LEXINGTON — As Kentucky’s strength and conditioning coach, Ray “Rock” Oliver doesn’t get involved much in recruiting. But he surely had much to do with why Justin Taylor is a Wildcat.
Taylor reopened his recruiting last winter after a knee injury earlier in his senior year led to a change in plans, and he opened the door to Kentucky because of a relationship between his high school coach and Oliver.
Alabama, to come to Kentucky.
And he brought friends. Head coach Joker Phillips and assistant coach Steve Pardue also made the trip North Atlanta High School to see Taylor, and the three apparently made an impression.
Taylor said he was surprised to see all three of them at his school.
“Yes, I was,” Taylor said Friday at Kentucky’s media day. “Then they came to my house. I was real surprised.”
Taylor said he had never met Oliver before that day last winter, but Oliver and Taylor’s coach and guardian, Stanley Pritchett, go way back. Before Pritchett’s nine-year career in the NFL, he played at South Carolina when Oliver was on the staff there.
“When Kentucky came, it was like I fit right in,” Taylor said. “We’re a family here, and I just worked hard and I got here.”
Kentucky certainly isn’t where Taylor thought he would be just a year ago, but he said he’s grateful that the Wildcats offered him a second chance after the injury changed his college plans.
“Everybody don’t get a second chance,” he said.
Taylor committed to Alabama in February 2011 after rushing for about 1,500 yards as a junior at Atlanta Washington, where Pritchett coached before moving to North Atlanta last year. Then he was injured in September of his senior year, and in January the Crimson Tide asked him to grayshirt, meaning he wouldn’t have a scholarship available until January 2013.
Enter Kentucky, which moved quickly to add Taylor to its class. He is one of only two running backs the Wildcats signed last winter at a position where they could use a little help. Four returning players split time at tailback last season thanks in part to injuries, but none ran for 500 yards.
Taylor said those veterans welcomed newbies like him into the fold quickly, and he said the group of backs has jelled well.
“When we first got here we were questioning each other, but we all connected very well,” he said. “(The veterans) told us, ‘It’s not easy, we need help.’ They told us that, so we’re here to help them.”
Like most freshmen, Taylor finds himself in an unfamiliar position of being surrounded by more talent than he has seen in one place.
“I’m not used to playing with so many running backs, but I know I’m in college, and this is the SEC. You can’t do it by yourself,” he said. “The way we put forth effort on the field is crazy. We’ve got a good group of talented kids.”
He said he’s giving his best effort to learn the offense and learn his teammates so he’ll be ready when he gets his chance.
“I just want to work hard when I get the ball in my hand. I want to get those 4 or 5 yards if I can, even more. I just want to help the team win,” he said.
Taylor said he believes that not only did he get a second chance when Kentucky came calling, but his most important asset as a running back — his legs — have a second chance as a result of his knee injury.
“I could’ve really messed up my knee. It could’ve been the end of my career. It actually helped me get my knees better,” he said. “I just did it on a tweak, I just twisted, it’s that easy. I just had to get my legs stronger, so now when I make that cut it won’t be that easy for me to tear my ACL.”
The 5-10, 200-pound Taylor said he knew it wouldn’t be easy for him to get his knee back in shape after the tear, but he knew what he had to do.
“I just talked with plenty of people who had knee surgeries, and they said, ‘Man, it’s a mind thing. If you’ve got it in your mind that you’re going to recover, then you’re going to recover,’” he said. “And I did that, and I’m 17 percent stronger (in the repaired knee) than my ‘good’ knee, and I’m ready for the fall.”
More than ready, actually, especially after he didn’t get to play last year.
“I’m so hungry. I’ve been playing football for a long time, and to sit out a season, it was so tough. I just had to push forward and I had to work, and now I’m here,” he said.
He has even been looking forward to the rigors of preseason camp, which started Friday.
“Since I first got here, everybody’s been talking about it: ‘God, it’s going to be tough,’” he said. “But this is where you show whether you want to play or not. It’s time.”