By Shehan Jeyarajah
Freshman linebacker Taylor Young sits in the interview room after Baylor’s 38-27 win over Kansas State with a grin across his face and a Big 12 Championship hat on his head.
After he finishes here, he can go home. He can go to his mirror, where he has his goals written in marker. He can mark through “Win a Big 12 Championship.”
Within the next few weeks, Young will also be able to cross out “Be a Freshman All-American,” from Athlon, and “Win Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year,” from the Associated Press.
Young came out of nowhere for most Baylor fans in 2014, but that doesn’t bother him one bit.
“This is exactly how I want it,” Young said, sitting in that postgame media room with his sly smile. “Proving everybody wrong.”
* * *
Taylor Young was never supposed to be here.
He was an All-American for Texas powerhouse DeSoto High School, he cleaned up state defensive awards as a stud linebacker, including winning defensive player of the year for the highest level of Texas football.
It didn’t matter. The phone didn’t ring.
“I always thought eventually my play would get me to where I needed to be,” Young said. “But it was really tough. At times, I thought I was just going to be done with football after high school.”
Despite being one of the most productive players in Texas high school football, the freshman linebacker was deemed “undersized” to play at the highest level of college football. At a generous 5-foot-10, Young was rated a two-star prospect by Scout.com.
“I kept trying to tell every recruiter who came through here about Taylor Young because I knew what he could do,” former DeSoto head coach Claude Mathis said. “I saw it every day. I knew what kind of player he was.”
Even though Mathis knew what kind of player Young was, college programs did not follow. He got some attention from schools in the Mid-American Conference, but only was recruited heavily by Louisiana-Monroe from the Sun Belt Conference.
“It wasn’t good enough; I wanted to reach the pinnacle,” Young said. “I want to be great. That’s everything.”
Young had his eye on one of the fastest-growing programs in college football: the Baylor Bears.
“My dad always said eventually this school would be the program in Texas,” Young said. I thought to myself, they have something to prove, I have something to prove, why not go to Baylor, you know what I mean?”
Baylor had a fine season in 2012, finishing 8-5 with a win in the Bridgepoint Holiday Bowl, but fielded one of the worst defenses in the nation. Young saw the situation and thought he had the potential to be an impact player.
However, with only a week to go until National Signing Day, Young didn’t hold a Baylor offer. Young went to Mathis and told him that whatever it took, he wanted to be at Baylor.
“I was busting my [butt] trying to find him a place to go, but he told me that if he had to, he would go down to a junior college and try to work his way back up. He didn’t want to be anywhere else right now,” Mathis said.
With signing day rapidly approaching, Young decided not to sign anywhere.
* * *
It was Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, and National Signing Day was only two days away.
Young sat in class, but his mind was elsewhere. He thought about all the work he put in to be one of the best high school football players in the nation. He thought about how some of his teammates were preparing to sign offers with such schools as Ohio State, Oklahoma State and Air Force. He thought about how, just based off of two inches, he would have to start from the bottom and fight his way back.
But then, Young was called to the principal’s office, where he was met by Mathis and an awaiting phone call.
On the other end was a familiar West Texas twang: that of Baylor head coach Art Briles. After a short conversation with Briles, a new, gruff voice took over on the other end.
“Well, I guess everything worked out,” the voice of Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said. “We’ve got a scholarship for you.”
It turns out, throughout the process, Bennett already had one eye on DeSoto and the diminutive linebacker.
“I liked him. I liked his makeup,” defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said in a later interview. “I just kept watching and I was like, you know, am I going to let two inches decide whether I take this kid? If he was 5-foot-11, 6-foot, I’d take him. Eddie Lackey didn’t give you the numbers you wanted, but he was a heck of a player.”
For Young, it was nothing short of a dream realized.
“It was one of the happiest days of my life,” Young said. “I committed on the spot.”
DeSoto’s former head coach has a twinge of what can only be described as paternal pride in his voice when he recalls the experience.
“I knew this was there the whole time,” Mathis said. “I’m just glad Coach Bennett believed in me and believed in us and that he and Coach Norwood and Coach Briles were getting a player that Coach Mathis believed he could play.”
* * *
The gamble has more than paid off for Baylor’s defense. Young crossed out almost every football-related goal off his mirror, and then some.
Halfway through the season, Young pushed out sophomore Aiavion Edwards at starting linebacker, a player with a year of experience and offers from Oklahoma, TCU and Stanford out of high school.
Despite starting only half the season, he finished second on the team with 92 tackles, first among linebackers with 4.0 sacks, second among linebackers with 8.5 tackles for loss and tied for third on the team with two forced fumbles.
Baylor ended up losing the game, but Young was named Defensive MVP of the Cotton Bowl after leading the way with 15 tackles and an interception that would have been a pick-six if not called back thanks to a block in the back.
“He’s got instincts,” Bennett said. “He’s got things you don’t coach. He has the ability to be a playmaker, and we saw that throughout the year. When he gets his knowledge to a high level, that playmaking will go to another level.”
Young is only one player, but Baylor football has made a living off of finding these diamonds in the rough. Despite never fielding a top 20 recruiting class, the Bears have finished off their season as Big 12 Champions and in a marquee bowl game two years in a row.
With his performance, Young has virtually locked up a starting spot on Baylor’s defense for his remaining three years of eligibility at weakside linebacker.
“Who is better than you???” the last line on Young’s mirror reads. With plenty of Baylor football left to play, the answer could soon be “no one.”