As soon as Indiana junior Reese Taylor was reminded of a time when the ball was in his hand, he flashed a smile.
“I miss it a lot,” he said. “When the ball’s in my hand, it just feels natural.”
These memories aren’t so old. Just three years ago, in this exact month, Taylor was behind center for Ben Davis, racking up touchdowns for a soon-to-be state title team.
He was olé-ing pass-rushers in the backfield, two or three at a time. He was zipping upfield, or reversing field, on heroic runs. He was standing tall in the pocket — as tall as he could at 5-foot-11 — and delivering well-timed, perfectly-placed footballs to his receivers.
Of course, he smiled. He can smile even wider now, because, in the years since Taylor won Mr. Football in 2017, it was reaffirmed by NFL No. 1 pick Kyler Murray that elite quarterbacks don’t have to be 6-feet tall.
It’s an intriguing fantasy, the ball back in Taylor’s hands. But he didn’t indulge it long. Taylor instead recalled sitting down with IU coach Tom Allen during the recruiting process. They talked about converting his short-area quickness into a pass-disrupting weapon. That could be his avenue to college greatness. Maybe the NFL.
He chose corner. And this season, more than ever, it appears Taylor chose wisely. He has burst into backfields, chasing down a sweeping Rutgers rusher, and sacking a fleeing Michigan quarterback. Taylor has posted a team-high 15 tackles in his last two games, and that’s two more than he totaled in the entire 2019 season.
So he might smile for a moment when he’s reminded of those Ben Davis days, but it fades into seriousness when Taylor reiterates he wanted this. He was willing to give up the control of being a quarterback for a position that’s read-and-react. And if he didn’t react to questions about quarterbacking this way, IU cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby might correct him.
“Hopefully when you asked that question, he said only a few seconds,” Shelby said, bluntly, “and then he came back to reality and realized he’s a corner.”
But it’s fun to reminisce. Those plays under center are also instructive as to who Taylor is.
He’s just a competitor.
Mike Kirschner, who coached Ben Davis to its 2017 title, takes recollections of Taylor back to sixth grade. It starts with the Indiana Elementary Football Association title game, when the Junior Giants were lined up against kids from Hamilton Southeastern.
“I’m not making this up,” Kirschner said as he set the scene, just 1:24 left. Hamilton Southeastern just pulled ahead. Taylor, behind center, drove his squad to the 20-yard line. And this is where it gets crazier.
Taylor booted to his left — and remember, this is a sixth-grader — and he threw a pass across his body to the back corner of the end zone. About a 35-yard bomb. He hit Broc Thompson, now a receiver at Marshall, for the game-winning touchdown.
Kirschner’s recollection turns even more surreal. The longtime high school coach went up to this sixth-grader, telling him, “That was pretty impressive.”
“Thanks, coach,” Taylor said, nonchalant.
Kirschner thought to himself, “That’s it?”
“It was just ‘This is what I do, and I’m going to do it because we’re going to win,’” Kirschner said.
Taylor just oozed confidence, competitiveness, and talent. When he arrived at Ben Davis, Kirschner could have utilized that combo a myriad of ways. By sophomore year, he was the Giants’ starting quarterback.
Kirschner allowed his best player to drill with corners infrequently, just to be ready in an emergency, and Taylor’s short-area quickness flashed as he zoomed to their end of the field. He loved the one-on-one nature of those battles, corner versus receiver.
His competitiveness knew no bounds. Give Taylor a basketball in a random pickup game with coaches, and he’d drive to the rim, tenaciously.
“It was cut-throat. It wasn’t just a pickup game,” Kirschner said. “I can’t chase you, dude. I’m 60.”
Taylor didn’t spare defenders at QB, either.
“It was just natural to me,” Taylor said. “I feel like I was in control of the offense — not saying I have more power over them, it just made me feel like I could control the game, I could control the speed. I liked that.”
He was in complete control. Kirschner recalls legendary Ben Davis coach Dick Dullaghan’s reaction as he watched Taylor at a summer camp, spinning footballs with perfection. They asked for a right-shoulder throw. Taylor put it on the right shoulder, every time.
Dullaghan, who won 213 games at Ben Davis from 1984-2003, proclaimed Taylor was perhaps the most accurate passer he’d ever seen. Sure, Taylor scored 55 touchdowns on his way to a state title and Mr. Football in ’17, but he also completed 72.6 percent of his throws that year. And the Giants dropped a few balls.
Regardless, Taylor was labeled an “athlete” in recruiting. High-major programs offered, including IU, Minnesota, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Iowa, but Kirschner wondered why others didn’t. Probably because when they stuck Taylor between a door frame, he wasn’t taking up much space.
“He’s 5-10. He’s the same height as Kyler Murray,” Kirschner said. “His feet, his vision, his knowledge. I don’t think there’s any question he could have played quarterback.”
Not many colleges wanted Taylor at QB. At the same time, neither did Taylor.
“Funny thing is, he never saw himself as a quarterback. He understood why he was playing quarterback, because he was good at it,” Kirschner said. “But if you asked him to play corner, he couldn’t run over there fast enough.”
IU coach Tom Allen wanted the athlete and the competitor. He’d worry about the rest later.
“You get them on the bus and then you figure out which seat to put him in,” Allen said. “But I felt he had the chance to be an elite corner in the Big Ten.”
In Taylor’s magnificent bursts of playmaking, Allen saw the feet of a defender. He came to Taylor’s workouts at Ben Davis, as well, gauging the width of his shoulders. He also looked at Taylor’s calves. Allen believed more weight could be added to that frame.
Allen likes to recruit prep quarterbacks and running backs, regardless of what position they are projected to play. The best athletes get the ball in high school. IU running back Stevie Scott was looked at as, potentially, a linebacker. But Scott wanted to keep running. So IU let him.
Taylor made the opposite choice. He was tossed into the QB room as a freshman because of injuries there, but he remained firm in his desire to play corner at IU.
“You try to recruit, in my mind, as many running backs and quarterbacks as you can,” Allen said. “The thing people don’t know, and you don’t always know with a quarterback, is how is he going to take the hits?”
Evidence within those highlight-reel plays at Ben Davis suggested he could. Kirschner will recall one run versus Warren Central in 2017, when Taylor was about to score, and a defensive back was inbound.
“Reese lowers his shoulder and flatbacks the kid and stands over him, like he’s saying, ‘Don’t try to tackle me,’” Kirschner said. “When you watch that, you get a sense there’s no fear of the hitting part.”
There was more fear in the coach than the player. Taylor wasn’t allowed to participate in tackling drills during high school practices. He didn’t return kicks, either. He was a quarterback, and Kirschner had more than enough athletes to do the rest.
So Taylor had to prove it all at IU. There was a learning curve, but even by his sophomore season, Allen was mentioning in press conferences, proudly, that Taylor was a physical player. Fearless.
He just had to learn the position, and there were setbacks. After that momentary switch to quarterback as a freshman, a hand injury sidelined Taylor early in his sophomore campaign.
“Three years at quarterback, he never got dinged. He never missed a snap,” Kirschner said. “That was tough on him, mentally. He was fighting through the fact he couldn’t do what he wanted to do.”
Luckily, Mr. Football kept his cool. By the end of his sophomore season, he started making plays, including a game-sealing interception at Maryland. On the cusp of the 2020 season, sophomore corner Tiawan Mullen was talking about the extra work he was putting in with Taylor, working release drills after practice.
When the season kicked, Taylor took off. He flashed short-area quickness as he chased down Penn State’s return man for a tackle at the opponent’s 5. He showed a little sizzle with the ball in his hands as a punt returner, sparking a scoring drive with a 21-yard zip. His momentum just seemed to build from there, recording team-high tackling performances in IU’s next two wins.
He may cut down a ball-carrier, then revel in a burst of celebration. It brings to mind the third play of the 2017 state title game, when Taylor ran to one sideline on a counter, then reversed field completely, zooming down the other sideline for a touchdown. What’s familiar isn’t the play itself, because Taylor doesn’t have the ball. But Kirschner recalls questioning his quarterback as he came to the sideline, thinking he’d be tired.
“Are you all right?” Kirschner asked.
“I’m just having fun, coach,” Taylor answered.
He’s having fun now, too. Just in a different way.
“He has a great knack to be a leader, he has great change of direction, and he has those abilities that hopefully give him the opportunity one day to play at the next level,” Shelby said. “I just want him to lock in at the corner position, know the playbook in and out. He has that toughness. You saw him hit the run last week in an amazing way.
“Now we just have to make sure we do a great job of keep refining it, keep getting better.”
Taylor, smiling about the old days, doesn’t forget he’s a corner. He wasn’t going to be the QB of this team, anyway, with Michael Penix Jr. at the helm.
But Taylor, the competitor, makes clear he wasn’t shying away from Penix in his choice: “I’m not saying I’m backing down from Mike,” Taylor said, “but I knew he was a great quarterback, and I knew he could take us far.”
The competitor lives. So do those memories of the ball in his hand, shifting speed, and single-handedly altering the course of a game.
Now he’s reading and reacting. But doing that with 10 other players, all in sync, feels pretty good, too.
“I just like having the ball in my hands, I feel like I can make plays,” Taylor said. “But me at corner, I feel like I can still do that, because we still work together on defense, and we all have our own voice. I feel like at cornerback, I can do the same thing.”