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December 30, 2010

Taylor reflects on Utah experience

Utah fifth-year senior Zane Taylor will end his college career very near to graduation with a degree in Health Education, as a viable NFL draft pick, and a husband. In other words, he came to Utah as a boy, and will leave a man well-prepared to handle whatever the road ahead holds for him.

"When you're a high school kid, you think you're an adult and ready to face the world. After the experience I've had here, but now I'm going to leave here a man. I've matured so much since I got here. I've learned the lessons about responsibility, teamwork, prioritizing, dedication, and commitment," said Taylor.

"It's come from my coaches, my teammates. I've had the experience to see a lot of great leaders and great work ethic come through this program. I've tried to take and apply things from everyone into my own life. There's pieces you can take from everyone that can teach you how to be successful and how to be a good person. What better way to learn than from people who have already been successful, and already good people; people of high character?"

Consider for a moment the growth and life changes that might occur over the course of any five-year stretch of anyone's life. "This is my fifth year. It's been a huge chunk of my life, and I've known for the last five years of my life is Utah football," Taylor said. "I've had some of the worst times of my life here, and I've had the greatest times of my life here."

Then add the pressures, the ups and the downs that go along with being a starter for a D-I football program. Not just any program, but one that, in the past six years has skyrocketed to national respect, two perfect BCS-busting seasons, and an invitation to join the prestigious Pac-10 conference. That same stretch in which Utah has grown, exploded, really, onto the national scene parallels the evolution and progress of one Zane Taylor and the timeline and emergence of Taylor, and Utah football is not a coincidence.

"Zane is probably the most valuable to the coaching staff as a practice player. He loves to work and grind. He enjoys that, and on the hard days, with his leadership and personality, can get the guys to work and do things the right way," explained co-offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick. "He never oversteps his bounds and he backs up what he asks with his play. He knows when to get on tough and when to back off, but he treats everyone well. He's just the kind of guy the players will follow."

For Taylor, a lifelong Utah fan, he dreamt of playing at Rice-Eccles Stadium in the Utes' crimson red. Taylor's dream was made sweeter by a 2004-05 Fiesta Bowl victory just prior to his arrival. As a highly-touted in-state recruit, his dream was not out of reach. Taylor was all-state and the state MVP at Moab's Grand County High School, which won the Utah State 2A title in his senior season. A tremendous athlete, Taylor was also a three-time state champion in wrestling, and the 2006 shot put and discus champion.

However, on a more grandiose scale, Taylor hoped to become the face, or the name most associated with the Utah football program. That particular fantasy was somehow less attainable with the program's stable of big names, flashy playmakers, and the simple fact that he was, at that time, a defensive tackle.

Once at Utah, the dream of becoming the face of the program got even harder, as he transitioned from defensive line to the offensive line, perhaps the only other position to get less notoriety than a defensive tackle. Offensive linemen aren't supposed to get the glory, fame, or credit. Offensive linemen normally remain nameless and faceless with muddied uniforms, and play through ridiculous injuries without complaint. In fact, offensive linemen seem to take a certain pride in their anonymity; wearing it as a badge of honor. Not Zane Taylor. Minus the anonymity, Taylor has done all of these things, while playing front man for his team, his family, as he would quickly correct, beautifully.

As he ends his career, Taylor is, in fact, the face of the program. Taylor, also a team captain, represented his team at the MWC media days prior to the season, and was featured prominently once again at all of the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl's media events.

"You get to a point where you've struggled through all the hard times, you maybe didn't contribute that much as a freshman, but you grind through it and then you hit a point where you are the program," explained Taylor. "I'd like to think that I'm a guy that Utah football's all about. I think I'm kind of the guy now that, if you think of me, you think of Utah football. That's something I'm really proud of. It was always something I wanted to do, something I kind of dreamed of."

Savvy, well-spoken, and always good for the all-coveted quote, Taylor fields questions about the down times, of which this team has had many in his time, with the ease of a seasoned pro. Equally, he handles the questions that come with success and high expectations just as well. Always quick to temper expectations and not let media the questions peppered at him alter them for himself, or his team. In some ways, especially the past two years, by virtue of his strength as a leader and the way he carries himself, Taylor has acted as a shield for his team, especially for his new and/or young, inexperienced quarterbacks.

"[Zane] is one of the most upbeat, positive people you'll ever meet. He's always got a smile on his face, and it's infectious," said head coach Kyle Whittingham. "His work ethic and his passion for the game rub off on the players around him. He's the best example of how to be a successful football player at the University of Utah."

Taylor's teammates lined up to sing his praises, and attempt to quantify his meaning to the team. Longtime teammate, and the one who arguably benefits most from Taylor's poise and knowledge of the game, Ute running back Matt Asiata summed it up best.

"Zane Taylor. He has all the juice on this team. He's always up, he's always going, he's our motor on offense. It all goes through him, and he's everything to us," said Asiata. "Whatever we need, he's there laughing or joking or getting everyone up. When it's gut-check time, it's him that's determined and tough and pushing us. All I can say is he has all the juice on this team."

His contributions to the team are so great, Coach Whittingham can barely fathom his Utah team without Taylor's presence. "We've relied on him an awful lot in his time here. He's the center, and it all starts there, of course. So without that solid play, leadership and the football IQ there, it's hard to succeed," said Whittingham. "More than that, his role as team leader and someone guys look up to is invaluable. It's been extremely rewarding and gratifying to watch Zane and this group of fifth year seniors to grow."

Through learning to cope with life away from home, and family, the challenges that go along with being a scout team member, learning the system at a D1 program, and adjusting to life academically, Taylor and the other 16 members of the senior class have truly gone through a growth process.

For Taylor however, the most difficult part of his time at Utah can be considered somewhat of a black hole. "My redshirt freshman year, my second year here, was rough. I had high expectations for myself. I really wanted to contribute to the program, and halfway through the season, I had played maybe four or five snaps in mop-up duty," Taylor explained. "I didn't want it to be about me, but I wanted to be part of it. At least the year before, I could say 'I was on the scout team and I contributed that way. At least some of the team's success could be traced to what I had done on the scout team, and I had given good looks to the defense.' I just didn't feel I was contributing, and that's all I wanted to do."

Since that time, Taylor has leaned on his coaches and his teammates, especially fellow offensive linemen, whom he counts among the closest people in his life. "My friends, my teammates, my best friends got me through it. I grew closer to my teammates, especially my O-line teammates. Almost all my best friends are on this team. They're family, they're all like brothers. We're all brothers," Taylor explained. "I'd do anything for any one of my offensive line teammates. I'd die for any of them."

From a coaching standpoint, Taylor doles credit out graciously to the many that have helped him grow and progress. However, two stand out the most: Utah strength and conditioning coach Doug Elisaia and former Ute offensive line coach Charlie Dickey.

"It's going to be weird working out in the off-season and not having Coach Elisaia with me, because he's probably been one of the biggest influences on me since I've been here," Taylor revealed. "He coaches hard, but he coaches fair. He really cares about everyone. He's a smart guy and he knows what he's doing. I'm going to miss being around him, and everyone, but I'm going to miss that."

In referring to Coach Dickey, Taylor would recall his role in the biggest period of growth during his career as an offensive lineman, which he would identify as the offseason between his redshirt freshman year and sophomore year. "That is the period where I definitely grew the most, because Coach Dickey had given me the opportunity to compete for the center spot because it was open after Kyle Gunther left," said Taylor. "That was my opportunity to contribute, and do something for this program. I really had to man up, because as a center you really have to know as much as the quarterback."

Grateful for the new opportunity given him by Coach Dickey, Taylor set his mind to learning everything he could about the offense, and the center position. Without Dickey's help, guidance and support Taylor may not have been able to enjoy the success or accolades he enjoys today.

"The guys that were the most influential during that time were Coach Dickey. He was patient with me and gave me the best opportunity, he set me up to succeed at that position," said Taylor. "Other guys who pushed me, and encouraged me were [former Ute offensive linemen] Zane Beadles and Robert Conley, who were huge at that time."

Certainly all of the coaches and teammates named played significant roles in Taylor's personal and on-field growth, but another important factor in those areas was then-quarterback Brian Johnson.

"Brian Johnson was like a brother to me. Especially in fall camp, and it was crunch time. It was really time to get this position down and be just as seasoned and ready to go as the veterans alongside me, and he was there for me," Taylor said of Johnson. "He helped me, he was there for me. I can't even describe how much he helped me during that time."

As a husband, Taylor now draws most of his strength and support from wife, Kemrey, who was his high school sweetheart. As such, Mrs. Taylor is long-accustomed to her husband's athletic and academic commitments. Along with Taylor's myriad athletic accomplishments, he was also active in student government during his four high school years, including acting as senior class president. Additionally, he was a National Honor Society member, which carried over to his collegiate academic career.

Taylor has been named to either the first or second Academic All-MWC team in each of his four seasons and has twice been named to the Dean's List and Athletic Director's Honor roll since arriving at Utah in 2006. Taylor's wife, who is the daughter of his high school football coach, also came into the situation understanding fully the life of a football player.

Coming from Moab, Taylor still feels that he represents his small town, where few are afforded the opportunities he has. "I do kind of feel like I represent Moab. My dad, my family and all the people there who helped me who I am today and supported me growing up. It's kind of a big deal, I'm proud of it, and I'm proud of where I'm from," said Taylor. "I do kind of think about them, my family and the town when I do things. I try to think 'would they be proud of me if I did this' and things like that. It's an honor."

Taylor is nothing if not loyal and well-grounded in his roots. Therefore, his pride in the accomplishments of the University of Utah football team is not surprising. As he looks toward the future, his thoughts will soon be shifting toward starting a family, and a potential future in the NFL. But before that, Taylor has reflected on his time at Utah, and is, in a word, grateful.

"I wouldn't trade my time here for anything. It's been far beyond anything I could have expected or imagined. I just feel completely blessed to have the experience to come to this university and play football for this program, and for Coach Whittingham and my other coaches," Taylor expressed. "I'm grateful to have played alongside the guys I have, and to call them all friends and brothers. I'm grateful."


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