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April 1, 2011

Flowers TE no longer a pretender

Mike Mayo had delivered an ultimatum. Having developed more than a few high-end college-football recruits during his tenure at C.H. Flowers High, the longtime head coach knew the difference between a player and a pretender. Up to his junior season, Monte Taylor had been a pretender.

So the kid had ideal size and a tree-trunk-thick body. So the kid had hands like a catcher's mitt and the athleticism of a decathlete. So the kid could play a little football.

But he didn't have it.

"He had to learn how to dominate," said Mayo of his 6-foot-4, 245-pound junior tight end. "For a kid with his abilities, there could be no excuses. He had to look like a Division-I kid."

It's safe to say Taylor took those words to heart. Once an undeveloped bundle of potential, the Flowers tight end unleashed a maelstrom of talent in 2010. He's turned himself into a Goliath among Davids, a physical specimen with the game to match.

"He's balling in a league of his own," said MdHigh recruiting analyst Wayne Yarborough. "He's like a power-forward posting up. With his size and athletic ability he should have multiple D-I offers."

National recruiting analyst Mike Farrell agreed.

"His route running is precise and it allows him to separate [from defenders]," he wrote after an offseason camp. "Then he can outmuscle someone for the football. He has good size, reliable hands and provides a big target."

More than a few respected analysts have dubbed him the No. 1 tight end prospect in the state of Maryland. Which is saying something considering Taylor has been playing the position for exactly one year.

Defense has always been Taylor's calling. At every level of football, he's started at defensive end or outside linebacker.

In peewee ball, Taylor began wrecking havoc in backfields full of pipsqueak nine-year-olds. As his body matured, he became even more deadly, adding speed and strength to his long, athletic frame. When he reached high school three years ago Mayo immediately placed him on varsity, even though his playing time would be limited.

It took Taylor exactly one week to announce his arrival. In Week 2 against Parkdale he knifed into the backfield and dropped the quarterback in the end zone, recording a safety on his first varsity sack.

But during the offseason Taylor participated in his first 7-on-7 combine event. Of course, only skill players are included in 7-on-7 competitions, so Taylor couldn't play defensive end. The coaches decided to try him at tight end instead.

"The coaches at the camp saw how quick I was and that I had good hands," Taylor said. "They told me I should try tight end [at Flowers]. So when I came in for the summer workouts I told Mayo I wanted to try it out."

Mayo consented, but he wasn't completely sold. The coach worried about Taylor's ability to learn the offense and his workout habits.

"We saw that he could make an impact for us," Mayo said. "But he came along slowly with the offense. In our system, you have to be able to run block. We told him if he couldn't do that he wouldn't be rewarded."

Taylor might have improved, but late in the summer he hurt his back. While not a crippling injury, it limited his repetitions and jeopardized the start of the season. By the time Taylor's nagging pains had subsided, Mayo had canned the tight end idea.

It was defense or nothing for Monte Taylor. In just six games (he missed several when his back flared up) Taylor recorded just three sacks and less than 20 tackles.

But last year Taylor sought redemption. With an entire offseason to train, the rising junior was deadest on grabbing the starting tight end job. Not only did he earn the gig, but he became quarterback Thomas Lawrence's favorite target.

"You just put the ball up anywhere near him and he'll make a play; he's so big it's hard to miss him," Lawrence said. "Whenever we needed a big conversion, [Monte] got the job done."

Taylor did just that in Week 3 against Bowie. With the game deadlocked at 7 late in the fourth quarter, Flowers faced a fourth-and-long from around midfield.

At the snap, Lawrence rolled out of the pocket and looked for an open man upfield. He saw Taylor breaking across the middle on a drag route. The quarterback quickly lofted up a high, sailing pass that no one had any business corralling. But Taylor stopped dead in his tracks and leaped, fully extending his 6-4 frame. He came down with the catch in-between two defenders.

"If there's a play that needs to be made, I want to make it," Taylor said. "I see myself as a clutch player."

Playing in a power, run-first offense, Taylor didn't have an exorbitant number of opportunities to show what he could do. But he more than made the most of his chances.

Taylor hauled in 15 passes for over 200 yards and -- get this -- seven touchdowns. That's right, almost half his catches resulted in a trip to the end zone. (Not to mention he had seven sacks and around 30 tackles from his customary defensive-end position). How's that for clutch?

But now that he's proven himself capable, the expectations have been raised. Mayo, who vows to open up the offense, is expecting an All-Metro type season from Taylor.

Scouts, meanwhile, want to see him sharpen the edges in order to become a complete tight end.

"His top end speed is the big question mark," Farrell wrote. "He needs to get a bit quicker and more explosive."

Taylor, a happy-go-luck teen who has been criticized for his work ethic in the past, is buckling down. He's lifting twice a day and running several times a week. He aims to lower his 40-yard dash time into the 4.5-second range.

But the real question here isn't about speed. Speed answers only a portion of Mayo's original question:

Can Monte Taylor be player? Or is he just a pretender?

Well, let's let the game film decide.

Late last season, with Flowers' playoff hopes on the line, Taylor was thrust into one of those career-defining moments. The Jags were trailing powerhouse Roosevelt, 26-19, midway through the fourth quarter. Flowers was in desperate need of a score or they'd risk never seeing the ball again. But on perhaps their final drive, they had to convert a fourth-and-11 from their own 35-yard line.

A few weeks earlier Flowers had implemented a tight-end screen, specifically designed to get Taylor the ball out in space. Knowing Roosevelt would bring an all-out blitz, Mayo called for a play-action fake with his big tight end leaking out in the right flat.

Lawrence sold the fake perfectly. Then he gunned a pass to Taylor, who caught the ball in stride, broke a tackle and rumbled 22 yards for a first down. Three plays later, the Jags scored the go-ahead touchdown.

Flowers 27, Roosevelt 26.

So, Coach . . . Player? Or Pretender?

"He has all the tools you look for in a Division-I player," Mayo said. "With his abilities, be can be right up there with the best we've had at Flowers."


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