TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Levonta Taylor has a lot riding on the upcoming football season, and he knows it.
Not only will the rising junior be counted on to lead the Florida State defense into life without several departed veterans – including star safety Derwin James – but, as one of FSU’s most experienced defenders, he could also be a central figure of the Seminoles’ transition to new coach Willie Taggart and defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett.
Then, if all goes as planned, Taylor will have a decision to make: Stay at Florida State in 2019 for his senior season or follow in the footsteps of the nine teammates who have opted to go pro a year early since his arrival in 2016.
Taylor, a cornerback from Virginia Beach, Va., recently got a front-row look at both upcoming aspects of his life at the NCAA’s Elite Student-Athlete Symposium, which took place in Indianapolis earlier this month.
Taylor joined a group of student-athletes from around the country for two days of seminars, workshops and lectures geared toward developing leadership skills and preparing players for the transition to professional sports.
On the final day, Taylor and the group – which included Florida’s Chauncey Gardner, Michigan’s Rashan Gary and Houston’s Ed Oliver, among others – made their way to Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium to observe the NFL Scouting Combine.
“Being invited to the NCAA leadership symposium was a great thing,” said Taylor, who tied for the team lead with two interceptions last year. “I got to meet new people and different players at other universities and got to bond with them – learn and experience the way they do things at their school.
“Then, being at the program itself, I learned new leadership skills to bring back to Florida State and help the team.”
The symposium, which is in its second year, touches on everything from money management to dealing with agents to cultivating the right type of presence on social media. (FSU’s James and Tarvarus McFadden were invited a year ago but were unable to attend.)
Some of the guest speakers included NCAA executive Oliver Luck (father of pro football star Andrew Luck), former Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer, NFL Players Association rep Lester Archambeau and former Cowboys Pro-Bowler Russell Maryland.
“What they’re trying to do is not just educate and inform, but also create leaders,” said Jim Curry, Florida State’s senior athletics director for governance and compliance. “At the end of the day, you want student-athletes to be equipped with all the tools, information and resources to the full extent possible. This symposium is another example of that.”
Taylor said he especially connected with Guy Troupe, who delivered a message centered on personal development and transitioning from one phase of a player’s life to the next.
Armed with a pen and paper, Taylor filled over 10 pages in his notebook.
“(Troupe) said communication is key,” Taylor said. “I feel like I connected with that, because you have to communicate in this world if you want something done.”
Soaking The Game All Up! pic.twitter.com/vg4HQ8fDLn
— Levonta Taylor (@LevontaTaylor) March 4, 2018
The symposium is aimed at elite-level juniors, and for good reason. More draft-eligible juniors and redshirt sophomores are declaring for the NFL and NBA drafts than ever before – each league set records for early entrants in their most recent draft years – and while both sports have seen underclassmen have success in the pros, each is also littered with stories of players who left school a year early and surrendered their collegiate eligibility only to flame out at the next level.
Rather than wash their hands of the problem, the NCAA’s leadership development staff sought to address it directly.
While in Indianapolis, Taylor and his peers heard from former pros and executives who relayed how to interpret draft projections, how to handle friends, family and acquaintances with ulterior motives, and how to properly deal with an agent.
They were even shown a pie chart that illustrated how, despite living in an age of eye-popping contracts, a pro athlete’s take-home pay is decidedly smaller once taxes, agent fees, union fees and other expenses are removed.
“A lot of it was really eye-opening,” said John Stephenson, FSU’s director of compliance who attended the symposium with Taylor. “I think what they got the most from it was the idea that, ‘Hey, if I do this the right way, I can make sure that I set myself up for generational wealth for my family.’ I think the guys know now what questions to ask.”
Added Taylor: “I took it upon myself to take that knowledge and use it for my future.”
Taylor, of course, has more on his agenda before he turns his focus to the NFL.
After starting all 13 games at cornerback in 2017, Taylor returns to find himself one of the more seasoned members of what will be a new-look defense at FSU. James and McFadden are both gone, as are defensive linemen Derrick Nnadi and Josh Sweat, and linebackers Matthew Thomas and Ro’Derrick Hoskins.
Which means Taylor, one of four returning starters on defense, will be asked to provide both production on the field and a strong presence in the locker room.
It’s a role that Taylor embraces, and he says that he’ll be better equipped for it after his time in Indianapolis.
“I learned a lot of leadership skills,” he said. “A lot of these guys on this football team look up to me. Seeing that, it makes me a proud teammate.”
It makes for a proud head coach, too.
“I’m happy Levonta had this opportunity and am proud of the way he embraced the experience,” Taggart said. “Levonta stood out to me almost immediately as someone who has the respect of his teammates and takes as much pride in his leadership role as he does with his performance on the field.
“The lessons he learned at the symposium will benefit him as he continues his journey but also will be beneficial to our team as we establish the ‘Do Something’ culture here at Florida State.”