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Tough, Gritty Taylor Earns Way to Hall of Fame

By Brian Rosenthal

More than 12 years later, Adam Carriker can still vividly remember laying eyes on Zac Taylor for the first time.

Let’s just say Carriker, a first-round NFL Draft pick and second-team All American defensive end at Nebraska, never envisioned he’d one day be sharing a spot with Taylor in the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame.

“I don’t think I was overly impressed, to be honest with you,” said Carriker, Husker teammates with Taylor from 2005-06. “First thing you see is offseason drills. I saw that and was like, ‘Well I hope he passes from the pocket pretty well.’ ”

Taylor himself will admit he’s never been the most athletic player to play the sport. He wasn’t fast. He couldn’t jump high. A point-producer on Boyd Epley’s Performance Index, he would not be.

Then practice rolled around, and not only could Taylor throw a nice ball, he could absorb a hit.

In fact, he embraced contact.

“I remember him not shying away from contact in practice,” Carriker said, “and thinking, one, ‘You better not get hurt,’ and two, ‘I love you to death for it.’ ”

Taylor won over his teammates with his tough-minded approach to football. Soon after, he’d won the hearts of Nebraska fans, too, for enduring hit after hit after hit.

Every stinking time, Taylor arose from the turf, seemingly no worse for wear.

“He had the toughness. He had everything you respect in a quarterback,” Carriker said. “He wasn’t afraid to get hit, he wasn’t afraid to make the tight throw, he didn’t shy away from tough situations.”

Combine such grit with Taylor’s positive attitude, football smarts and work ethic, and you had a winning leader.

“When you design a player from the mental aspect of it, you design a Zac Taylor,” Carriker said. “It seemed to be who he was. He had to work a little harder. He had to do the glue things.”

As a result, Taylor, the 2006 Big 12 Conference Offensive Player of the Year, earned his way into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame. He’ll be inducted during Friday night ceremonies, along with former Huskers Chad Kelsay, Randy Theiss and Donnie McGhee, and former Wayne State player Brad Ottis.

Taylor’s reaction?

“Surprised. Really surprised,” Taylor told me earlier this week in a phone interview. “Just with the amount of great tradition and great players at Nebraska, I never quite saw myself in that light.

“I feel very, very honored. I understand that’s a very big deal. I take great pride in it.”

Taylor arrives in Lincoln late Friday and will attend Saturday’s game against Northern Illinois before immediately flying back to Los Angeles, where he’s the receivers coach for the L.A. Rams, who host Washington on Sunday.

Then, Taylor hopes to reunite with Washington assistant coach Bill Callahan, the former Nebraska head coach who helped steer Taylor in his career, as did Callahan’s offensive coordinator at the time, Jay Norvell.

“The way they coached me set me on a path for coaching,” Taylor said, “because of the way they taught me.”

Taylor, who ranks third in Husker history with 5,850 passing yards despite playing just two seasons at quarterback, completed 470 of 821 passes with 45 career touchdowns. He became the first Nebraska quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in a season.

“He wasn’t going to beat you with his legs or his speed or anything like that,” Carriker said. “What he was, was a heady guy, a heady player and obviously a very good passer, who worked hard in the film room.”

Taylor quickly became one of Nebraska’s most important, most dependable and indispensable players.

“It was one of those things where if he went out ... we needed him to stay in,” Carriker said. “You had all of the respect in the world for him.”

Likewise, Taylor, a native of Norman, Oklahoma, and the son of a former Oklahoma football player, developed a true respect for his teammates.

“It was just really good people, really good teammates,” Taylor said. “I’ve been on a lot of teams that I don’t think had the maturity and leadership that Nebraska has year to year compared to them.

“The make-up of the team, where everyone comes from, the influence of Nebraska kids on the team – it all creates a more mature team.”

Taylor began his collegiate career at Wake Forest, redshirting in 2002 and playing as a backup in 2003, before transferring to Butler County (Kansas) Community College. There, he earned second-team NJCAA All-America honors while leading the Grizzlies to the national championship game.

Taylor credits Aaron Flores, the Butler County offensive coordinator who’s now head coach at Coffeyville, for playing to his strengths and giving him confidence.

In the first three games of the 2005 season, Taylor and the Husker offense struggled, as Nebraska relied heavily on defense and special teams to defeat Maine, Wake Forest and Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, Taylor was 39-of-89 passing for 207 yards over those first three games. He had a sudden breakthrough in game four, a thrilling double-overtime victory over Iowa State, when he attempted 55 passes, completed 36 and threw for 431 yards – all breaking school records.

That isn’t what Taylor remembers most about the 2005 season, though.

A season-ending upset of Colorado and thrilling Alamo Bowl victory over Michigan satisfied Taylor and his teammates.

“It was a turning point and it led us into the offseason with a lot of positivity,” said Taylor, noting the 30-3 victory in Boulder was, from start to finish, the most fun game he’s played.

“I don’t ever, ever, ever listen to talk radio, but one day before that game, I happened to turn the radio on heading to class, and they were just killing us,” Taylor said. “They never gave us a chance. It was really my first time with insight to the outside, to what the fan base was thinking. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, they really don’t think we can win this game.”

In his senior season of 2006, Taylor led Nebraska to the Big 12 Conference North Division title, one the Huskers clinched with a dramatic, come-from-behind 28-27 victory at Texas A&M in the second-to-final game of the regular season.

“It’s not my favorite game, but my favorite moment was the Texas A&M game,” said Taylor, who hit Maurice Purify on a fade route from 9 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 20 seconds to play.

“I played terrible over the course of the game, but that was a great moment for all of us. I can still remember the celebration in the locker room.”

Taylor played briefly in the Canadian Football League before embarking on a coaching career that’s been mostly in the NFL, although he spent the 2016 season as offensive coordinator at the University of Cincinnati.

“There are pros to both,” Taylor said. “I really like the NFL, how professional everything is. The offseason gives you more family time, but in college, I like to recruit, to be honest. I like teaching kids.”

Taylor said his father, Sherwood Taylor, has been his No. 1 influence, and that his father-in-law, former Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman, has been his most inspirational person since beginning the profession.

Taylor has coached with former Huskers assistants/staff members Randy Jordan, Tim Cassidy and Dave Kennedy, and he’s remained in close contact with Norvell. Taylor is also close friends with former teammates Greg Austin, offensive line coach at Central Florida, and Joe Ganz, tight ends coach at Youngstown State, as well as J.B. Phillips and Dane Todd.

He’s also very good friends with Brian Callahan, son of Bill and the quarterbacks coach of the Lions, although his contact with Bill is far less frequent, maybe once or twice a year.

From 2008 to 2011, Taylor worked as a graduate assistant at Texas A&M before serving as an assistant quarterbacks coach with the Miami Dolphins. He was promoted to quarterbacks coach for the Dolphins from 2013-15, where he also served as offensive coordinator in 2015 before moving to Cincinnati last season under Tommy Tuberville, who resigned after a 4-8 finish.

“There have certainly been frustrating times. I was in Cincy one year. We didn’t have a great year for a lot of different reasons,” Taylor said. “There are frustrating times, but it’s all part of the path. It’s led me to a great place and a great role.”

Taylor and his wife, Sarah, and three children, Brooks (6), Luke (4) and Emma Claire (1) will attend Saturday’s game, along with Taylor’s parents, Sherwood and Jullie, and one grandparent from each side of his family.

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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