FOOTBALL: New team, familiar ground for Tops

Keith Farner

With first-year program Florida International coming to town this weekend, it may be more of a reunion than an introduction for some Western players.

Ten Hilltoppers hail from the Sunshine State, the most of any state outside of Kentucky. One reason is because Western focuses its recruiting on Florida, which is among the richest Southern football states.

That particular recruiting pipeline has been flowing almost as long as head coach Jack Harbaugh has been here.

“When you’re able to get four or five, six, seven players from Florida, then they tell their friends and they’ve got teammates that they played with in high school. You start a little tradition,” Harbaugh said.

And it’s no surprise that one of the most celebrated players of that tradition, now assistant coach Willie Taggart, is from Bradenton, Fla.

But just before he committed to Western, administrators told Harbaugh the football team was going to be cut.

“We were at a low, low, low, low, low, point,” Harbaugh said.

Then Jim Harbaugh was brought on staff, and the first player he called was Taggart.

“That kind of started it all for us,” Harbaugh said. “I didn’t even know about that at the time,” Taggart said. “When I got up here as a freshman, I still didn’t know until I read an article about it in the Herald one day.”

Taggart said that football in Florida is like basketball in Kentucky.

“It doesn’t get as cold down there, so you can play football year round,” Taggart said. “And I think that helps a lot with starting off playing ball young.”

Ten years later, the Toppers still fly south for the winter. And that recruiting has led to a speed-oriented foundation on defense.

“Our program became successful when speed was interjected into the program,” Harbaugh said. “And a lot of that has to do with Florida.”

Senior linebacker Sherrod Coates and senior cornerback Carl Birts of Okeechobee, Fla, are two examples of defenders who burn up the turf. Coates runs a 4.59 second 40-yard dash while Birts sizzles at 4.50.

“In Florida, most players are bred with speed and that’s what our defense is made up of, so why not go get it,” said Coates, a native of Boynton Beach, Fla.

This game will hit beyond the stat sheet, though. For senior linebacker Jon Drummond, a Miami native, this one hits close to home.

“I haven’t experienced that since high school,” said Drummond, who leads Western with six sacks. “To go home and have bragging rights . and represent our university is a nice feeling.”

What Drummond won’t have is a personal grudge against any of the Panthers. Drummond didn’t even circle the game on his calendar when the schedule was released.

“We’re much bigger than FIU at this time,” he said. “I know when I was home, that’s when I got most of the questions. ‘You know you guys got FIU this year, that’s going to be a tough game.'”

Since these players are so many miles north of home, it’s rare that family and friends get to see them in action. That’s why Harbaugh has pushed for two-game series with teams like FIU, South Florida and Florida A&M.

“You try to sell the opportunity to go home,” Harbaugh said about the recruiting process. “You try to tell players when you recruit them, ‘You’ll get the opportunity to go home and play in front of your home fans.'”

An opportunity is what Western (3-3) needs with this game. At the halfway point in the season, the Toppers have yet to string together a two-game winning streak.

It won’t come easy. Even if the only wins FIU (3-2) has were against Division II and lower programs, they went to perennial I-AA power Elon and lost 23-22.

But as much talent as FIU does have, it can’t do anything in the experience department.

“I think the difference is they have not played together,” Coates said. “Being a first-year program, they don’t have the experience we have of being together for three or four years.”

The Toppers will try to use that experience to take care of business Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at Smith Stadium.

Reach Keith Farner at [email protected]