By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – Shawn Griswold stood inside the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility one morning last month, addressing Virginia’s players at the end of a grueling workout. To his left, UVA’s director of football performance and development could see the disappointment on outside linebacker Noah Taylor’s face.
Griswold had been naming the players who, through their performances in testing similar to that at the NFL scouting combine, had moved up a level, thereby earning workout gear of a different color.
Some moved from white, the lowest level, to gray, others from gray to orange, others from orange to blue. (Later that week, four players moved from blue to black, the highest level.)
Taylor, a rising sophomore, had tested well in the weight room and in agility and conditioning drills, and he fully expected to be one of those promoted from gray to orange.
“But Coach Griz didn’t say my name and just moved on to blue,” Taylor recalled. “So I was like, ‘Wow, I guess I didn’t get orange.’ “
Griswold said: “He was super bummed. I could see it, because he was right to my left.”
Taylor’s disappointment was short-lived. When Griswold announced the players who would receive blue gear, Taylor was among that group. Only one other Cavalier – safety De’Vante Cross – skipped a color this spring, moving from gray to blue as well.
“Noah had a really good offseason,” Griswold said. “De’Vante too. I don’t think you’ll see [players skip colors] very often. I think you’ll kind of see a natural progression from one to the next, just because there are so many jumps. But that kind of gives you insight into how athletic Noah is.”
After graduating early from the Avalon School in Silver Spring, Md., Taylor enrolled at UVA in January 2018. His roommate that first semester was Kyle Whitten, a pitcher on Virginia’s baseball team. Living nearby were Charles Snowden and Elliott Brown, outside linebackers who had played as true freshmen in 2017.
“As soon as I came in, they welcomed me,” Taylor said.
For all of his athleticism, the 6-5 Taylor was something of a project, because of his size – or lack thereof. He weighed all of 189 pounds when he joined head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s program. By the start of the 2018 season, Taylor was closer to 205 pounds, but that’s still extremely light for an FBS linebacker.
One of 13 true freshmen to play for the Cavaliers last season, Taylor appeared in nine games, mostly on special teams. In the season opener, he coolly fielded an onside-kick attempt by Richmond, giving UVA excellent field position.
One of the games in which Taylor played linebacker – Virginia’s 28-0 victory over South Carolina in the Belk Bowl – impressed upon him the need to get bigger and stronger.
“One time I tried to pass rush,” Taylor said, “and [a lineman] just threw me out of the way. I was like, ‘I really need to get in the weight room.’ “
He’s followed through on his resolution for the new year. Taylor weighs around 220 pounds now and hopes to reach 230 by the start of the season.
“It’s a lot of work,” Taylor said of putting on weight. “It’s like a job almost.”
If he doesn’t feel full, Taylor said, then he knows it’s time to eat. Also, he said, “I’ll make sure that I have three or four Gatorade protein shakes a day. And eating before you go to sleep is the most important thing.”
Taylor isn’t the only Cavalier following such a regimen. Others include Snowden, Brown and safety Joey Blount, each of whom, like Taylor, has a high metabolism.
“They just burn through so much so fast,” Griswold said, “Those dudes are all six-percent or less body fat. It’d be nice, wouldn’t it?”
Kelly Poppinga, who coaches the Wahoos’ outside linebackers, said Taylor’s strength and conditioning gains have translated to the field.
The Hoos opened spring practice on March 25. Two weeks in, Poppinga said Taylor had “probably been the most consistent, the most productive and probably the most physical and aggressive in everything that he’s done, probably on the whole defense. So that’s been exciting to see, and I think the sky’s still the limit for that guy. I don’t think he’s even touching where he can be. He’s gotta get bigger, he’s gotta get stronger, but, man, the jump he’s made.”
Taylor said he’s noticed a difference on the field this spring.
“It’s not easy,” he said, “but it’s definitely easier to move linemen and set the edge and tackle running backs. It’s definitely a lot easier to bring them down.”
Mendenhall came to UVA from BYU in December 2015, and most of his assistants, including Poppinga, followed him to Charlottesville.
In August 2016, on the eve of his junior season at Avalon, Taylor became the Cavaliers’ first commitment for 2018. He’d been coming to UVA for seven-on-seven camps since he was in middle school, and the new coaching staff impressed him.
“Most schools will tell you things you like to hear, like ‘You’ll play’ or ‘We’re a great school,’ ” Taylor said. “It just doesn’t seem that genuine, but when I came here, the things that they were saying and the type of culture they had, it wasn’t fake. They weren’t just selling me things to get me to come here. They actually cared about me. I just knew it was the right place.”
It didn’t hurt that Taylor’s coach, first at Wootton High in Rockville, Md., and then at Avalon, was Tyree Spinner, a former UVA player. Spinner’s brother, Bryson, who coaches Avalon’s quarterbacks, also played at Virginia.
Tyree Spinner didn’t try to steer Taylor to Charlottesville. But when Taylor decided to commit to UVA, Spinner approved.
“He just said, ‘If that’s what you want, I think it’s a good fit,’ ” Taylor recalled.
As he had at BYU, Mendenhall runs the 3-4 on defense. Under Mendenhall, the Cougars had been known for their outstanding outside linebackers. And so UVA’s coaches showed Taylor film “of guys that were similar athletes and built like him that had been really successful in this scheme,” Poppinga said. “And he was athletically and physically built like those guys.”
In the 16 months between Taylor’s commitment and his enrollment at UVA, Poppinga encouraged him to gain weight, to little avail.
“Sometimes until you get into a strength program consistently and a nutrition plan consistently, and somebody’s always holding you accountable every single day, that doesn’t happen,” said Poppinga, who’s also UVA’s co-defensive coordinator.
“Coach Griz has done an amazing job with him. He’s been the one that’s kind of taken Noah and said, ‘Hey, listen, we’re going to get you bigger through the weight room and through the way that you eat and the way that you sleep and take care of your body.’ To his credit, Noah’s done a good job listening to him.”
It took Taylor a couple of months last year to adjust to the demands of college football, Griswold said. “He worked hard, he just had never done some of the stuff that we’re asking him to do. So he’s gotten a lot better at that. We do a lot of cleans, a lot of squats and we bench, and we add all the other intangibles to make them a holistic athlete. But it’s just like practice. It’s repetition, repetition, repetition, and then finally it clicks, and then you see buy-in.”
Had the Hoos not needed Taylor on special teams, he would have been an ideal candidate for a redshirt year, Poppinga said. “I look back and see what he’s doing now and I’m thinking, ‘Man, if we could have just saved him.’ But I think that game experience that he did get is going to help him for this season.”
Taylor, who was born in the Bronx, N.Y., lives with wide receiver Hasise Dubois, a rising senior from Irvington, N.J. Dubois, who frustrated the coaches at times with his decision-making in 2016 and ’17, had a breakout season last year, catching 52 passes for 578 yards and five touchdowns to help UVA win eight games for the first time since 2011.
“When I come to him with things about football, he just tells me to keep going,” Taylor said of Dubois. “He reminds me that I’m a good football player and says no matter what, keep going, and it’ll be worth it in the end.”
The Cavaliers, whose spring game is April 27 at Scott Stadium, lost Chris Peace, a mainstay at outside linebacker, but returning players such as Snowden, Brown, Taylor and Matt Gahm.
“I feel really good about those guys,” Poppinga said, “and I think we have three really good incoming [freshmen]. I think it’s going to be a really deep position group.”