Coaches have liked what they’ve seen from newcomer Marlon Pope and senior Jake Carlton adds a veteran presence at tight end and special teams.
“I see a group of guys that are starting to learn the position a lot better,” Taggart said after practice Friday.
Price (Citra, Fla.) made a name for himself at North Marion High School as well as in the Under Armour All-American game as a prep star and USF fans may get to see No. 12 display the game that made him a much anticipated recruit in his second season operating in Taggart’s system.
“I feel a lot more comfortable. I definitely feel like the plays are more of a rehearsal now, they’re becoming second nature to me,” Price said. “I feel more comfortable, where I can play faster.”
Price has been motoring along at a quicker pace this spring after shedding some unneeded pounds in the offseason. The 6-foot-3, 244-pounder lost 11 pounds thanks to a grueling offseason conditioning program led by strength coach Hans Straub. Price, who had 21 catches for 209 yards as a true freshman, said he’s ready for a break-out year after catching 21 passes for 185 yards in 2013.
“I definitely took last season as a learning lesson. I was quite disappointed in myself, honestly, with my performance and the way I let myself go,” he said. “This offseason, this spring I’m definitely focusing more on getting myself in shape so I can help my team out more this season to win more ballgames.”
Taggart noted Price started to pick his game up down the stretch last season and the tight end used the momentum wisely leading up to spring practice.
“He’s becoming that player that everyone told me about when I got here,” Taggart said.
McFarland (Tampa) became a dependable option for USF quarterbacks last season when he ranked second on the team with 23 catches for 288 yards and two touchdowns. A total of 17 of McFarland’s catches resulted in a first down or touchdown and the former Blake High School standout continues to work on his consistency this spring.
“Mike is one of those guys that has to continue to get better and work on those things (like catching),” Taggart said. “It’s one thing we keep stressing, ‘You’re not going to get better unless you work on your own and be competitive.’ Mike can do some really good things for us.”
McFarland stayed after practice Friday and was among the last players to leave the field as he worked on his craft in the red zone. Meanwhile, Pope continues to grasp USF’s system in his first practices as a Bull.
Pope (Hattiesburg, Miss.) enrolled at USF in January as an elementary education major and has two years of eligibility remaining after playing for Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, one of the top junior college programs in the nation. MGCC started the 2013 season ranked No. 1 in the NJCAA and finished the year ranked No. 9. Pope (6-4, 259 pounds) gives USF more size at the position and the former prep basketball player is preparing to use his athleticism in the most effective way as a Bull.
“He’s definitely a hard worker,” Price said. “He wants to learn and he wants to be able to be a part of the team. He’s going through the same thing I went through last spring as far as trying to learn the offense. He’s a competitor and he’s trying to compete.”
Offense Keeps Rolling Along
The most noticeable difference in the Bulls from last season to this spring has been the pace and production of the offense which moved the ball very effectively through the air and on the ground behind both quarterbacks Mike White and Steven Bench and a variety of running backs on Friday.
“Our guys are understanding better and I think more importantly is you can see they’ve worked during the offseason on their own just watching their execution and the synergy of our offense is better,” Taggart said.
A bulked-up offensive line has paved the way for the quarterbacks to succeed in 2-minute drills. White continues to consistently make plays while a bigger and stronger Bench has also stepped up in the passing game and made noticeable strides in his delivery and accuracy as the Bulls passing game has looked crisp early in the spring.
“Now Mike doesn’t have guys in his face throwing the ball,” Taggart said. “He’s been able to throw the ball with some room and he’s able to follow through. He’s able to be accurate and our guys are making plays with it.”
Taggart said he thinks this is his first time being a head coach when the offense is ahead of the defense from a progress standpoint at this point in the spring and defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan tipped his cap to the guys on the other side of the ball while talking to reporters Friday.
“I give the nod to the offense right now,” he said. “Coach (Paul) Wulff has come in and they’re playing with a tempo, they’re playing with an attitude and they’ve kind of developed an identity. We haven’t done that on defense yet, so we’ve got some work cut out for us and it’s coaching on down.”
Head back to GoUSFBulls.com on Saturday evening for a look at the team’s rebuilding project at defensive end.