Taylor knows how to handle surprise starts
GREEN BAY – The 100 yards that changed Lane Taylor’s career weren’t traveled on a football field. There was no pancake block. No blitzing linebacker to stonewall.
Taylor was a bystander. Caught in the right conversation, with the right person, at the right time.
He exited Oklahoma State’s football complex one September day in 2009, a redshirt freshman on the scout team. As he was crossing Hall of Fame Avenue on his way to practice, Taylor’s offensive line coach pulled up beside. Joe Wickline was mildly panicked. Thoughts racing.
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Taylor tried to strike conversation as they walked.
“And I’m thinking about something else,” Wickline said. “I’m not listening to him. I’m acting like I care what he says, you know. I probably wasn’t even looking at him, and I say, ‘Let me ask you something. How much do you weigh?’”
Random question. Wickline had a good reason. Oklahoma State lost their No. 5 ranking the previous week when Houston upset them at home. A leaky interior offensive line didn’t help. The Cowboys had senior tackles rotating at guard. Misfits. They were too tall, too stiff to get leverage.
Taylor was an afterthought. He didn’t dress for Oklahoma State’s first two games. Only scout-team reps during practice. No, the kid barely recruited out of Arlington (Texas) Martin High wasn’t a likely replacement.
But Wickline was desperate.
“I’m wondering, ‘What in the hell am I going to do?’” Wickline said. “He had already redshirted one year, hadn’t taken a damn rep. I don’t even know if he knows the playbook. We’re walking out to practice. It just so happens he’s talking to me, and I’m talking to him.”
Somewhere in those final 100 yards to the practice field, they stopped. Off the sidewalk, Wickline told Taylor to drop into his three-point stance.
“Literally, he gets down,” Wickline said. “Step right. Step left. I say, ‘(Expletive), you’re good enough.’ So that day in practice, I go, ‘You’re a starter.’ He goes, ‘What?’ I say, ‘Get your ass in there. Shut up. They’ve already proven to me they can’t do it. At least you’re ahead of them. I already have proof they can’t do it.’”
Taylor wasn’t the only one confused. When he trotted out with the starting offensive line, his head coach thought it was a mistake. Wickline told his boss to just wait. See what happens.
It wasn’t Taylor’s job immediately. He remembers practice reps rotating like “musical chairs” for a couple days. Then, Taylor said, he had one good period. It led to one chance.
That Saturday, he started at right guard against Rice.
“First play,” Taylor said, “I think I had a cut block. I got it, and I’ve been good since then.”
Funny how a career begins. One fluke conversation led to one practice rep. One rep to one start. One start to four years as a foundational member of the Cowboys' offensive line.
Taylor started 47 games at Oklahoma State. He was an All-Big 12 honorable mention as a junior. Unanimous first-team selection choice as a senior. It might not have happened without Taylor handling sudden change. Out of nowhere, he had three, four days to prepare for his first college start.
Yes, Taylor said, the past week has given him flashbacks.
Nobody told Lane Taylor he was the Green Bay Packers' new starting left guard. He found out the same way you did.
Entering his fourth season as a backup, Taylor was scrolling through Twitter on Monday morning when he saw coach Mike McCarthy promote him.
Maybe Taylor should’ve seen it coming after the Packers released three-time Pro Bowl left guard Josh Sitton last weekend. He didn’t. Taylor admitted he was as shocked as anyone to see Sitton go.
The starting job, Taylor said, could’ve been handed to “whoever.”
“I didn’t really know,” Taylor said. “I just kind of stayed level because you don’t know what can shake up. So I just came to work to see how things felt.”
That’s what Taylor does. His college coach describes him as a roll-up-your-sleeves “workman.” Quiet. Steady. Nothing shook him, Wickline said.
The only thing flashy about this broad-shouldered guard, Wickline explained, was the old Chevelle he drove in college. Best car on the team, Wickline remembered. Taylor refurbished it himself.
Wickline, now West Virginia’s offensive coordinator, said his guard approached football with the same detail.
“I didn’t know if he had a pulse,” Wickline said. “Didn’t act like a whole lot worried him, but he was kind of a blue-collar guy. Lunch box, get it done. When things go wrong, there’s a pressure, there’s a sack, we’re behind in the score, the weather is inclement weather – whatever it is – this guy is strong enough to where he realizes that it really has nothing to do with the next play.
“He was able to shelf all that. Put it in some folder – I don’t know where the hell he put it – and not many guys have that unique ability. I thought he did, and others saw him as a rock.”
Eventually, upperclassmen started to trust the former scout teamer. Zac Robinson, the Cowboys senior quarterback that season, said Taylor was the second-best offensive lineman behind left tackle Russell Okung. A senior that fall, Okung was the sixth overall pick in the next draft.
Robinson said he was initially surprised when Taylor was lifted from the scout team. He went to his coach’s office searching for an explanation. One week after a devastating loss, Robinson knew, Taylor’s quick transition wasn’t easy.
“You’re just kind of still figuring out your way as a redshirt freshman,” Robinson said. “You kind of have your wonders of what kind of player you are, because you haven’t really been in the limelight of the game to prove that.”
Robinson said Taylor immediately stabilized the offensive line. Oklahoma State allowed 11 sacks that season, fewest in the Big 12 and fourth fewest in the country. They led the conference with 187 rushing yards per game.
Wickline said Taylor was “a big part” of the Cowboys reaching the Cotton Bowl. At the time, Robinson said, he was surprised how well his younger teammate handled himself.
“You could tell the moment was definitely not too big for him,” Robinson said. “He never looked like he was out of place. There was no wide-eyed freshman look on his face. He had the right look, and ultimately was a huge competitor.”
‘He’s a pest’
He sat at his locker inside Lambeau Field this past week. Shoulder pads off. A sweat-soaked, sleeveless shirt clung to his back.
Taylor couldn’t even shower before being swarmed. It was the second straight day reporters flooded his personal space. This week, there have been more questions and cameras than all of last season combined.
“I don’t care, really,” Taylor said, shrugging off the extra attention. “Obviously, it’s kind of part of the gig, you know. If there’s a new starter that’s starting, they’re going to get more attention.”
No, college football doesn’t mimic the NFL. Taylor’s jump from scout team to first team doesn’t guarantee he can make the transition from longtime backup to full-time starter.
But he knows what to expect. Knows the spotlight is on him now. It feels similar, he said, to 2009. He’s a redshirt freshman again, just trying to earn his teammates’ trust.
“I just want to play good,” Taylor said. “Go out there and show that I’m a player that the team can depend on.”
Taylor waited a long time to get this chance. He didn’t mind being patient. When he signed as an undrafted rookie in 2013, Taylor said, he wasn’t ready to be a starter. He needed to develop “a lot” in his first two seasons.
Taylor is a brawler in the trenches. Wickline said he’s in the “moving business.” Downhill, Taylor gets his hands inside a defensive lineman’s shoulders, opening run lanes with natural leverage.
Defensive end Mike Daniels has seen it firsthand in practice.
“He’s relentless,” Daniels said. “He’s a pest. He’s strong. He is strong. I don’t think he gets enough credit for his strength. He’s fundamentally sound, and he’s tough.
“He’s going to battle you. He’s going to compete.”
He’s flawed, too.
In the Big 12, Taylor’s pass blocking was good enough. Defensive tackles are bigger, quicker in the NFL. Linebackers are more explosive. Swapping Sitton for Taylor, the Packers are compromising their pass protection.
In 2014, Sitton was perhaps the NFL’s best pass-blocking guard. He slipped some last season, but when the Packers were desperate to find a replacement for injured left tackle David Bakhtiari, Sitton protected Aaron Rodgers’ blindside against the Minnesota Vikings. It was a lot of responsibility for an interior lineman.
Robinson, now an analyst for Pro Football Focus, said it’s easier for an offense to compensate after losing a guard – especially the Packers. Rodgers’ mobility, his sixth sense inside the pocket, neutralizes pass rushers.
“Interior offensive line can be hidden to some extent,” Robinson said. “With interior linemen, the way you can slide protections and kind of get an extra hand in, with centers sliding to get an extra shade on a three-technique, I think will bode well for him. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it is easier to sort of mask some of that stuff up front.”
There is one difference from 2009, and it isn’t small.
Taylor is new to the first-team offensive line, but his experience extends beyond the scout team. When Sitton slid to left tackle against the Vikings, Taylor filled in admirably at left guard. His first career start came three weeks earlier at Detroit, replacing injured T.J. Lang at right guard. Taylor found out 90 minutes before kickoff he was starting against the Lions.
But snaps have been rare. Three seasons, Taylor waited and watched. Waited and watched. He would practice all week. No guarantee he’d be activated Sunday afternoon.
“I’ve been watching for years,” Taylor said. “So I definitely know what it’s supposed to look like, and what’s expected of me.”
Now, he doesn’t have to guess. Taylor said there’s peace knowing he’ll play Sunday. He’s comfortable, mind at ease. For some, the moment might be too big.
Not Lane Taylor. The guard can’t be shaken.
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