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It started with just a test run for Leonard Taylor.
The Miami Hurricanes’ beatdown of the FCS Central Connecticut State Blue Devils last month was the perfect opportunity — for both Taylor and pretty much every other yet-to-play freshman — to get a first taste of college football. It went smooth enough: He recorded tackles and then he got another chance five days later against the Virginia Cavaliers
Against tougher competition and with greater responsibility, Taylor was even better. He had a half sack and 1 1/2 tackles for loss, and was on the field for Miami’s most important defensive possession in the fourth quarter.
“I did what I did,” the 6-foot-3, 305-pound freshman said Tuesday. “I feel like I can do more.”
A handful of injuries opened the door for Taylor against Virginia — defensive lineman Jared Harrison-Hunte and Jordan Miller were out with undisclosed injuries — and he made the most of his chance. Two days later, Diaz told WQAM that Taylor was now “in the rotation” and ready to keep playing for the Hurricanes.
Harrison-Hunte and Miller were back at practice this week, but Taylor will still play a role Saturday at 3:30 p.m. when Miami faces the North Carolina Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
“He’s in the mix,” Diaz said Oct. 4. “He can only grow.”
It was only a matter of time for Taylor to carve out some sort of opportunity for the Hurricanes.
Taylor was the top-ranked recruit in Miami’s 2021 recruiting class, a five-star prospect and the No. 11 overall player in the 247Sports.com composite rankings for the Class of 2021, and one of the highest-ranked players the Hurricanes (2-3, 0-1 Atlantic Coast) have ever landed. He had offers from virtually every top program in the country and Miami beat out the Florida Gators to land his commitment last year. He got to campus in the spring and impressed from the very start of training camp, drawing rave reviews from coaches and a promise he would join the rotation at some point early in the year.
It took less than a month. Taylor didn’t play at all in the Hurricanes’ first three games, with Diaz and defensive line coach Jess Simpson frequently saying he was getting “close” to cracking the rotation. In the final two weeks of September, he became a fixture, culminating with a 21-snap performance against the Cavaliers.
“I can play more snaps now because I’m more comfortable with what I’m doing. The coaches have a little more trust in me,” Taylor said. “I wasn’t too comfortable with the playbook. Now that I’m learning the playbook more, I know what I’m doing when I go out on the field.”
His natural ability has been immediately evident.
In the fourth quarter of the their 30-28 loss to Virginia last month, the Hurricanes needed one final stop to give their offense a final chance to drive for a potential game-winning score and Diaz trusted Taylor be on the field.
On second-and-5, Taylor burst into the backfield and dropped Cavaliers running back Wayne Taulapapa for a 1-yard loss. Virginia punted two plays later and Miami drove into field-goal range, only to miss a short kick as time expired.
As a senior at Miami Palmetto, Taylor was one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the nation, piling up 23 tackles for loss and five sacks in seven games, and he has felt comfortable in this aspect since the start. His bigger challenge was figuring out how to defend the run.
“It’s not like high school where they throw me out there and I do what I want,” Taylor said. “You’ve got to play your assignment, play your gap right, taking on your defender. There’s a lot more to it.”
When Taylor couldn’t get on the field in the first few weeks of the season, Simpson pointed to the same areas to explain why. Taylor, he said, frequently won his 1-on-1 matchups in practice and often looked unblockable, but he too frequently blew assignments when the scope grew to 11-on-11.
It was a pretty standard trajectory for any highly touted freshman: While the high-end talent can flash from time to time, freshmen need those moments to eventually outweigh the natural freshman mistakes.
For Taylor, it took a lot of film study and the natural progression of a first season. A little more than a month into the season, the balance has swung in the right direction for Taylor. It should only get better from here.
“I’m just going to keep striving for greatness,” Taylor said, “basically keep perfecting my craft.”