Washington defensive back Keith Taylor Jr. (right) breaks up a pass intended for Houston wide receiver Marquez Stevenson during the Senior Bowl on Jan. 30, 2021, in Mobile, Ala. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

Washington defensive back Keith Taylor Jr. (right) breaks up a pass intended for Houston wide receiver Marquez Stevenson during the Senior Bowl on Jan. 30, 2021, in Mobile, Ala. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

Former UW cornerback Taylor turning heads

The defensive back’s stock could soar for the NFL draft after a standout performance at the Senior Bowl.

By Mike Vorel / The Seattle Times

Keith Taylor is not a sleeper.

At least, not anymore.

Until last month’s Senior Bowl, NFL scouts might have understandably overlooked the former University of Washington defensive back. After all, in four seasons and 43 career games in Seattle, the 6-foot-3, 195-pound cornerback failed to snag an interception. He was never once named an All-Pac-12 pick, unlike fellow secondary starters Elijah Molden and Trent McDuffie. He was not as nationally renowned as Molden or McDuffie or Taylor Rapp or Byron Murphy or Budda Baker or Kevin King or Sidney Jones, etc. He was 195 pounds of physical potential that never quite achieved his predecessors’ production. Plus, he played in a conference suddenly seen as second-rate.

But at the Senior Bowl, accolades were irrelevant. Taylor lined up against supposedly superior wide receivers.

And, over the course of a week, he woke everybody up.

“I never want to come out and say I’m the sleeper or whatever, but I feel like I most definitely did have something to prove,” Taylor said this week. “My college career didn’t go exactly the way I wanted it to. Having no picks and nothing like that, I didn’t really have that flashy career.

“But I just wanted to go out there and show them that I could play, and I think I did a pretty good job of that. I feel like I can go up against anybody, no matter what conference they’re in. I think I proved myself pretty well.”

In the annual all-star game Jan. 30, Taylor finished with two tackles, one pass breakup and 0.5 tackles for loss. After forcing an incompletion in the end zone intended for Clemson wide receiver Cornell Powell, NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said “that’s just another phenomenal job by Keith Taylor Jr., who’s having a really big-time game. It’s hard to find corners that size, that can move like that.

“He’s so fluid, and to be able to find and locate and play the ball is a bonus. You don’t find 6-2 corners that can really run and play down the field like that.”

But Taylor wasn’t done. Early in the fourth quarter, he deflected a deep ball from Wake Forest quarterback Jamie Newman, allowing Pittsburgh safety Damar Hamlin to descend on a diving interception.

“But Keith Taylor is the one who makes it happen,” Jeremiah said. “I don’t know that I remember a better game from a corner in an all-star game than what Taylor has done today. He’s been outstanding.”

Still, when it comes to Taylor’s expectations, outstanding wasn’t enough.

“I did want to come away with an interception, so I’m not super satisfied,” he said. “But at the same time I still think I had a very solid week. I felt like I improved a lot as well — locating the ball and trying to go get those interceptions whenever I could. I came up short, but it is what it is.”

Apparently, it was enough to warrant a GameStop-like surge in Taylor’s draft stock. Last week, NFL.com analyst Chad Reuter produced a mock draft that sent Taylor to the Dallas Cowboys in the second round, with the 44th overall pick. A quartet of former UW defenders — defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike, outside linebacker Joe Tryon, Taylor and Molden — could conceivably be selected in the first 60 picks.

Some of Taylor’s ascendance can be attributed to former Seahawks safety Will Blackmon, who has provided pre-draft position work in Irvine, California.

“I met him back in the summer. I did a little workout with him, and I felt like he’s the perfect guy to train with, because he’s really just teaching football every single day,” said Taylor, who also undergoes strength training with former St. Louis Blues strength and conditioning coach Eric Renaghan. “Every single day (Blackmon) has a tip for me about receivers in the league, about different drills and what they’re used for, things like that.

“He’s just football smart. That’s something I really need — even in the film room, going over NFL defenses, improving my mental when it comes to thinking about football.”

For a potential second-round pick with soaring draft stock, Taylor is refreshingly transparent about his own shortcomings — about a college career that fell short of his own high standards. But he also feels he can exceed those standards in the NFL.

“I don’t think it was a hard decision at all (to leave UW), honestly,” Taylor said. “I just felt it was time to move on from Washington and play at the next stage. Because I felt I was ready mentally and physically. So I figured, why not give it a shot? I understand I had the option to come back, but I felt like there was no reason to do so.”

Perhaps, at this point, there’s less reason than ever to sleep on Keith Taylor.

And, while you’re at it, don’t go sleeping on the Dawgs.

“All I’m going to say is, don’t sleep,” Taylor said, when asked what to expect from the 2021 Washington Huskies. “That’s the only thing I’m going to say. Because I know coach (Jimmy) Lake is going to get those guys right. I know (strength and conditioning coach Tim) Socha and staff is going to get those dudes right in the weight room, mentally preparing them for the season.

“There’s going to be some fun years to come watching coach Lake coach those guys up as a head coach. I will for sure be watching.”

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