GAINESVILLE, Fla. — So about that nickname, Florida sophomore right tackle Jawaan Taylor has finally cleared up the official spelling.
“My mom named me Jawaan after one of the basketball players, Juwan Howard. They spelled it their own way, but just growing up, they just started calling me Waany. W-A-A-N-Y,” Taylor said this week. “That’s how it originated. So ever since then everybody’s been calling me that.”
However the spelling, the imposing right tackle certainly became a household name for Gators fans last fall while seizing the starting job by the third week of his true freshman season.
Not only has Taylor emerged as a foundation piece with Florida looking to take its offensive line play to the next level in 2017, but on an offense that mostly struggled last season the bulldozing blocker became an immediate fan favorite while knocking defenders off their feet.
As fans griped about the offensive line coach, the offensive coordinator, the play-calling, the quarterback play and any other number of criticisms, Taylor was an undeniable bright spot and frequent target of praise from the coaching staff, teammates and those outside the program alike.
Quarterback Luke Del Rio dubbed him “The Great Wall of Waany” before Taylor had even made his first official start.
“It was just a great feeling, a dream come true. It was just like the best feeling in the world,” Taylor said of all the positive feedback that accompanied his debut season. “It just told me that I need to work even harder and not settle and not get comfortable, just keep working hard.”
Taylor’s comments came after Florida’s final spring practice Wednesday, as he conducted his first interviews with local media since arriving on campus. Gators freshmen aren’t made available to reporters, outside of the open locker room mandated after the SEC Championship Game, and so the big right tackle had plenty to discuss.
The story has been told before, about how Taylor came to a summer camp at Florida before his senior season of high school and was told the Gators wouldn’t offer him a scholarship unless he lost a significant amount of weight.
Former offensive line coach Mike Summers and head coach Jim McElwain touched on that last fall, praising the commitment Taylor showed from that point forward, dropping the pounds, earning that scholarship and then forcing his way into the starting lineup as a true freshman.
‘One day the light came on’
Looking back Wednesday, Taylor explained how he went from 383 pounds at that camp to losing more than 50 pounds to make everything that was to come possible.
“They told me in order to get the offer I had to lose weight, so I went home, I worked out three times a day, got with trainers and stuff and I had dropped 52 pounds so I came back at 331,” he said. “I played through my senior season, the day before my birthday I got an offer from Florida and ever since then, once I signed, it just took off from there. …
“It wasn’t hard. If you just stay with a strong mind the whole time it worked out so I just stayed with a strong mind and just cut down eating habits, stuff like that, so it ended up working out for me.”
Robert Taylor, Jawaan’s father, offered a little more perspective to the process.
“Oh man, that was crazy. The whole thing was a real amazing path and feat,” he said. “I would always give him 100 percent real (talk), this is what is going to be expected of you. Some kids, it takes them time for the light to come on, and one day the light came on. This kid, it was amazing. He would leave home, he would go work out early in the morning, then come back and go do field work with his uncle, agility work, then he’d come back home and go to the gym at night. His whole everything changed. …
“He dropped that weight, I mean, it was a matter of months. He was working like crazy. It was unreal, and you can see the transformation.”
‘Man, your son is doing so well’
The other transformation that followed was in the size of Taylor’s profile.
While Taylor was taking over as a starter for the third game last season and piling up a highlight reel of pancake blocks throughout the fall, his parents started noticing that they couldn’t wear their “Taylor 65” shirts without everyone wanting to chime in about Waany.
“I was telling my wife, ‘I don’t know if I’m wearing that shirt,’ because people were really catching on. ‘Oh, you’re Taylor’s parents!’ It was unbelievable, everywhere you’d go you’d hear about how good he was doing and how excited they were for him,” Robert Taylor said. “Games, everywhere, work, anybody that knew us and knew about Jawaan. Even today people are still talking, ‘Man, your son is doing so well.’ ”
The younger Taylor says he has done his best to tune out all that noise.
“Me, I was just ready to stay humble, I was just playing football, just playing the game I love. That’s all it was,” he said.
He maintained that weight loss and says he’s right at 336 pounds now, looking fit for his size and hoping to build on what he showed last season.
‘A switch flips on’
New Florida offensive line coach Brad Davis has been the messenger this spring for McElwain’s edict that the Gators get more aggressive up front.
That’s never been a problem for Taylor. He has a big smile and a disarming personality, but as he puts it, “Any time I come out of the tunnel just a switch flips on.”
But he acknowledges he still had plenty of room for growth overall after last season, mostly in his dedication to preparing away from the field.
He says he’s maturing in that regard, learning how to study film and hone in on an upcoming opponent, which he never had to do in high school.
Taylor may have turned heads last season, but he knows the Gators’ offensive line as a whole still has plenty of questions to answer.
“We play with a way bigger chip now than we did last season,” he said. “The offensive line is doing a great job all around this whole spring, so I feel like we’re getting a lot better with that chip on our shoulder. I feel like we have something to prove.”