GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As impressive as true freshman right tackle Jawaan Taylor has looked this season, Florida coach Jim McElwain wants to keep him humble and striving to get even better.
So when asked about Taylor’s highlight-reel blocking two weekends ago against Missouri, McElwain wanted to first point out that the rookie still makes his share of mistakes.
“He still makes a lot of, you know, (you) kind of scratch your head a little bit. But then you realize the guy hasn’t played a ton either,” he said.
With that noted, though, McElwain also couldn’t deny the impact Taylor has had up front for the Gators, especially in that win over Missouri as he was knocking defenders to the ground and clear onto the sideline while helping pave the way for Florida’s season-best 287-yard rushing performance.
“At the same time, his energy can be infectious and when you see it is when he gets out in that open field,” McElwain continued.
The story has been told about how Taylor was too out of shape at one point when the Gators gave him a look in recruiting, that he heeded the message and dropped a significant amount of weight to get back on their radar and eventually find his way to Gainesville.
It’s clear now, though, that Florida got quite a find with the 6-foot-5, 340-pound freshman.
Just ask his teammates.
“Yeah, true freshman and he’s playing like he’s about to go to the next level, that’s amazing to see,” running back Mark Thompson said.
Said quarterback Luke Del Rio: “He’s a freshman, you forget that. He’s just mauling guys. He’s blowing them off the line and he’s telling us, ‘Run behind me.’ OK, if you keep blowing guys off the line like that then of course we’re going to run behind you.”
Taylor is No. 7 on Pro Football Focus’ latest ranking of the top freshmen in college football.
He’s making it hard not to take notice at this point.
While McElwain is no doubt correct that Taylor has some natural freshman flaws and hasn’t been perfect, there were at least a couple moments in that Missouri game where those watching had to nudge the person next to them to make sure they saw the devastating block he had just delivered.
Perhaps the most notable one came on Florida’s second offensive series when Taylor leveled Missouri defensive back John Gibson to the ground to help clear out space for a 10-yard screen pass to wide receiver Antonio Callaway.
Again late in the third quarter Taylor manhandled the overmatched Gibson, pushing him well into the sideline to help spring running back Lamical Perine for a 31-yard pick-up on a screen pass.
Like McElwain said, Taylor has been at his most dominant when he gets to the second level and sends would-be tacklers to the turf to clear out space on that right side.
His teammates have a good time during their film review rewatching those big hits, and Taylor isn’t shy about basking in his highlights either.
“He puts them on his Snapchat. I don’t know if you follow him on Snapchat, but he’ll put them on there,” right guard Tyler Jordan said.
Added Thompson: “When you see someone that’s 300-plus pounds down there laying them out, it’s like, ‘Oh wow. He’s doing something crazy.’ So I’m just happy that Jawaan is playing the way he’s playing.”
For all the griping by fans about both the play of the offensive line and recruiting efforts at that position, the Gators have found a gem with Taylor.
It’s not just the Snapchat-worthy blocking, though.
Jordan lauded his linemate for his mature approach and ability to shake off a bad play and immediately refocus.
Meanwhile, veteran left tackle David Sharpe says he was worked closely with Taylor and been impressed with his commitment off the field.
“Just his work ethic. Me and him, we always go upstairs and watch film and stuff. Just how (committed) he is with the o-line, learning his plays and the right technique. He’s learning early, so he’s got a good head start,” Sharpe said.
The play of the offensive line has been a fulcrum of discussion regarding this Florida team. The unit takes a lot of the blame when the offense struggles — from McElwain to the media to fans.
And the group is far from a finished product. Of the Gators’ eight false start penalties against Missouri, six came from the line (one by Taylor, three by Sharpe and two by Fred Johnson). Those miscues eat at McElwain and with good reason.
But there were positive signs in that last game as well, as the Gators enjoyed some of their best running lanes of the season and managed 15 runs of 7 yards or more (seven to the right, six to the left and two up the middle).
Del Rio praised the entire offensive line and noted that he felt they were coming together as a cohesive unit. Jordan echoed that sentiment.
“I think it is becoming more of a brotherhood each week,” he said.
And to that point, Taylor has made an impact in that regard.
Maybe his most important impact, for that matter.
“He’s awesome to have next to you,” Jordan said. “… If he makes a good block he’ll start getting hyped up and it gets me hyped up and it gets everybody else hyped.”