After a redshirt freshman season with 13 games of experience that came largely on special teams, T.J. Taylor was in the mix for part-time play at linebacker behind the likes of Quentin Gause and Steve Longa ahead of Rutgers’ 2015 campaign.
A spring ACL injury derailed any hopes of playing time on defense and wiped Taylor out for the season.
“I know it’s in the past, but the old coaches, they were looking forward to me getting out there (last year),” Taylor said. “I had a great first week of spring ball, everything was looking great. But unfortunately, things do happen in football with injuries and stuff like that, so I’m thankful for that. Everything happens for a reason.”
A year and a half later, Taylor said he feels 100 percent as the Scarlet Knights work through their first week of training camp.
“I feel great,” he said. “Being back on the field is always a good feeling. Being back from last year, being able to play with my teammates and my boys, I’ve been working, working hard throughout this summer and the winter, training. It feels good to get back out there, enjoying the environment and getting back to playing football again.”
After a precautionary spring on his knee, Taylor's brace is off and his mind is clear.
Physically and mentally past the injury now, Taylor wants to show what he can do on the football field.
“I’m there (at game speed) now,” Taylor said. “Out there in practice, running around and watching stuff on film, I feel great. I don’t even think about (the knee) anymore, I don’t even wear a brace anymore. I wore a brace in the springtime. That’s a big, big thing for me that I was able to get past, so I’m glad I’m able to be out here running around before my injury.”
Despite his progress, Taylor entered training camp absent from the two-deep across the board at linebacker, where head coach Chris Ash continues to monitor the South Brunswick (N.J.) product in practice.
“He’s still coming off the injury,” Ash said of Taylor. “He was not healthy in the spring. He’s running a lot better right now than he did in the spring, so the summer was good for him, got in a little better shape and got his body right a little bit better. He just has to learn the plays and be consistent is the No. 1 thing.”
Defensive coordinator Jay Niemann’s oversight of the linebackers directly applies to Taylor, whom he watched closely in the spring before he assessed the initial depth chart for training camp.
“It was a tough spring for him because he wasn’t able to move at 100-percent efficiency, so that made a difficult evaluation,” Niemann said. “So we got to kind of pick up from there from this camp and see where we can go, but really (where he ends up on the depth chart will) come down to production and efficiency and movement skills. Those types of things will be what we’re looking at most closely. But he’s a sharp guy, good on his assignments, fundamentally sound. Got to see if he can come along in those other areas.”
Time away from the field allowed Taylor to soak up Niemann’s new defensive scheme. Now, he looks to apply those studies to the field.
“Scheme-wise, it’s never a problem,” Taylor said. “Being out allowed me to be in the playbook more, focused more on the playbook, watching film, stuff like that, so I would say the injury even helped me when it came to knowing my plays and schemes and stuff like that. So I feel like that’s always an advantage. At the same time, getting out there and looking at it in a notebook is different, so being able to put it together is always a great thing.”
With time on his side as far as the remainder of practices go, Taylor thinks of his current slot on the depth chart as room to improve. And with the ability to shuffle around at multiple spots, he believes the versatility could help his case.
“Training camp, I’m going to use (the two-deep) … to show (the coaches) what I really can do,” Taylor said. “Position-wise, learning when it comes to the ROVER backer, the MIKE backer. It’s great for me because I can play both positions … I’m more versatile when it comes to which position I can play. Like I said before, training camp’s going to be big for me. I can’t wait to go out there and show the coaches what I can do — what I was able to do before they got here.”