Oregon Ducks

Taggart, Part 3: The call, a bond and enthusiasm unknown to mankind

Taggart, Part 3: The call, a bond and enthusiasm unknown to mankind

Part 3 of a five-part series on Oregon coach Willie Taggart that coincides with the CSN special "Taggart" that first aired Aug. 29 and is now available on CSNNW.com.  CSN went to Taggart's hometown of Palmetto, Fla., to interview family and friends, and traveled to Ann Arbor, Mich., to interview his biggest mentors, Jack and Jim Harbaugh, in order to tell his story. 

'Taggart,' Part 1: A skinny boy, a tree and football dreams

'Taggart,' Part 2: A leader emerges and thrives at Manatee

'Taggart,' Part 3: The call, a bond and enthusiasm unknown to mankind 

'Taggart,' Part 4: Taggart puts WKU "on his back."

'Taggart," Part 5: The program builder works his way to Oregon

 

---

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Jack Harbaugh has the basement to end all basements.

Finished, spacious and furnished. Framed articles, posters, photos and jerseys cover the walls to create a mini Harbaugh family museum.

Jack coached college football. His son Jim Harbaugh played quarterback at Michigan, where he now is the head coach, and in the NFL. Jerseys representing his various stops can be found lined up side by side on a wall. Older brother John Harbaugh coaches the Baltimore Ravens. He defeated Jim in Super Bowl XLVII when the younger brother coached San Francisco. A mini version of that Super Bowl trophy rests on a shelf.

Also represented is the man they call the third Harbaugh brother. Resting on a wall is a large, black and white photo of Willie Taggart while playing quarterback for Jack Harbaugh at Western Kentucky.

It was there in Bowling Green, Ky., where Taggart became part of the Harbaugh family. So much so that Jack and his wife Jackie love him like a son while Jim, John and sister Joani love him like a sibling. 

“I’m proud of my brother, my friend,” Jim Harbaugh said. “I love him. He loves me back. And

he’s a good person. He thinks I’m a good person.”

(pause).

“And we’re like that!” Harbaugh continued, crossing the fingers on one hand.

The Harbaughs did a lot for Taggart. And he did a lot for Jack and the WKU program. How they came together, Jack said could be called  “divine intervention.”

Taggart needed a college team to play for. Jack Harbaugh needed a quarterback and a leader.

“That began the process of Willie coming to western Kentucky University and our relationship with the Taggart family,” Jack Harbaugh said.

--- A program on the brink

The Western Kentucky football program was all but dead in the spring of 1992. A Kentucky state budget cut of $6.1 million erased finances for the team.

Jack Harbaugh, who had concluded his third season at 3-8 to follow up a 2-8 year, told his staff they had a couple of months left on their salary.

“I was completely broken as a football coach knowing not many had had their program taken from them in the middle of their tenure,” Harbaugh said.

But rather than give up, the coaches and the team decided to fight to save the program. The WKU athletic department began raising money and selling tickets to fund the football.

Their efforts worked. Football ultimately survived, but on a shoestring budget. 

The 1992 "Save the Program” team went 4-6. The following year the Hilltoppers finished 8-3.

But the impacts of negative recruiting by other programs and a loss of 13 scholarships following WKU's near loss of its program began to take its toll.  Harbaugh had a tough time replenishing talent. 

In the winter of 1994, an exasperated coach Harbaugh sat in his office when his son, Jim Harbaugh popped in for a visit. He could tell something wasn’t right with his father.

“We’re getting killed in recruiting,” Jack Harbaugh told his son.

“How can I help?” asked Jim, who lived in Orlando, Fla., and was transitioning from the Chicago Bears to the Indianapolis Colts.

Because of the reduced budget, WKU didn't have a full allotment of seven assistant coaches. Jim suggested that he could work as an unpaid coach, which would allow him to help recruit.

After Jim Harbaugh passed a NCAA recruiting test, his dad handed him a list of prospects in Florida, where his son would be living during the NFL's offseason.

“I’m sitting and telling you, cross my heart, raise my hand, the first name on the list was ‘Willie Taggart, Manatee High School,” Jack Harbaugh said.

-- “Yeah right, and I’m Mike Ditka.”

The phone rang at the Taggart home in the spring of 1994. Cynthia Butler, Taggart’s sister, answered. Jim Harbaugh, making only his second recruiting phone call, introduced himself and asked for Taggart.

“Is this the same Jim Harbaugh from the Chicago Bears?” Butler asked.

“Yes,” Harbaugh responded.

Butler didn’t believe it but she wrote down his number down, anyway, and relayed it to her little brother when he returned home from track & field practice.  

“You got a phone call from some guy named Jim Harbaugh from Western Kentucky and he wants you to call him back,” Butler told Taggart.

Taggart, eyebrows raised, also didn’t quite believe that the quarterback of the Chicago Bears had called his home. The same quarterback he had watched play on television and the same one used to win games against his pals while playing video games.

But he had to find out. The Taggarts didn’t’ have long-distance phone service so he headed to a nearby pay phone and called collect. 

Based on both Taggart’s and Harbaugh’s recollection of their first conversation, it went something like this:

Taggart: “Can I speak to Jim Harbaugh?”

Harbaugh: “Speaking. Do you know who I am?”

Taggart: “The only Jim Harbaugh I know is the one that plays for the Chicago Bears.”

Harbaugh: “That’s me.”

Taggart: “Yeah, right. And I’m Mike Ditka.”

Harbaugh: “No, no. It’s really me. I recruit for Western Kentucky. Here’s my dad.”

Harbaugh put his dad on the phone to talk to Taggart. He still wasn’t fully convinced Jim Harbaugh had called him until a few days later when Jim Harbaugh walked into the Manatee High School cafeteria looking for Taggart.

“It’s really you,” Taggart said to Harbaugh.

To that point, Taggart had received only mild interest from college recruiters. To have a NFL quarterback visit him at Manatee put some extra spring in Taggart’s step.

“When he showed up, I felt like the big man on campus,” Taggart said.

The two ate lunch together and talked while students gawked. The pair walked around campus. Harbaugh chatted with Taggart’s coaches and teachers. Then they headed to watch game film of Taggart. When they exited the film room, they discovered about 50 students that had gathered outside to get Harbaugh’s autograph. Some carried Bears hats.

Taggart stood nearby fully taking in the situation and beaming. Harbaugh said he felt the love.  

“He has a way of making other people feel special,” Harbaugh said. “I felt a glow that day being treated so well, like an important person.”

Harbaugh visited the Taggart’s home where they had a huge gathering for a barbecue.

“I felt like the guest of honor,” Harbaugh said.

He and Taggart hit it off instantly.

“I think that’s when my life really changed,” Taggart said. “I became more confident.”

According to Taggart, his conversations with Harbaugh differed greatly from those with other recruiters. 

The two talked constantly and quickly transformed from recruiter and recruit to becoming close pals. They talked almost daily. 

"And it wasn’t just about football,” Taggart said. “It was about life, what I wanted to get accomplished. He would tell me about his life. He took a genuine interest in me.”

Harbaugh felt the same way.

“Willie has an extraordinary special gift of personality," Harbaugh said. "Warmth and friendship, he just exudes it.”

--- An enthusiasm unknown to mankind

Taggart grew up close to his family and the teammates. They formed his support system. He sought that same family atmosphere in a college.

“I knew, going to college that I needed to go somewhere where someone would look out for me,” Taggart said.

Jack Harbaugh promised Gloria Taggart he would do just that.

“They told me they would take care of my son,” she said. “They kept me updated every step of the way with what was going on. He was like one of their children.”

The football match was a perfect fit.

“It was electric the way he would run,” Jim Harbaugh said. “He was an option quarterback. My dad ran an option system. There was no doubt that this could be a game-changer for the program…And I knew it would be a game-changer for Willie, too, to be in program with my dad.”

Taggart went to WKU to play football but his impact on the Hilltoppers became much more than simply running and throwing on the field. 

“The first time that I met Willie Taggart, what I saw was an enthusiasm unknown to mankind,” Jack Harbaugh said. “Literally. I mean the smile would light up the state of Kentucky. He brought persona.”

WKU certainly needed a boost of energy. A lack of talent and depth created by the near loss of the program contributed to the Hilltoppers going 2-8 in Taggart’s first year as the starting quarterback.

But then his leadership chops began to form at the college level.

“He was a prototype quarterback,” Harbaugh said. “A prototype family member. I mean, he was the prototype of whatever you wanted to prototype….You just fell in love with him.”

Taggart motivated players. He inspired fans and the community. He made believers out of doubters. He rejuvenated the program. According to Jack Harbaugh, Taggart held together a group that had been fractured because of the decision not to play football.

Still, times were rough. WKU’s facilities were awful. They wore subpar equipment. Jack Harbaugh needed a way of raising spirits. 

He relied on what had become a Harbaugh family saying that he and his friends first used while he was growing up in Crestline, Ohio, a small quiet town where front doors remained unlocked and car keys never left the ignition.

Harbaugh and his pals would make do with that they had to work with while playing sports and end the day by saying: “Who has it better than us? Noooo-body!”

That wasn’t necessarily true at WKU. Still, Harbaugh attempted to remind his players to always find the positives. They had football. They had one another. They were getting an education. 

“He’d ask, ‘who has it better than us?’ while he would walk through the halls,” Taggart said. “And we’d look around and say, ‘everybody.”

Yet, the players got the point. So they didn’t have all of the same bells and whistles that other programs had. They had plenty to be thankful for.

“That stuck with you,” Taggart said. “It was a mentality.”

Taggart buying into that mentality helped others do the same. Soon, his talent and leadership elevated the program. 

Former Ducks RB Royce Freeman scores again for Denver

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USA Today

Former Ducks RB Royce Freeman scores again for Denver

Denver rookie running back Royce Freeman scored his second touchdown of the preseason Saturday night during the Broncos' game against Chicago. 

Freeman's touchdown came from four yards out in the second quarter. The former Oregon star and third-round pick finished the night with six carries for 20 yards and caught one pass for six yards. He is in competition for the starting job with Devontae Booker, who had 17 yards on four carries and caught one pass for 10 yards. 

Denver led 23-10 in the fourth quarter when this article was posted. 

Freeman scored on a 23-yard run last week against Minnesota when he rushed for 38 yards on four carries. 

Which Duck linebackers will wreak havoc? The locks, contenders and longshots

Which Duck linebackers will wreak havoc? The locks, contenders and longshots

The Ducks know they have two stars at linebacker in junior Troy Dye and senior Justin Hollins. With the emergence of La’Mar Winston Jr., this position unit could be the strongest on the team.

LOCKS

Troy Dye, junior, inside linebacker: Oregon's defensive MVP for the 2017 season has generated major NFL draft buzz and has landed on three major watch lists; the Bednarik Award (nation’s top defensive player), the Butkus award (nation’s best linebacker) and the Nagurski award (nation’s best defensive player).

In his two seasons, the preseason All-American has 198 tackles with 118 solo tackles, 80 assisted tackles and 9.5 sacks.

Justin Hollins, senior, outside linebacker: The Butkus award nominee is heading into his fifth year at Oregon as the only Duck to have played on the unit that helped get Oregon into the inaugural College Football Playoff championship game in 2014.

Last season he forced three fumbles and finished third on the team in tackles for loss (11.5) behind defensive end Jalen Jelks (15) and linebacker Troy Dye (13.5).

La’Mar Winston Jr., junior, outside linebacker: The Len Casanova Award for leadership winner (voted on by his teammates) played in all 13 games for the Ducks in 2017, including seven starts. Five of those starts came over the final six games when he delivered 31 tackles with five for loss. He finished the season with 49 tackles, eight tackles for loss and two sacks. 

[WATCH: A SUMMER IN PARIS WITH LA'MAR WINSTON JR.]

"(La'Mar)'s put on weight and strength," Dye said. "Seeing his transition from our freshmen year until now is phenonemal."

CONTENDERS

Kaulana Apelu, senior, inside linebacker; The walk-on was placed on scholarship before the start of 2017 season. He played in five games and made three starts, totaling 20 tackles, including three for loss before suffering a season-ending injury. Apelu rehabbed and returned to the field in time for spring practice. In the spring game, he led the Ducks’ defense with nine tackles and returned a tipped pass 100 yards for a touchdown.

Isaac Slade-Matautia, redshirt freshman, inside linebacker: Last season Slade-Matautia utilized his redshirt. ESPN and Rivals ranked the four-star prospect a top two player from the state of Hawaii. He is competing to be in the mix for starting alongside Dye.

"(Isaac)'s a beast," Dye said. "He's going to surprise a lot of people. There are a lot of things that he has taught me."

Adrian Jackson, freshman, inside linebacker: A consensus four-star prospect and the state of Colorado's top player in 2017. Dye called Jackson a "phenomenal beast" a few days into fall camp. Jackson currently backs up Dye at the JACK linebacker position, but says he’d be willing to move to MIKE.

[READ: How the new redshirt rule helps Oregon]

Keith Simms, sophomore, outside linebacker: Suffered a season-ending injury last season. Played both inside and outside throughout spring practices and totaled 8 tackles and a sack during UO’s spring game. Simms could add quality depth if he can stay healthy.

LONGSHOTS

Sampson Niu, sophomore, inside linebacker: In 2017, Niu played in six games and finished with eight tackles and one tackle for loss. He missed spring drills while rehabbing an injury suffered in the Las Vegas Bowl. Four-star prospect and the top inside linebacker in the state of California by Rivals and 247Sports.

MJ Cunningham, true freshman, inside linebacker: A consensus three-star prospect by ESPN, Rivals and 247Sports. The Portland-native is another freshman that could crack the rotation.

Who will Herbert sling the ball to? The Locks, Contenders and Longshots at receiver

Oregon releases new uniforms; internet blows up

Oregon releases new uniforms; internet blows up

The Oregon Ducks have unveiled their Nike football uniforms for the upcoming season. The winged helmets are back and the jerseys feature a new large "Mighty Oregon" font. Check them out.

The jerseys are more simple than years past. Everyone (and their mother) had something to say about the reveal on Twitter. Here are some of the most sarcastic, clever, interesting and fun tweets.

Font size humor:

A cool throwback to a life before Twitter from former Duck T.J. Ward:

The team is stoked:

And so is the Oregon Duck Mascot:

Can't forget the age old joke...

Where do they rank on your all-time Oregon uniform list?

 

 

REPORT: Dallas signs former Ducks WR Darren Carrington Jr.

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USA Today

REPORT: Dallas signs former Ducks WR Darren Carrington Jr.

The Dallas Cowboys have signed former Oregon and Utah wide receiver Darren Carrington Jr., according to multiple reports.

The signing was first reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Carrington, who played at Oregon from 2013 through 2016, played last season at Utah after former UO coach Willie Taggart dismissed him from the team for violating team rules.

Carrington, who was suspended for six games in 2014 after testing positive for marijuana prior to the national championship game played at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, is a talented receiver who has the skills to play in the NFL but has hobbled his career by repeatedly making poor decisions away from the field. 

Carrington went undrafted last spring even after being invited to the NFL Scouting Combine. He recently participated in a tryout with Dallas and showed enough to get signed to the team's roster. Plus, Dallas has experienced several injuries at wide receiver during training camp. 

Oregon agrees to home-and-home matchups with Michigan State, Boise State

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USA Today

Oregon agrees to home-and-home matchups with Michigan State, Boise State

Oregon has agreed to a home-and-home series with Michigan State renewing one of the better non-conference football series in Ducks history. 

Oregon will play at MSU on Sept. 8, 2029 and host the Spartans on Sept. 7, 2030. 

Oregon this summer also agreed to a home-and-home with Boise State. That series will run for three years with Oregon hosting the Broncos on Sept. 14, 2024, and Sept. 5, 2026. UO will play at Boise State on Sept 13, 2025.

Oregon recently faced MSU in 2014 and 2015. The Ducks, led by quarterback Marcus Mariota, defeated Michigan State 46-27 in 2014 to get a key victory on their way to the national title game. 

The following season, Oregon lost 31-28 at MSU.

Boise State is 3-0 against the Ducks including a 38-28 win in last year's Las Vegas Bowl. Boise State won the first meeting in 2008 by the score of 37-32 at Autzen Stadium. The following season, the Broncos won 19-8 in Boise. 

Here is a list of Oregon's upcoming non-conference opponents:

2019: vs. Auburn (Arlington, Texas), Nevada, Montana 
2020: North Dakota State, Ohio State, Hawaii 
2021: Fresno State, at Ohio State, Stony Brook
2022: Eastern Washington, BYU
2023: Portland State, at Texas Tech, Hawaii 
2024: Texas Tech, Boise State, at Hawaii 
2025: at Boise State 
2026: Boise State 
2027: at Baylor 
2028: Baylor
2029: at Michigan State
2030: Michigan State

31 Greatest NCAAF Players in PNW history: No.19 - Gary Zimmerman

31 Greatest NCAAF Players in PNW history: No.19 - Gary Zimmerman

Successful college career – Check.

Successful NFL career – Check

Member of the NFL Hall of Fame – Check

 

Who are we talking about?  We are talking about former Oregon Ducks offensive lineman Gary Zimmerman.

Zimmerman has a great career at Oregon and was named the Pac-10 Conference Offensive Lineman of Year in 1983. But it was in the NFL where he truly blossomed.

Zimmerman was selected in the first round of the 1984 supplemental draft and made his NFL debut two years later with the Minnesota Vikings.

Once he hit the field, he never left it, literally. Zimmerman started 169 consecutive games, a streak that came to an end in 1996.

He was named to both the 1980’s and 1990’s All-Decade teams, earned All-Pro honors eight times, and was selected to seven Pro Bowl.  Zimmerman ended his career in fashion, winning the Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos.

Zimmerman was enshrined in the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and joined his fellow legends in the NFL Hall of Fame in 2008.

Denver RB Royce Freeman scores in NFL preseason debut

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USA Today

Denver RB Royce Freeman scores in NFL preseason debut

Denver rookie running back Royce Freeman rushed for a 38 yards on four carries and scored on a 23-yard run in the second quarter of the Broncos' 42-28 loss Saturday night at home to Minnesota in the preseason opener for both teams. Freeman, listed second on the team's depth chart behind Devontae Booker, also caught one pass for no gain. Booker started the game but received just two carries for seven yards. 

Freeman, selected by Denver in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, received his first three carries out of a single-back set with quarterback Paxton Lynch under center. Freeman's touchdown run, however, came on a zone read play run out of the shotgun formation with four receivers, both familiar scheme elements to Freeman from his days at Oregon. 



Freeman received the handoff from Lynch's right after the quarterback read an outside linebacker keying on him. The quarterback then carried out his fake to further draw the defender allowing Freeman to zoom by him and to the second level of the defense. There he encountered a hard-charging safety that Freeman successfully juked to the right. From there, he was gone, racing down the right side with the help of downfield blocking from receivers. 

Freeman is believed to have a shot at earning the starting job. His performance Saturday was a good start in that direction. 

How the new redshirt rule helps Oregon

How the new redshirt rule helps Oregon

Oregon’s cupcake nonconference schedule just got more interesting and the Ducks may see less transfers this season. 

If you are not familiar with the new NCAA rule passed in June, college football players can now play up to four games in a season and redshirt without burning a year of eligibility. College football players are granted five years to complete four seasons of eligibility.

The rule was unanimously agreed upon amongst college football coaches, including Oregon coach Mario Cristobal. Cristobal is excited for how it changes the developmental aspect of the sport.  Whether it be to injury or a player developing throughout a season, he plans to award playing opportunities to Ducks who he believes can help the team.

“The opportunities are endless to not only help your team, but to prevent a guy from losing an extra year of eligibility,” Cristobal said. “It certainly helps you plan differently.”

With that said, Cristobal made it clear he expects the level of competition to increase, not decrease.

Playing time will not be handed out

Just because the new rule allows participation in four games a season doesn’t mean Oregon players are guaranteed to see the field. According to Cristobal, playing time will remain a privilege, not a right. 

“That would create the wrong kind of dynamic within the walls of our locker room,” Cristobal said.

Oregon’s cupcake nonconference schedule just got more interesting

The Ducks’ nonconference opponents (Bowling Green, Portland State, San Jose State) went a combined 4-32 last season. Those three yawn-worthy games just got more interesting because now coaches and fans will get a chance to see plenty of freshmen from that highly touted 2018 recruiting class get on the field.

This means true freshman quarterback Tyler Shough, who many have described as starting quarterback“Justin Herbert-like” is likely to get a chance to play at the college level right away without wasting a year of eligibility. The back-up quarterback competition could play out between Shough and sophomore Braxton Burmeister in live games instead of just behind closed doors at practice. Keep in mind that Burmeister could also utilize his redshirt if he does not appear in more than four games.

Freshmen get valuable experience

It’s hard to emulate the speed of the college game in practice, even on scout team. Now freshmen will be able to get on the field in low-pressure situations, which is great to get their feet wet and for coaches to see how they handle being under the lights.

Oregon could give an early opportunity to see how a player reacts to the level of college level or allow them to continue to grow and learn the playbook before potentially playing later in the season.

Those meaningless bowl games that some player skip? Freshmen can get added into those, with the added month of bowl practice.

“The development process is real now,” Cristobal said. “It’s almost like the developmental squad in the NFL where down the line the opportunity, whether it be due to injury or whether that player has developed to a point where they can help us and actually contribute to the team.’

Incentivizes and may limit transfers

The new rule keeps players involved and motivated by the possibility of playing time at some point during the season.

Oregon could show a player how he fits into a game scheme, without losing a year of eligibility. Which is a great way for a coach to prove the school has a plan for him, which could potentially prevent some players from transferring.

Takes pressure off starters

Oregon starters will be less likely to feel pressure to play through injuries. The change provides more roster depth and the opportunity for Ducks at the top of the depth chart to experience less wear and tear throughout the season.

[WATCH: Cristobal continues to impress on the recruiting trail]

Imagine how different last year could have been

In 2017, the Ducks redshirted eight players on the 2018 roster; CJ Verdell, Cyrus Habibi-likio, Demetri Burch, Daewood Davis, Cody Shear, Alex Forsyth, Popo Aumavae, and Isaac Slade-Matautia. All of those players could have played in four games and still have four years of full eligibility left if this rule was in place last season.

The rule allows for the development of the player to be improved and the coaches’ ability to evaluate the player. Which Duck freshman are you most looking forward to utilizing this rule?

 

Marcus Mariota tosses TD pass in Titans' preseason opener

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USA Today

Marcus Mariota tosses TD pass in Titans' preseason opener

Former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who had a down statistical season last year, got off to a strong start in Tennessee's first preseason game Thursday night at Green Bay.

Mariota completed 2 of 3 passes for 41 yards and a four-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Darius Jennings and then promptly called it a night. Green Bay won, 31-17. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers did not play. 

The Titans' scoring drive covered 71 yards in nine plays. Mariota got sacked early in the drive before completing a 38-yard pass to wide receiver Nick Williams to the Green Bay 30. Two plays later, Mariota scrambled for seven yards to the Packers' 15.

Mariota threw a career low 13 touchdown passes last season with a career high 15 interceptions.