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Steelers Here's the catch: Taylor is raw talent

Friday, May 02, 2003

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

At age 12, Ike Taylor chased rabbits in the field across from his uncle's home near New Orleans.

Steelers fourth-round draft choice Ike Taylor was all smiles yesterday. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

"Just for the fun of it," he said. "Got close, but didn't quite catch them."

Said Uncle Herman Francois, "The rabbit had to get a big jump on him. I mean, this kid can run."

The Steelers finally caught up to this rabbit in the fourth round of the NFL draft Sunday. They wanted a cornerback and they got a human vapor trail. Young men who stand 6 feet and weigh 197 pounds are not supposed to run 40-yard sprints in 4.33 seconds. Not many of them do, which is why the Steelers ignored Ike Taylor's inexperience and inconsistent play at the position to choose him in the middle of the draft.

Yesterday, Taylor put his famous feet on the ground here for the first time as a Steeler and blew everyone away. He smiled, he answered yes, sir, and no, sir more often than a Marine, and he left an impression that the Steelers need not apologize for drafting such unrefined ability on such a high round.

"He's a talented young man," said Louisiana-Lafayette Coach Rickey Bustle. "He's got the skills. I look at the other kid we had, Tillman, and the biggest difference is the amount of time Tillman played in the secondary. Skillwise, there's not a lot of difference."

Charles Tillman started for 2 1/2 years at cornerback for the Ragin' Cajuns, then moved to safety last year. The Chicago Bears drafted him with the third pick on the second round.

Then there's Texas A&M wide receiver Bethel Johnson, New England's draft pick on the second round. The Aggies opened against the Cajuns last season. It marked Taylor's collegiate debut on defense and he played Johnson like a fiddle. The Aggies tried to go deep on Taylor with Johnson and the first-time cornerback, playing press coverage from the line of scrimmage, squeezed the receiver to the sideline and knocked the ball away.

They tried a slant on him late in the first half when they threatened to score a touchdown, and Taylor knocked it down. The Aggies settled for a field goal and a 3-0 halftime lead. Johnson caught just one pass over him all day.

"I had him for a year," Cajuns secondary coach Gary Bartel said. "I would liked to have him three, four years because he's just going to get better and better. I told all the scouts when they came through, he'll test well, he'll run fast, he'll jump high. But you have to understand he hasn't played the game a lot as a defensive back. He's raw, you have to be willing to work with him and in time he'll be an outstanding player for you. He has all the tools."

And, in that sense, he is much like the Steelers' first-round draft choice. Southern California safety Troy Polamalu, a more polished defensive back, uses the more refined tools of woodworking as a hobby. Taylor uses all the tools of a construction worker in the summer, helping his uncle in his business.

"Ike did everything," Uncle Herman said. "There's nothing too tough he couldn't do -- hammer, nail, saw. He used to be my foreman on the job site. Ike was a very hard worker."

A rabbit in the rough and, just like Polamalu, his mother sent him out of state to live with his uncle. Polamalu went from Los Angeles to Oregon. Cara Taylor Lewis sent her son from North Carolina back home to be with her brother when Ike was 12. His two sisters, now 20 and 21, remained with their mother in North Carolina.

Taylor played football and basketball in high school but wasn't good enough to attract much attention. He went to college for one purpose.

"He wasn't worrying about football," Francois said. "He was more worried about trying to get an education. I told him, you go to school, I'll go to work."

He was academically ineligible his first two years but did not think much of playing anyway. Finally, as a junior he walked on and they put him at tailback. He filled in here and there and started three games because of an injury. He rushed for 323 yards and a 4.6-yard average but they had to reduce his playbook to three basic plays -- Ike left, Ike right, and Ike up the middle.

A new coach came in after his junior season, and Taylor asked Bartel, the interim coach, to move him to cornerback for his final season.

"He'll give you everything he has," Bartel said. "He's never tired of working, always in the weight room. He's a good person, one of the really good people it made a joy to coach."

His football learning ability has been questioned by some, but it might be the lack of experience above everything else. He has two courses to finish to earn his degree.

"That's the agreement we had with him, his mother and my wife," Herman Francois said. "He'll get it. I will make sure of that. I will guarantee anybody that."

It might be the only guarantee that comes with Ike Taylor other than his size and speed. Everything else is a promise.

NOTES -- The Steelers rookies and selected veterans will go through a minicamp today through Sunday. Five practices are scheduled, two today and tomorrow and one Sunday. ... Tommy Maddox will be the only quarterback not participating; traditionally, the starter does not. ... Maddox, the NFL's comeback player of the year, has created the Tommy Gun Foundation that will help underprivileged children to make their own comeback. It will provide support for kids in Western Pennsylvania and in the Dallas/Forth Worth area in Texas, where Maddox grew up. For information, call 817-706-0551.

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878.

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