Tough spot not new position for Taylor

A difficult past has prepared the Ravens running back for Jamal Lewis' role

October 19, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

The last time anyone doubted the grit of Chester Taylor, Toledo coach Tom Amstutz says, came when the running back was a redshirt freshman.

Working with the scout team, Taylor had to essentially be a tackling dummy in practice, running into the teeth of Toledo's starting defense for short-yardage drills. But on the first snap - a third-and-two situation - Taylor gashed the defense for a first down.

Amstutz told the team to run it another time, and again, Taylor drove up the middle for a first down. Five times the first-team defense tried to stop Taylor and five times it failed.

"I remember Chester kept coming up from the pile smiling each time," Amstutz said. "He's a lot tougher than what people think he is."

Taylor's durability remains the biggest unknown as the third-year back assumes the role of Ravens featured running back for the first time in his career.

He'll be the team's top ball carrier for the next two weeks while Jamal Lewis serves an NFL suspension in connection with his guilty plea for using a cell phone in a drug transaction.

Despite Lewis' absence, the Ravens have said they will continue to rely heavily on their running game, which ranks second in the league and represents 57 percent of the team's offensive snaps.

"I really think it's time for Chester to show what he's really made of," Ravens running backs coach Matt Simon said.

Taylor, who is much smaller than Lewis at 5 feet 11, 213 pounds, has averaged only four carries a game over his brief NFL career and has not ran the ball more than 10 times in a game.

"The only question of Chester is the extended play," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "When he gets into that 20th, 25th or 30th carry, that's the one thing he really hasn't done for us. The fatigue factor you have to take into account and monitor it."

Taylor has never shied away from challenges, whether it's been in Detroit's Backstreet Projects or the college classroom.

He grew up in public housing in River Rouge, Mich., a depressed industrial town where selling drugs and shootings were a part of everyday life. More friends were headed to jail than college. Only 2 percent of the town's citizens earn college degrees.

"As far as advantages in life, he got none," Amstutz said.

But Taylor made it to Toledo despite low test scores, which made him ineligible his first year. Showing the same determination he would display on the football field, Taylor became a two-time All-Academic selection and earned a degree in sports administration before his final season.

"I'm not afraid of hard work," Taylor said. "I like the challenge. I don't like anything that's given to me."

His introduction to the NFL followed a similar, hard path.

Although he ranked seventh in the nation in rushing as a senior, Taylor wasn't selected until the sixth round of the 2002 NFL draft, the 207th player selected overall.

"I'd taken him on the first day [in the first three rounds] if somebody had told me that I get a pick," Simon said. "He would never have lasted that long. I had to hold on until we got everything we wanted and they let me have him. There was no question in my mind that I wanted this kid."

Taylor slipped that far in the draft because he doesn't have the prototypical numbers NFL teams look for in running backs.

He didn't run the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds. He wasn't 6 feet tall. He wasn't 230 pounds.

The Ravens, though, saw beyond everything Taylor wasn't.

"He has some intangibles that are very difficult to measure," Simon said. "If you were to evaluate Chester purely on vision, his numbers would be off the chart. He can see things that 90 percent of the running backs I've ever been around, including the ones in this organization right now, cannot see."

What the Ravens lose with Lewis is having a back that can break a long touchdown on any carry.

Taylor doesn't have that same breakaway speed but he can be just as elusive. His peripheral vision combined with his exceptional, short burst allows Taylor to move in and out of holes to escape tough jams at the line better than any other Ravens back.

After five games, Taylor has the best rushing average of any back on the team, gaining 5.9 yards per carry. What Taylor has to prove is the ability to produce yards over the long haul.

"That's everybody's dream: to start in the NFL," Taylor said. "I've been waiting for three years. I know I'm ready."

When asked about his durability, Taylor admits he has had fewer carries as a backup but is far from a part-time player. In his usual soft-spoken voice, the unassuming Taylor brings up his play on special teams, where he has made a team-leading six solo tackles.

"He's such a team player, but he's a strong person inside," said Amstutz, who still keeps in touch with Taylor from Toledo. "I have confidence that if his new role is to be a starter, you'll see a whole other side of him you haven't seen before."

Next for Ravens

Matchup: Ravens (3-2) vs. Buffalo Bills (1-4)

Site: M&T Bank Stadium

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 6

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