Alex Taylor thought he was done with football.
Taking up the game as a junior in high school, he was soured by two seasons at Appalachian State in which he hardly played, even after redshirting as a freshman.
In 2017, he found his way to South Carolina State, an hour from his home in Moncks Corner, S.C., ready to try basketball again. But Taylor sat on the bench, partially because of a knee injury, but mainly because he wasn’t good enough to receive meaningful minutes.
But new SCSU offensive line coach Na’Shan Goddard, a former NFL offensive tackle who won Super Bowls with the New York Giants and New Orleans Saints, attended basketball games to support the program and Taylor caught his eye. Goddard was intrigued by the 6-foot-8 athlete with an 88-inch wingspan.
“I asked the coaches, ‘What’s going on with the big guy at the end of the bench?’ They said, ‘He’s kind of banged up, but he doesn’t really play that much, anyway,’” Goddard said.
The next day, Goddard ran into Taylor in the school’s lone training room and brought up football. Goddard thought they hit it off.
The relationship that meeting sparked and Taylor’s determination to find a sport where he could excel now seem like the keys that led Taylor to the Browns.
A two-year starter at right tackle and a two-time captain as the Bulldogs captured the co-championship in the Mid-East Athletic Conference in 2019, Taylor went to the Senior Bowl and was the only player from a historically black college invited to the 2020 NFL Combine. He was not drafted, but signed a free agent contract with the Browns and participated in the team’s virtual rookie minicamp last weekend.
Gerald McCully, the Browns scout who called Taylor with the news, had been his offensive line coach at Berkeley High School during Taylor’s senior year.
“I told a couple scouts, ‘This dude has improved so much in so little time, all he’s going to do is improve more and more and more given the type of resources the NFL has,” Dayton native Goddard said by phone Thursday. “I am so confident he’s going to do such a good job with the Browns. You’ve got Scott Peters as the assistant, you’ve got [Bill] Callahan as the head O-line guy. He’s going to soak up all that knowledge like a sponge.
“I just hope they’re patient with him and give him that year or two to be on the practice squad to develop like he should. The goal is to make the team, but if somebody gives him that year or two in their system, he’s going to be a really good one.”
Taylor has NFL bloodlines. His uncle Pierson Prioleau played safety for 12 years in the league and was also on the Saints 2010 championship team. Taylor’s cousin Joe Hamilton, a quarterback at Georgia Tech, was a seventh-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2000, lasting one season.
Taylor could take the same path as another undrafted South Carolina State product, the late Orlando “Zeus” Brown, a beloved right tackle who spent 1994-95 and 1999 with the Browns and played six more seasons with the Baltimore Ravens.
SCSU coach Oliver “Buddy” Pough sees Taylor more in the mold of Brown’s son Orlando Jr., a third-round pick out of Oklahoma in 2018 who started 14 games for the Ravens last season and was a Pro Bowl replacement selection.
At the combine, Brown Jr. bench-pressed 225 pounds only 14 times, worst among all offensive tackles since 2000, according to Pro Football Reference. (Now 301 pounds, Taylor proved stronger than Brown Jr. in Indianapolis, with Taylor getting in 21 reps.)
“If you had seen that kid, we recruited him in high school, he was weak as all get-out,” Pough, a former SCSU offensive lineman, said of Brown Jr. “I was trying to talk him into walking on. Tennessee pulled out, I thought I had a great opportunity, and Oklahoma shows up and takes him. I couldn’t believe that they took this guy.
“He’s come on and he’s a helluva player. It takes a while for some of those guys. If they’ve got the athleticism, you can make them stronger. You can’t make them an athlete if they can’t do anything.”
Taylor said his mother’s side of the family had roots in basketball, his dad’s in football. One of his great grandfathers was 6-foot-11. But Pough said Taylor didn’t have much of a choice of sports when he got to South Carolina State.
“He wasn’t good enough to play college basketball,” Pough said Thursday. “We were just drooling over him and he’s out there on the bench. It was crazy. He finally came to his senses.”
Taylor remembers how much Goddard and Pough wanted him.
“They all came after me right when I got there on campus. ‘Come out and play for us.’ I was like, ‘Nah, I just left a school and the sport,”’ Taylor said. “I wasn’t trying to hop back into it that fast. I wasn’t even expecting to go back, to be honest.”
Taylor said no one convinced him to make the switch, but two weeks into camp he knew he’d made the right decision.
“That whole situation was more so me, an internal thing,” Taylor said during a Thursday phone interview. “I had a lot going on when I left App State with me personally. I had a lot more growing up to do.
“I was pretty good at [football] and I haven’t even played that long. I never knew how good I could be at it, [so] why not go back and give it a shot. First off, I don’t just give up on things. But it was more so that in football I knew I had a great chance of making it to the next level.”
Pough wasn’t so sure about Taylor’s chances of that at first.
“I had no thoughts he would be worth two cents,” Pough said. “He’d lost all this weight trying to be a basketball player … 30, 40, 50 pounds. It was a pretty good indication of how mentally tough he was as far as the discipline aspect that he could stop eating. He could go from one direction to another based on what he was trying to accomplish.
“I thought he’d walk off after a day or two, especially after we did some of the contact drills, trying to figure out if anybody’s got the real desire to be there. He hung around and kept getting better every day. Midway through camp, I actually began to buy into the fact he might actually stick it out. About a week before his first game, he was starting.”
Taylor is realistic as he joins the Browns, calling himself a “developmental type of guy” and knows the work that lies ahead. But Pough believes in Taylor now.
“If they’ll give him a chance to grow into things — understanding, strength and conditioning — just give him a chance to grow up a little bit … down the road a piece in a year or so, they might have a great one,” Pugh said. “The guy has gotten more out of what I thought he’d get from where he started to where he is now than I ever could have imagined.
“Seeing him at the combine with those guys lifting and running around, he belongs. And that was a helluva group of offensive linemen, those guys were outstanding. He was right in the bunch there.”