PULLMAN – Willie Taylor III hadn’t quite reached his current playing weight when he signed a letter of intent with Washington State in February of 2017. Not that anyone would mistake him for scrawny – especially at the position he was playing when WSU recruiters started to zero in on the Bleckley County High (Georgia) product.
With measurables that might even cause Kam Chancellor to perform a double-take, Taylor III, at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, patrolled Bleckley’s defensive secondary as a free safety – blending keen instincts as a ball-hawker with natural aggression to cultivate 86 tackles and five interceptions, in addition to two forced fumbles, during his senior season.
“I was the biggest safety I knew,” Taylor III laughed. “Pretty big.”
When Taylor III arrived on campus, the Cougars didn’t necessarily have a need at safety, but they still wanted to find a spot on the field for his physicality and versatility. In that case, the hybrid “Rush” linebacker role seemed like a good fit. The position requires someone who can roam the field, freelancing as an edge-rushing defensive end in some packages while dropping back into coverage as a traditional outside linebacker in others.
In less than two years, it’s safe to say the project has been a major success.
Taylor III is now on track to start at Rush linebacker for the Cougars after spending his redshirt year learning under the tutelage of Frankie Luvu, whose mastery of the position made him an All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention choice in 2017 and earned him a training camp spot with the New York Jets. Luvu’s played sparingly with the Jets’ first-team defense throughout his NFL audition.
“I learned a lot from Frankie,” Taylor III said. “A lot of the things I know now, because when I first got here I knew nothing about the position. I played free safety in high school, so he taught me a lot.”
It’s a lot to grasp for a former defensive back who didn’t have much experience playing with a hand in the ground. Some of WSU’s blitz packages pull Taylor III forward to the line of scrimmage and he’ll either act as a stand-up edge rusher or plant his paw into the turf as the fourth member of the defensive front.
“Getting off the ball, for one thing” has been an adjustment for Taylor III. “My stance, getting in the proper stance. Working with my hands, all that,” he added.
Taylor III was critical of his pass-rush, more specifically his “speed-rush,” during spring camp and said honing that was a focal point of his offseason. The redshirt freshman, now listed at 6-4, 235 pounds, has been a predator during preseason camp and he was responsible for a QB sack during WSU’s scrimmage last Friday – and plenty of others that went uncharted while the Cougars were practicing in Lewiston.
“I kind of struggled a little bit in pass-rushing over the spring,” Taylor III said. “I worked all summer, working on my bend, working on my moves and I think I’ve been killing it in the pass-rush.”
His safety background – which he believes has “helped me a lot with my hips and opening up and seeing the ball” – also came into focus during the first scrimmage. Taylor III recorded two pass breakups during the first drive, knocking away the second ball thrown by Anthony Gordon before batting down another one seven plays later.
“Willie’s an extremely talented person and just needs more and more reps, but he gets better every day,” first-year Cougars defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said.
Teammates are beginning to take notice, too.
“He’s a guy, man,” said defensive end Will Rodgers III. “Willie’s always been a guy since last year. He redshirted, gave him a year to develop his body and things like that, but I don’t know too many guys who can bend the corner like he does. Long, athletic, can run. That says it all.”
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