STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Garrett Taylor came to Penn State with a 4-star billing that had fans buzzing about the future of the secondary.
The St. Christopher’s (Va.) standout was selected to the Under Armour All-America game and was also a 2015 U.S. Army All-American Bowl honoree. Taylor was the ninth-best corner in the class per Rivals and was poised to join classmate and fellow four-star cornerback John Reid, who together would bolster the Penn State secondary for years to come.
“It’s kind of been an unconventional start,” Taylor, a redshirt junior, said this week with a smile.
Blame it on the abrupt ending to Taylor’s standout high school career, one where his versatility was expected to be on full display for his last season but instead one rep at running back and one cutback along the sideline left him with a torn ACL weeks before the season even began. It was an injury unlike any he had before and it occasionally kept him up at night, his left knee throbbing with pain as he tried to rehab his way back to the player he once was — and mold himself into the collegiate defensive back he wanted to become.
“Going from being like this 4-star athlete who all you know is your athleticism and all of a sudden that’s taken away from you and you have to work harder than you’ve ever worked before in your life just to try and get that back it’s a very humbling experience,” Taylor said of the 2014 injury. “I feel like I’m finally back to that point where I’m playing with that confidence and I’m playing with that swagger I had like in high school and that’s really cool for me.”
It’s been a long way back for Taylor, a corner-turned-safety and a mainstay on Penn State’s special teams who continues eyeing a bigger role. Behind his best winter in the weight room, James Franklin said earlier this month Taylor is the leading candidate to start at safety opposite Nick Scott. The vote of confidence was a boost to Taylor, who admittedly says part of him now wishes he never even heard his coach’s praise. Still, he’s determined to stay the course regardless of what this season could entail.
“I think a lot of it is he’s gotten more confident,” Franklin said this spring. “He’s gotten stronger. He’s gotten more explosive. He’s gotten faster. And he’s a veteran guy. He’s a very mature guy. He’s approached this the right way since he’s stepped on campus. We’ve had guys who have stepped into that role, starting with Malik [Golden] and then, obviously, last year with [Troy] Apke.”
It wasn’t always smooth sailing, as Taylor put it.
When he arrived at Penn State, classmate and then position-mate Reid played right away. Football-wise Taylor said he felt like he was making a jump from junior year of high school to freshman year of college. He was uncomfortable when he stepped on the field that first fall camp, working to knock of a year’s worth of rust while also trying to acclimate to college football.
Learning the playbook was one part but getting his legs back under him after missing an entire season was another challenge.
“The first time I had actual doubts of like, ‘I don’t know if I can play at this level’ was that freshman camp,” Taylor said. “We started to do contact in camp and they put me back in a knee brace and that was like this huge mental hurdle to try and get back over of just like having this clunky knee brace. I’m trying to do all these movements and it was just tough. … That was the first time I was really like I don’t know.”
It took time to work through the soreness and once it subsided, so too did his doubts. He ditched the knee brace for good and won’t ever consider putting it on again. He accepted his redshirt season for what it was, focused on maintaining his academics and absorbing as much as he could — but his transition was hardly complete.
As the depth at safety thinned Taylor next became an intriguing option for a position switch — much like Scott who flipped to safety from running back.
“Just a little detour,” Taylor said as he adjusted his glasses.
Taylor’s head spun at first as he tried to figure out everyone else’s assignment and then nail down his own. Yet again, a bigger role would take more time to secure as Marcus Allen and Apke wouldn’t be supplanted ahead of their senior seasons. So, Taylor focused on his duties on special teams and continued taking a measured approach where throughout it all he hasn’t gotten too up or too down about it.
That’s the part his parents said have made them most proud. Taylor has learned whatever was thrown his way, even cracking the travel roster as a safety after he quickly made the switch. He’s thrived in the classroom and pairing his book smarts and work ethic with his Football IQ might make for a sharp and reliable presence to go with Scott on the back end.
“Safety there’s obviously more weight on your shoulders than corner. You have to know what the entire defense is doing,” he said. “You have to be able to know the defensive line, the linebackers and if the guard pulls knowing where my run fit is and I think a lot of that right now is becoming second nature to me. I’m more reacting instead of trying to think things through and then go through plays. I think that’s helped me play a lot faster and more confident.”
Getting to this point, a place where Taylor’s confidence has soared this spring and his comfort level has grown has taken patience and persistence. His improvements in the weight room helped him believe that the athletic edge he worked to regain is indeed back. Combining with Scott has forced him to be more demonstrative with his calls as they work to align the defense and continue stepping into the vacant roles.
Taylor even gained another member of the dreaded ACL recovery club along the way as Reid spent the last 12 months going through a similar process. That agonizing part of their careers continues to bond the two classmates who just might finally take the field together and bolster the secondary this season.
“I remember when I was talking to my dad when we were coming in as freshmen, I said I always thought you had a really good drive on the ball,” Reid recalled telling Taylor. “This spring he’s really shown that, and I was telling him I’m really happy that all the guys and everybody are seeing that now. I think he’s just more comfortable now.”
During the next four months as Taylor works to claim a spot atop the depth chart he’ll remember the good of this spring — like the defense calling a blitz recently in practice, the entire unit disguising it well, and Taylor anticipating the throw and picking off Trace McSorley (who admitted to Taylor he had no clue what was coming). Taylor will also tell himself these 15 practices and Franklin’s vote of confidence won’t mean much once camp starts and the competition continues.
As Taylor’s seen before, plans can go by the wayside in the blink of an eye.
“There’s still a lot of time left,” he said. “I want to approach it like I’m still that redshirt freshman fighting for my livelihood on this team. I want to take that approach where it is nice to have your coach’s confidence and stuff, but I don’t want to lose that edge. I don’t want to lose whatever necessarily got me into this position in the first place.”