New Oregon coach Willie Taggart has never had this much quarterback talent on one team. But he's waiting to see if one of the four highly-touted youngsters on the Ducks' roster can show signs of being able to match what Quinton Flowers did for him at South Florida.
"Number 9," Taggart says with reverence when referring to the Bulls' star. "Number 9."
Yep, that is the number worn by Flowers, who had a huge hand in turning around South Florida's fortunes under Taggart in year three of his rebuilding process, which began in 2013. You might say, with great accuracy, that if not for the development of Flowers, Taggart wouldn't have become the coach of the Oregon Ducks.
That development had as much to do with Flowers as a leader as it did with him as a player. Taggart said he is looking for that same type of ability to lead from UO's group of young quarterbacks: redshirt sophomore Travis Jonsen, sophomore Justin Herbert, redshirt freshman Terry Wilson Jr. and freshman Braxton Burmeister.
"I think that's very important, being the quarterback - who's going to lead this football team," Taggart said. "This football team needs a leader. This football team wants a leader. We want to see which one of those guys wants to do that. That's not just from a throwing the football standpoint, but overall just being a leader and getting guys to follow behind them."
Taggart went 2-10 his first year at USF and then 4-8. The Bulls began the 2015 season with a 1-3 record before Flowers caught fire. The key, Taggart said recently, was that Flowers convinced his coach to allow him to be himself. Taggart, a former college quarterback, listened, and withdrew some of the restraints he had placed on his young quarterback, then a sophomore.
"He told me to let him go, 'don't hold back anything,'" Taggart recalled.
Flowers responded by going ballistic on opposing defenses. After throwing four interceptions over the first four games, he threw just four the rest of the season and finished with 2,226 yards passing and 22 touchdowns with six interceptions while also rushing for 991 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Bulls finished 8-5. In 2016, Flowers threw for 2,812 yards and 24 touchdowns with seven interceptions and also produced a dizzying 1,530 yards rushing with 18 touchdowns. USF finished 11-2.
All told, Taggart went 18-7 with Flowers as his starter before leaving for Oregon last December prior to Flowers putting up five total touchdowns during a 46-39 overtime victory over Cincinnati in the Birmingham Bowl.
Without Flowers, Taggart went 6-18 at USF, albeit while undergoing an intense rebuilding project.
Taggart, who previously rebuilt Western Kentucky, is on his third reclamation project, but this time has more overall talent at quarterback to work with plus he has a proven commodity in Herbert, who in seven starts last season put up 1,936 passing yards and 19 touchdowns with four interceptions.
"They are all athletic, for sure," Taggart said. "Each and every one of those guys is pretty athletic. They can get things done with their feet and with their arm. I think after two days I like the way they are competing. All of them have been up and down. All of them have done some good things for us."
Taggart has repeatedly stated that the competition is open, but it is going to take a lot for anyone to beat out Herbert, who appeared to be a budding superstar last season.
That said, Jonsen, a four-star recruit in 2015, and Wilson, a three-star recruit last year, are more in the mold of Flowers in terms of being elite runners with passing skills. Herbert, however, runs very well despite his 6-foot-6 frame. Burmeister, a four-star recruit, put up amazing numbers in high school and is doing all he can to make an impact after enrolling in time to participate in spring drills.
"I tell ya what, the kid is in here everyday studying," Taggart said of the quarterback he signed in February. "He's trying to catch up. He knows he's behind. I walked through the hallway the other day and saw him in the quarterbacks' meeting room by himself, trying to learn the system. That's what you want. You want film junkies, guys that just love being in there. And to be honest with you, that's the first time I've seen one of our quarterbacks in there by himself."
No matter who wins the starting job next fall (Herbert), the Ducks appear to have a lot of options for Taggart to choose from (Herbert). That player (Herbert) will have to live up to Taggart's memories of Flowers, whose standard if leadership and performance helped get Taggart where he is today.