When Sunday’s season opener came around, Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears felt comfortable giving undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor some playing time.
He’s earned it, Fears said.
Against the Miami Dolphins, Taylor was on the field for nine offensive snaps — and made the most of them. He rushed for 28 yards and two first downs on four carries. Perhaps the most impressive run of his day came in the third quarter when he sped through traffic for an 11-yard gain.
“I thought J.J. ran competitively,” coach Bill Belichick said. “I thought he ran hard.”
But Taylor made something clear: That showing doesn’t change much for him. There’s no boost in confidence, nor is there any additional swagger. Instead, he’s just focused on perfecting his craft and turning to the habits, established long before training camp, that earned him a spot on the 53-man roster.
“If you can do it in practice, you can do it in the game,” Taylor said. “I’m still going to work just as hard as I’ve been working and keep improving from there.”
A gym guy from way back
The first thing Centennial High School’s football coach Matt Logan noticed about Taylor was his athleticism.
“He would do, like, we call them these ‘Matrix’ moves,” Logan said. “It was amazing some of the things he would do.”
Front flips became a regular occurrence before and after practice, as Taylor boasted gymnastics experience and continued to work at a local tumbling gym throughout high school. His coaches found his propensity to go airborne carried over to football.
When the unit was working on its goal-line rushes, for example, running backs coach Bill Murray would place a 3- or 4-foot PVC chute in front of the end zone for players to jump or dive over. Taylor was certainly a fan of the challenge.
“It got to a point where I had to take that drill out of our practice because J.J. kept pushing that envelope of going up and over,” Murray said. “He’d do it during games, and, at times, he needed to, and, at other times, he just did it because he could.”
It should come as no surprise that Taylor also ran the 300-meter hurdles and holds the third-fastest time in school history.
When Taylor transferred to Centennial for his sophomore year, he initially played cornerback because a senior on the team owned the starting running back role.
His junior year Taylor moved to running back, though he still dabbled at cornerback and even defensive end. (At one point, according to Logan, he led the team in both rushing yards and sacks.) Taylor also maintained an active role on special teams, where he was a part of multiple units, including the punt-block, kickoff, and return teams.
“He would score an 80-yard touchdown and then go and make a tackle on the kickoff team,” Logan said. “He’s just a dynamic, dynamic football player.”
As a senior, Taylor posted monster numbers, rushing for 44 touchdowns and 2,290 yards on 251 carries. While his average of 9.1 yards per carry was impressive, the stat Logan found more compelling was that he fumbled only twice.
Games weren’t the only setting in which Taylor showed off his quickness. During the spring, the team hosted an annual barbeque and played a few rounds of flag football.
“He had multiple runs where he’s zig-zagging back and forth, making guys miss his flag,” Logan said. “Flag, flag, flag, almost seems like every guy on the defense missed him twice. He made like 23 guys miss his flag. I equate it to trying to catch a guy in a phone booth.”
Not only was Taylor a star, but Logan and Murray both praised his commitment to the team. The night before Centennial’s second-round playoff matchup in 2014, Taylor underwent an appendectomy and was back on the sideline cheering for his teammates the very next evening. He took the backup running back under his wing that night, offering him pointers throughout the game.
“The entire time, J.J.'s coaching him up on the sidelines,” Murray said.
Even when Taylor was healthy, Murray remembered he would occasionally ask off the field for a play or two because of a minor issue, whether it be a cramp or equipment malfunction. Everything was actually perfectly fine. Taylor just wanted his backups to have a chance to get some reps.
“He kind of set me up a little bit,” Murray said. “You just knew he was coming out, but it wasn’t because of him. He’s just not a selfish guy.”
Whether Taylor was in the game or not, one thing Murray always had to have at the ready was a pocketful of Skittles.
“To the point where I had to go find those goddamn Skittles,” Murray said.
When Centennial advanced to the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) championship game Taylor’s senior year, Murray sent trainers on a hunt through Anaheim Stadium to track down a few packets of Taylor’s favorite candy.
“They might have been a little warm because they’ve been in somebody’s pockets for a while, but J.J. didn’t care,” Murray said. “That was his halftime ritual.”
Measuring up just fine
Taylor’s size — he was 5 feet 6 inches when he graduated high school and hasn’t grown since — slowed his college recruiting process.
“At one point, he tried telling me he weighed 170,” Murray said. “I’m like, ‘There’s no freakin’ way you weigh 170.'”
While his coaches strongly believed Taylor played beyond dimensions, not many major Division I schools expressed interest. His first offer came from an FCS school, and after receiving offers from lesser-known programs, such as Sacramento State and Weber State, Taylor ultimately committed to Arizona.
At Arizona, Taylor showed much of the same. He was still doing flips before and after practice, he was still explosive, he was still hard to tackle, and he was still logging extra sprints and extra reps.
The major difference: He was gaining strength. By the end of his senior year, he had put on 35 pounds.
One of Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin’s favorite memories of Taylor was when he rushed for 284 yards and two touchdowns in the team’s 35-14 victory over Oregon State in 2018.
We just ran one play the whole game," Sumlin said. “An outside zone play. I don’t remember how much he ran for, maybe like 300 yards.”
“I feel like I screwed him up by not letting him carry those other carries that his backup was able to get,” said Clarence McKinney, the Wildcats' running backs coach at the time. “I think he could have gone for over 500 in the game.”
Taylor finished that year with 1,434 rushing yards. Last season, as a redshirt junior, he saw a dip in production because of a high ankle sprain, but had it not been for the injury, Sumlin expressed confidence that Taylor would have had back-to-back seasons with 1,400-plus rushing yards.
“The only knock on J.J. is his size,” said McKinney. “He can do everything.”
But McKinney points out Taylor’s size doesn’t always have to be viewed negatively.
“It works towards his advantage when he’s running the ball,” McKinney said. “Because he’s so small, and he’s so patient and he’s so explosive, when he gets behind the line of big guys, no one can see him. Once you see him, it’s too late, he’s already accelerated through the hole.”
Working out in select company
When performance coach Les Spellman first started working with Taylor, he had two goals for the 22-year-old running back.
1. Put up solid numbers at the NFL Combine.
2. Develop speed that’s going to translate to playing in the league.
Taylor was already fast, but Spellman wanted to improve his top speed and how quickly he could access that speed. For running backs, 5- and 10-yard spurts are far more prevalent than, say, a 20-yard run, so Spellman stressed to Taylor the importance of being able to reach a high velocity over a short distance.
Spellman designed exercises, such as resistance training and bounding drills, that helped eliminate wasted movement from Taylor’s runs. Taylor started to develop more horizontal power, with the intention that each step he took would project him forward.
“He was so quick that he liked to spin his wheels, so, essentially, like the Road Runner taking off, he would spin his wheels in a place for a while before he goes forward,” Spellman said. “That was kind of J.J. in the beginning.”
For about two months leading up to the NFL Combine, the pair followed a regimented schedule as part of Spellman’s program based in Orange County, Calif. They weren’t alone, as Spellman also worked with several NFL prospects, including Joe Burrow, who was drafted No. 1 overall, and Myles Bryant, who ended up signing with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent.
Each day had a focus. Mondays, for example, were spent working on starts and acceleration, while Tuesdays were dedicated to lateral movements and multidirectional routes. On Fridays, Taylor would catch passes from the likes of Burrow, Kyle Allen of the Washington Football Team, and Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills.
Taylor always showed up early for every session, including the optional ones, according to Spellman. He managed to improve his speed over 5 yards by more than a tenth of a second and his overall 40-yard dash time by over two-tenths of a second.
“We call him, ‘The Silent Killer,’” Spellman said. “He was just always working on his craft.”
At the Combine, Taylor ended up running the 40-yard dash in 4.61 seconds. But his performance in the three-cone drill, also known as the L-drill, was far more impressive. Among all running backs, Taylor’s time of 7.00 seconds ranked third.
“We were told that guys that have the fastest L-drill sometimes end up at the Patriots,” Spellman said. “When we saw him do the L-drill at the Combine, we were like, ‘Oh my God. You’re going to the Patriots.’ We were just laughing and joking around.'”
Little did they know.
Nicole Yang can be reached at email@example.com.