He was not highly recruited but never doubted that he could find success playing football at Kentucky.
“I always believed in myself. It was never about proving anybody else wrong. It was about proving me right. I thought I had the capabilities to be a really good player and put in the work and time to make that happen,” said Kentucky defensive lineman Calvin Taylor, a fifth-year player out of Augusta, Georgia.
The 6-9, 300-pound Taylor was all-state in basketball at Augusta Christian High School — he once guarded Zion Williamson in an AAU event — and his team won a state title his senior year. However, he also had 46 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two quarterback sacks and one fumble recovery his senior football season when he caught the attention of UK coach Mark Stoops and his staff.
“He was one of those guys we came across late. He had that length you love and are looking for,” Stoops said. “He had great size. We knew if things did not work out on the defensive line he probably would make a heck of an offensive tackle (a position he also played in high school), and he probably still could.
“He has developed so well on the defensive line. What I really love about him is that he is constantly worrying about what he has to do on a daily basis to improve.”
Stoops admires how Taylor didn’t let the fact few schools knew about him impact the player he has become for the Wildcats (he started the final nine games last year and has 18 tackles in five games this year).
“He has come in here and become a heck of a player. He’s getting better every opportunity he gets. It took time for him to develop but that’s what makes me so proud of Calvin, and he has become one of the leaders on our team,” Stoops said.
Maybe no one enjoyed the Kroger Field atmosphere when UK played Florida more than Taylor.
“When I first came here and talked to coach Stoops he said we are really going to change this around. Everybody thinks things about us, but we knew we could change the program around. This is what I signed up for,” Taylor said. “I so appreciated BBN for coming out and supporting us that way.
“I just work as hard as I can and when I got the opportunity, I wanted to make the most of it. I have come a long way. I have never been like an individual accolades type of guy. I just want our team to win. If you don’t win, you can’t ever give yourself a good grade because you play to win.”
Taylor says there is a “lot more” he can still do to improve this year and a “lot of stuff I can tap into” to play a more complete game. Yet just what he has done so far has everybody back in Augusta, Georgia, “very proud” of him.
He was one of the few bright spots for UK in last week's loss at South Carolina. He had seven solo tackles, one quarterback sack, one tackle for loss and forced a fumble.
“I just want to show the young kids from where I am from that there is a way out and you could be here, too,” Taylor said.
A mission trip to Ethiopia through UK Athletics with Ordinary Hero with teammates Landon Young and Boogie Watson in the spring also helped change his perspective — something he admits helps when things are not going right.
“That’s one of those things that was a life-changing thing. Maybe before I took that trip I would have reacted a certain type of way to losing, but that changed my perspective,” Taylor said. “It is another day and we are blessed to be here even if you don’t win. I am just taking that and moving forward. I still want to win. Don’t doubt that. It’s just I can accept things better because of what I saw and learned on that mission trip. I won’t ever forget those lessons I learned.”
After Kentucky’s 24-7 beatdown at South Carolina last week, criticism was leveled at UK coach Mark Stoops and his players since it was UK’s third straight loss. Not only was it a third straight loss, but it was a second straight loss where UK really was not competitive physically.
Yet former UK quarterback Reese Phillips, who transferred to Montana to finish his career, took to social media to remind fans not to jump ship.
“Coach Stoops is the greatest thing to ever happen to Kentucky football. If you even whisper about getting rid of him you’re clinically insane,” Phillips posted on Twitter.
Another former player, running back Anthony White, was not calling for Stoops’ departure. However, White — like several other former players — didn’t mince words about UK’s dismal performance.
“There is nothing to be positive about on that game,” White said. “This is a program that I thought had turned the corner who looked like it forgot it had a game to play.”
White normally provides answers for fans wers on Sunday Morning Sports Talk on WLAP Radio in Lexington. But not after the South Carolina fiasco.
“I look at that game and just can’t figure out what happened. There are no answers for why Kentucky played like that,” White said. “I apologize (to listeners). I do not have answers because I don’t know what we saw. I am waiting for answers just like you all.”
Kentucky fortunately has a bye week before facing what has become a must-win game Oct. 12 with Arkansas if UK wants to become bowl eligible again this year.
Oklahoma traded for former Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander during the offseason but also brought in veteran Chris Paul, a former NBA all-star. However, Oklahoma Thunder general manager Sam Presti said while Paul can mentor Gilgeous-Alexander, the former UK star is also his own man.
“One thing Chris has already done is he's built really good relationships with the entire group. When we first acquired him, that was one of the first things he did was get a lot of numbers for the different players and galvanized the group. The guy really understands every aspect of the game and the profession, and he's really got it locked in. Pretty impressive,” Presti said.
“I think everybody on our team can pull something from him. But Shai is his own guy, and he's a talented guy, but as we've all seen, like young players, they go through ups and downs. They go through a lot of adversity. I would think Shai will be no different.”
Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 10.8 points, 3.3 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game last year while shooting 47.6 percent from the field (36.7 percent from 3-point range) and 80 percent at the foul line.
Presti understands Gilgeous-Alexander needs time to grow and mature with the Thunder.
“If you're constantly checking the temperature, that takes away the ability for people to stretch themselves and try new things, and everyone is just trying to play within a box because they don't feel like they can — because they're being like evaluated for more or less playing time every single time, you're not going to get the best version of them,” Presti said. “So I think we have to understand that there's going to be times where Shai might have a bad stretch of time.
“But like that bad stretch of time could be the catalyst for a stretch of time that's really good that's twice that amount of time. So we've always tried to take that vantage point on our players and player development.”
Green getting stronger
Kentucky sophomore Blair Green says she’s is stronger than last season after “trying to hit it hard” in the weight room during the offseason.
“My ball handling, my shooting are better, too,” Green said. “I have been trying to get a lot of shots up and just working on getting to the basket and being more confident. It’s going to be good.”
Green said the summer workouts were fun but competitive with other sports teams at Kentucky.
“Women’s basketball wants to outwork everyone and show our strengths but everyone on the other sports teams is very impressive. It’s just fun to enjoy each other and work hard at the same time,” Green said.
The UK sophomore said her team tries to dominate workouts but that’s not easy.
“We can do pretty well but gymnastics’ upper body strengths is incredible. To watch them do some of the moves they do is unbelievable,” Green said. “Everyone challenges each other, everyone works hard. We all have what we can do better than others but they also have stuff they can teach us.”
She likes going to watch the volleyball team but admits she really enjoys gymnastics.
“It’s cool watching gymnastics because I could never flip and watching them out there doing amazing things is something else,” Green said.
Smith surprises Lawson
It’s not easy to surprise Kentucky softball coach Rachel Lawson but freshman Rylea Smith of Missouri did exactly that during UK’s exhibition play.
“She was excellent,” Lawson said. “I knew she was good but she was really outstanding. If not getting RBIs, she was leading off with a triple or something like that. She is strong and fast and has the potential to be the best leadoff hitter we’ve had at Kentucky. What she did on the field at Michigan was just outstanding.”
Kara Dill is the best leadoff hitter Lawson has had at Kentucky. However, Smith — who hit above .500 all four years in high school in St. Louis — is the fastest player in UK’s freshman class, and Lawson says she can bunt, hit for power and play multiple positions.
Dill, now a Texas A&M assistant coach, started her UK career in 2009 with a 15-game hitting streak and ended her career with 201 hits, 57 stolen bases, .330 career average and 119 runs scored. She was a two-time all-SEC pick.
“Kara was fast and incredibly good but Rylea has a wide skill set,” Lawson said.
Lawson lost her top three players — third baseman Abbey Cheek, shortstop Katie Reed and catcher Jenny Schaper — off last year’s team. All were four-year starters and hit in the top three spots in the batting order last season. Yet Lawson says this team will have more diversity to create more matchup issues for opponents.
Lawson also expects to have a deeper pitching staff. Kentucky swept a three-game exhibition series from Michigan — an annual top 25 team — even though junior pitcher Grace Baalman didn’t throw at all and senior Autumn Humes pitched only a few innings. They were UK’s top two pitchers last year.
“We have two freshman pitchers (Sloan Gayan and Miranda Stoddard) who had no fear at Michigan,” Lawson said. “They are going to help make us stronger in the circle, which is more characteristic of Kentucky softball. Grace is great, but we have to keep her healthy. At the end of her first two years she was not 100 percent. At the SEC Tournament last year she couldn’t throw. We had a chance to win the SEC tourney last year if we had had depth in our pitching staff.
“The pitcher I was most impressed with was sophomore Meghan Schlarman. Her work over the summer was outstanding. If we had to play right now, I would say she is the best pitcher on our staff. She is throwing hard and understands the mental part of the game. She’s our hardest thrower.”
Sophomore Tatum Spangler could play every position and Lawson says she is the team’s best overall defensive player. Freshman infielder Emmy Blane of Christian County has a strong throwing arm and did a “great job at shortstop” that impressed Lawson.
“I think this freshman class overall will turn some heads because it is one of the best recruiting classes we have ever had,” Lawson said. “We also are going to have a ton more left-handed hitters. We look a lot faster overall.”
Quotes of the Week
No. 1: “I am a very sociable guy, so whenever I am around people that are sick or have problems and can’t wake up and go play basketball, I want to show them a good time and enjoy it. I love doing that,” Kentucky freshman basketball player Tyrese Maxey on what he enjoys charitable endeavors so much.
No. 2: “He’s just practicing like everybody else. We are trying to get him up to speed in all aspects of the program. He’s getting more in tune with the defense so when he gets in there he can contribute. I’m just not sure when that will be,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops on transfer linebacker Xavier Peters.
No. 3: “He is such a solid guy. The more I find out and the more I know I am so on his bandwagon. I talk to people around here and all I hear is what a great coach he is and how good a man they have at the helm of the program,” Anna Maria Tarullo, sports director at WOWK13NEWS in Charleston, West Virginia, on West Virginia coach Neal Brown, a former UK player and offensive coordinator.