Ducks treading on familiar turf
EUGENE — Willie Taggart was Donte Pimpleton’s teammate and then his coach.
Now Taggart is his boss for the third time after hiring Pimpleton as Oregon’s running backs coach.
The friendship between the two has lasted more than two decades, but Pimpleton has known another Taggart even longer.
“I went to middle school with Willie’s wife,” Pimpleton said of Taneshia Taggart. “Willie and I were hanging out (in college) when they met.”
Pimpleton arrived at Western Kentucky as a quarterback when Taggart was beginning his third year starting for the Hilltoppers as a junior.
“Coach Harbaugh was going to try and bring guys in to take your job,” Taggart recalled. “I can remember when (Pimpleton) came in, all of my teammates were like, ‘OK, you’ve got somebody that can compete with you now.’ I was always a confident guy. I don’t care who we brought in, it was my job until I’m gone. He can have it once I’m gone. Donte kept you on your toes and made you come back and work every day.”
Taggart finished a four-year run as the starting quarterback for the Hilltoppers by setting 11 school records for coach Jack Harbaugh. He ran for 3,997 yards and 47 touchdowns while leading a run-oriented offense.
“Donte was too good of an athlete to just sit behind me so coach Harbaugh put him out at receiver, and we found ways to get the ball in his hands as well,” Taggart said.
Pimpleton caught 13 passes for 165 yards and four touchdowns early in his career at receiver before replacing Taggart at quarterback in his junior year.
“We made some plays together,” Pimpleton said of Taggart. “I started at quarterback, wide receiver, returning kicks; I lined up everywhere on offense.”
After graduation, Taggart began his coaching career as an assistant at Western Kentucky and mentored Pimpleton, who ran for 1,425 yards and 18 touchdowns in his career while missing one season because a knee injury.
“When I came in as a young quarterback, Willie took me in and taught me things,” Pimpleton said. “He coached me the last three seasons. I was not the type who knew it all, I wanted to learn so it wasn’t a big deal having him as a former teammate being my coach. I knew he knew what he was talking about and he was successful, so I listened to him.”
Pimpleton spent five seasons playing arena football before he started coaching in high school. Taggart moved on to Stanford in 2007 as running backs coach under Jim Harbaugh.
When Taggart was named head coach at Western Kentucky in 2010, he hired Pimpleton to be his quality control assistant, later promoting him to wide receivers coach in his final season. When Taggart moved on to South Florida in 2013, Pimpleton spent the next two years at Kentucky Wesleyan. But he again joined Taggart in 2015, this time as running backs coach for the Bulls, who went 18-7 over the past two seasons.
“Willie wanted to get back to some guys he was familiar with,” Pimpleton said. “I know how he wants to run things, I know the style. I know what he wants like the back of my hand. I speak the same language he speaks and he wanted some people he was familiar with to turn it back around, and we were able to do that.”
Pimpleton took over Oregon’s running backs after Gary Campbell held the job for 34 years. Pimpleton recalled meeting Campbell last year when both were recruiting Darrian Felix, who signed with the Ducks.
Pimpleton inherited a diverse group of running backs, including veterans Royce Freeman, Kani Benoit, Tony Brooks-James and Taj Griffin. Freeman has run for 4,146 yards and 44 touchdowns in three seasons while Benoit, Brooks-James and Griffin have combined for 2,574 yards and 25 touchdowns.
“I don’t want to mess them up and overhaul and change things,” Pimpleton said. “I want to know what they do well and get it better and what they don’t know and improve that. You don’t want to come in and change totally. They are who they are, and I want to make them better in any way I can.”
Felix and CJ Verdell are the two running backs in Taggart’s initial recruiting class.
“The freshmen come in and you can put your own blueprint on them,” Pimpleton said.
The way Freeman and the veterans have helped the newcomers, Pimpleton said, reminds him of when Taggart guided him through his first two years of college.
“It’s a great chemistry in the room,” Pimpleton said. “The older guys know how to do things and how to practice, and the younger guys are willing to learn. I want to put those guys in position to teach the younger guys how it is done so that when they leave, they can be proud of the guys coming in.”