An NFL Prospect's Journey From Majority-White School to an HBCU
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes the school matters more than the sport.
By Ray Glier
Alex Taylor was not looking for his rightful role as an NFL prospect when he transferred from Appalachian State in 2017. He was looking for something to prevail over the notion that football was his identity. Taylor was looking for a cultural fit, a place to feel more relaxed, an abatement from the industrial complex of Division I football.
“It was a business at App State,” Taylor says. He takes great care not to demonize Appalachian State or its fans or his former teammates or his coaches. It wasn’t about them, anyway. It was about him.
He transferred to South Carolina State, a historically Black university in the overlooked Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, something outside the White-led world of football, so consumed with the bottom line. He even quit football. And yet, he still ended up smack dab on the radar of the NFL, as big as business gets.
“I didn’t expect this,” Taylor says. “I didn’t go looking for it.”
He can be nasty at times, but I want him to be a more consistent butthole.
Offensive line coach Na’Shan Goddard, on Alex Taylor
Taylor is one of the most intriguing players available for the 2020 NFL draft because he is a 6-foot-9 tackle with a basketball player’s agility. Taylor has a 7-foot-2 wingspan and steers edge rushers out away from the quarterback with his long arms and fierce grip. He is physical enough to shove defensive linemen into a pile-up to create space for a running back and nimble enough to scoop off the defensive lineman and block the linebacker.
Every NFL team has come to watch his film or watch him play. Scouts, who have had to detour from the usual prospect hot spots at Clemson and the University of South Carolina to Orangeburg, come away enthralled by his athleticism at 311 pounds. They have gotten whiffs of an A-plus personality too. “Size, length, great feet,” says one scout. “There’s a lot to like. You don’t see it often in this combination.”
Taylor will get a chance to match up with players from upper-echelon teams at the closely scrutinized Senior Bowl in January. Scouts there are going to try to find out if he left App State because he does not like competition. He will look them in the eye and settle their concerns that he was too soft for Division I football and the NFL.
“It’s just more homey here,” Taylor says. “Football players, we were more the minority there at App. Here, outside football with the guys, we can kick it. I’m just more comfortable here. That’s all.”
Black athletes are often thrown into a predominantly White institution and made to adapt. And when they don’t, the world thinks it’s their fault. Taylor adapted by fleeing to the HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). He still has pals at App State. One hour after South Carolina State pummeled Howard, 62-21, on Nov. 9, Taylor was in the car driving 40 miles to Columbia to see App State play South Carolina. “Those are still my guys,” he says.
“There was no racial animosity,” Taylor says. But the key difference? “The Black athletes were typically the only Blacks on campus.”
The other difference at South Carolina State, at first, was the game: Taylor returned to his first love of basketball, averaging two points and two rebounds in 28 games as a reserve. But when he injured his right knee and found it difficult to jump, Taylor suddenly didn’t have basketball anymore.
Offensive line coach Na’Shan Goddard spotted a despondent Taylor in the weight room not long after. “What’s wrong, big boy?” he asked. Taylor explained about the knee. “Man, you don’t have to jump to play offensive line,” Goddard replied. “Come on out to football.”
In the ensuing 2018 season, Goddard noticed plenty of rust, but he also watched Taylor take long strides that had nothing to do with his height, and a lot to do with his diligence. By year’s end, he had earned a scholarship, and word was getting out. Scouts started to flock to Orangeburg, not just because of the size, but the upside. Taylor didn’t start playing football until he was in the 10th grade and wasn’t a varsity regular until his senior year of high school. In other words, he is raw and moldable.
“He had to find his own way, because I told him, ‘Don’t wait on nobody to give you something,’” says his mother, Allison Gadsden.
Taylor’s way went in two directions. Allison’s side of the family played basketball. His father’s side was football. Patrick Prioleau, Taylor’s father, played football at Presbyterian College. His uncle Pierson Prioleau played in the NFL for 13 seasons and is now the player personnel director at Virginia Tech. Taylor’s cousin, Joe Hamilton, was a standout quarterback at Georgia Tech.
Several family members gathered around Taylor for South Carolina State’s Senior Day on Nov. 9. They wore sweatshirts with his number, 73. On the front were the words “Stay Humble. Hustle Hard.”
Humble and hustle are not all his mother taught Taylor. She is a deputy sheriff, so there were no hijinks allowed while he was growing up in small-town Moncks Corner, South Carolina. The most trouble his mother had with Taylor was buying him clothes. “He’s a humble, gentle giant,” she says.
Of course, in the NFL, Taylor cannot be gentle. Besides working on knee bends and getting some more weight in his legs because he is so tall, Goddard says Taylor has to learn to be meaner.
“Sometimes you have to shove people out of bounds and throw them into the end zone and step on ’em and keep ’em down,” says Goddard, who played briefly for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. “He can be nasty at times, but I want him to be a more consistent butthole.”
Taylor smiles at this Mr. Nice Guy description. “People say they want that nasty out of the O-lineman, and I can do that,” Taylor says, “but I’m more of a technician trying to do my job.”
You should see Taylor do his job in open space. South Carolina State ran two screens against Howard with Taylor releasing upfield. He was fluid, balanced and fast. In today’s NFL, where linemen have to be agile, there is a definite place for Taylor. Once he took the wheel and had a clear view of football and did not allow it to dictate to him, he found his way.