TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – During an era in which receivers are bigger, faster and stronger than ever, it’s not always easy being a 5-foot-10 defensive back.
But Levonta Taylor has made a habit of playing bigger than his size suggests he could. And, just in case he needed some extra inspiration, he’s got a list of Florida State defensive backs – all of them under 6-foot – who blazed the trail that he’s now walking.
Taylor, a sophomore cornerback who measures 5-10, 169 pounds, said Wednesday that he’s modeled his game after former FSU stars Greg Reid and Lamarcus Joyner. With a little bit of the taller Deion Sanders mixed in for good measure.
“That’s why I chose Florida State,” Taylor said Wednesday. “Because they had DBs at my size that played and were All-Americans. That was a big reason I came here.”
Reid (2009-11) and Joyner (2010-13) are fine examples to follow.
The two were among the most electrifying FSU defenders in recent memory, with a combined 15 interceptions between them and a combined average of more than 24 yards per kick return.
More than that, though, Reid and Joyner often found themselves looking up at opposing receivers – they both measured just 5-foot-8.
If they could play at a high level – both literally and figuratively – at FSU, Taylor believed he could do the same.
“A lot of (NFL) GMs are looking at bigger cornerbacks,” Taylor said. “But that’s why every time I touch the field, I want to play bigger than I am. So I can turn a lot of heads.”
FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said that Taylor has spent spring camp doing just that.
Bouncing between the traditional cornerback position and FSU’s “star” hybrid spot, Taylor has made an impression with his toughness and intelligence.
Fisher believes Taylor to be well-suited for any number of roles in the Seminoles’ defense, and where he lines up this fall could be determined by FSU’s opponent and game situation.
“He loves the game, will do anything,” Fisher said. “Very coachable. I mean, I’m very happy with him.”
Taylor is happy, too, after a freshman year that he admits was tough at times.
A former five-star prospect from Virginia Beach, Va., and the No. 1 cornerback recruit in the nation, Taylor arrived at Florida State with heavy expectations for himself.
“I had plans to come in and try to be a freshman All-American,” he said. “Have big things going on.”
But a series of slight injuries limited Taylor’s production and he finished with a modest 16 tackles and one pass break-up.
Nothing to scoff at – especially given that he contributed three tackles and a momentum-shifting tackle for loss in FSU’s Orange Bowl win over Michigan – but also not enough to satisfy a player who forced 10 turnovers during his senior year of high school.
“It hurt me a lot with injuries, so last year was a really sad situation for me,” Taylor said. “But I had to man up and just sit back, take a look back and just relax and just tell myself everything happens for a reason.”
Along the way, Taylor found his reason: Slowed by injuries and behind a handful of more experienced players on the depth chart, Taylor devoted himself to learning FSU’s defensive playbook and understanding the ins and outs of each position in the secondary.
Which is why he can now effortlessly move from one role to another while competing for a starting job.
As for which spot he prefers, Taylor isn’t yet sure. He said he “loves” playing cornerback, but, after watching the way Joyner thrived at the star position as a senior in 2013, Taylor likes the thought of following in those footsteps, too.
“You’re blitzing, you’re covering, doing a lot of man-under type of deals,” Taylor said. “I like playing star. I feel versatile. Lamarcus Joyner played it. Ty Mathieu played it at LSU. There’s a lot of great guys – Jalen Ramsey played it, too. So, you’re going to be in a lot of great situations to make plays.”
Fisher is confident that Taylor will be making plays no matter where he lines up.
“He’s a very gifted corner,” Fisher said. “He’s not a big guy, but he’s not a little guy. At the same time, you have to be special. And I think he’s one of those little special guys that can play the game and has great instincts.”