PULLMAN – Just catching the ball with one hand did itself make Robert Taylor’s interception the most impressive play of Washington State’s preseason camp in Lewiston.
The instincts he displayed to see where Tyler Hilinski was going to throw the ball on a quick hitch route to the sideline also were impressive.
But the play stood out above all others because of the ground Taylor covered to even get to the ball. He was playing safety, after all, near the back of the defense.
“Just the space you have to cover and how quick you have to take off,” Mike Leach said. “It’s typically a play; I don’t even care if the defense knows it’s coming because of how quick you have to get there. Evidently Robert Taylor can.”
Taylor comes to the Cougars via City College of San Francisco, the same school that produced starting free safety Shalom Luani, although the two did not overlap. Taylor actually began his career playing small-school ball at UC Davis, where he played one season.
He left because he was certain he could contribute at a Division 1 school, and the WSU coaches agreed.
Taylor has been in the two-deeps since the start of WSU’s fall practices, playing both cornerback and safety. While WSU has more depth at cornerback, that is also possibly Taylor’s better position, and he has spent a lot of time playing with the starters and backups at corner.
“Either works for me,” Taylor said. “Safety, it’s a lot of free space. You can make a lot more plays. At corner you’ve got to be a real technician in there and be really good with your eyes. I like both positions. I can make plays at both.”
The versatile athlete also appears poised to contribute on special teams and has been one of the team’s most electric kick returners during practice. In junior college Taylor returned punts, averaging 11.6 yards per return with one touchdown.
While having a starting-caliber defensive back who can play either cornerback or safety is a boon to WSU’s secondary depth, the defensive backfield is already an area of strength for the Cougars. Darrien Molton, a freshman All-American in 2015, has locked down the left starting cornerback spot, and Treshon Broughton has emerged as a playmaker on the right side, taking the starting position from a competent player in Marcellus Pippins.
Free safety Shalom Luani is one of the team’s best players, and true freshman Jalen Thompson has fought off all comers at the strong safety position.
If Taylor can climb to the top of that pile, the Cougars will really have a player on their hands. And the competition (and depth) will benefit the entire defense.
“As you recruit junior college guys, maybe similar to Shalom from a year ago, you recruit those guys to have some kind of instant impact on your football team,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said.
Because of Taylor’s circuitous route to Pullman he is already a junior, making him one of the older players in the WSU secondary. So while it will be a dogfight for playing time, Taylor does not lack a sense of urgency.
“I don’t have too many years left,” Taylor said. “So I want to come in here and help this team a lot, play right away.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.