Robert Taylor isn’t alone. He’s not the first Washington State student who’s made a costly blunder on the Pullman campus and he certainly won’t be the last.
Here’s the difference: There was no mulligan available for Taylor when he committed his first “college mistake.” At this stage of a young person’s life, poor decisions are often met with a slap on the wrist. Then they’re swept under the rug.
But Taylor couldn’t exactly lay low – 33,000 people were watching in person and thousands more saw it play out on television.
In the third quarter of the 2016 season opener against Eastern Washington, Taylor came sweeping across the field and laid a jarring hit on Eagles receiver Shaq Hill. By almost every other measure it was the ideal football play, but the WSU defender made the fatal flaw of leading with his helmet – the crown of Taylor’s helmet collided with Hill’s facemask – and the nearest official whipped out a yellow flag.
Taylor was ejected, EWU marched half the distance to the goal line and Gage Gubrud connected with Cooper Kupp for a touchdown on the next play, moving the Eagles two scores clear of the Cougars and one touchdown closer to another FCS-over-FBS upset at Martin Stadium.
“It’s just not a very smart play by a young man back there,” offered one Pac-12 Networks commentator.
Taylor, who’s his own biggest critic, concurred.
“Stupid play by me,” he said earlier this week after a practice in Pullman. “First college game, I’ve got to be smart. I was just out there trying to make a play. … Now, it’s either, you go up to get the ball or find a different way to hit him. I didn’t need to see it more than a couple times to know what I did wrong.”
Without the suspended Shalom Luani, the Cougars were already down one safety in the opener and even when Luani returned the following week, WSU didn’t have the depth it probably would’ve liked in a loss at Boise State. Taylor’s ejection cost him 30 minutes of football in that game, too.
“So what happens is you’re kind of out of the plan the next week because, like anything, you’re fighting, scratching, clawing to win football games,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “If you had the magic plan, you’re going to (get ejected) in the first half.”
Not much went according to plan for Taylor early on. The City College of San Francisco transfer had spent fall camp learning the ins and outs of cornerback. Luani’s suspension meant a sudden move to safety.
“So that’s a tall order and then all the sudden you get into game week and he’s thrust into a safety position and was removed from the game for a targeting violation,” Grinch said. “So it couldn’t have been more of an odd start to a season, but beyond that he played good football.”
Taylor started nine games in 2016 and playing “center field” for the defense soon became second nature. He recorded 61 tackles – including one for loss – two pass breakups and recovered three fumbles. His value as a kick returner was befitting of someone who still goes by @Runitback–Rob on Twitter.
Taylor returned 20 kickoffs for 433 yards and made the first house call of his career at Arizona State, taking a kick from end zone to end zone in a 37-32 win over the Sun Devils.
This season, Taylor will again anchor one of the two safety spots, along with sophomore Jalen Thompson. Grinch is positive “his best football’s in front of him.”
And his worst mistake is behind him.
“I’m always hard on myself, but I learn quick,” Taylor said. “That’s one of the things I picked up through this process and going from school to school. You’ve got to learn quick and just play the next play.”