Center Will Taylor’s improbable path to Blue Devils starter

The Duke redshirt junior was told he may not walk normally — he’s now snapping to his  childhood friend

Duke center Will Taylor has overcome a career-threatening injury to man the middle of the Blue Devils' offensive line. (Photo courtesy of Duke Athletics)

The best advice Will Taylor ever received came from his father, Marty.

“I remember, the first day I got injured, he asked me how you eat an elephant,” Taylor said. “I told him I didn’t know. He said, ‘One bite at a time.’”

That was during Taylor’s freshman year at Duke. He’d just suffered a knee injury that doctors believed was career-ending.

“I tore my LCL and my peroneal nerve,” he said. “I had foot drop (a problem with his step when he walked, due to nerve damage) and needed two surgeries. I was basically told it wasn’t sure if football was going to be in my future. The first goal was to be able to walk and run normally again.”

Taylor listened to Dad, and on Saturday he will start at center for the Blue Devils for the sixth straight game.

The process of going from a goal of walking normally to playing ACC football was obviously a long one.

“I still see stuff like that pop up on my Snapchat memories,” he said. “Especially now, at the start of the season, I see a lot of those: the first time getting back on the treadmill; getting in the pool, being able to move my legs around. It’s nice to be able to look at that and see how far I’ve come.”

Taylor got the starting job thanks to another knee injury, this one to All-ACC candidate Jack Wohlabaugh, who tore ligaments in the preseason. Taylor was thrust into the starting lineup last season after another Wohlabaugh injury.

“I feel comfortable,” he said. “This is my fourth year doing this. I feel like I know the offense. I know what I’m doing. I feel strong out here. With my past injury, it wasn’t something I thought about last year — you can’t think about that — but I feel like it’s the closest to my original prime as I could feel. I’ve just been pushing through it. I feel strong, mentally prepared.”

Taylor has plenty of familiar faces around him as he continues his improbable Duke football career. His twin brother, John, is also on the team. While Will was a recruited scholarship player for the Blue Devils, John came as a walk-on and eventually worked his way up the depth chart. This season, he is the long snapper for Duke on both punts and kicks.

“John’s done a tremendous job,” quarterback Chase Brice said. “He just got put on scholarship. We’re super stoked about that.”

Why is the team’s new quarterback taking time to discuss the long snapper? Because Brice grew up with the Taylor twins in Gwinnett County, Georgia. All three were teammates at Grayson High.

“We’ve been playing together since seventh or eighth grade,” Will Taylor said. “But T-ball goes back even farther than that. We’ve been on the same teams and in the same county all our lives. It’s tough to replicate that chemistry. I feel comfortable with him back there.”

Taylor and his brother are a big part of the reason Brice is back there, behind the Duke line, this season.

“When they had committed (to Duke) out of high school, I was super excited for them,” Brice said. “That was a school that I had in my mix before I committed elsewhere (to Clemson). When I decided and thought about transferring, I definitely texted them first just to see their thoughts on how they enjoy Duke, just kind of get some insight. When I came on my visit, I stayed with Will and John and went out to dinner with them, got to hang out with the offensive line. We had that connection and rekindled that friendship we already had.”

Now that Brice is on campus, he’s leaned on the Taylors to help ease his transition.

“It has helped,” he said, although he admits he doesn’t run into Will much outside of football. “We’re kind of on different sides of Duke, in a way. I’m in grad school. He’s got his own classes. We don’t really see each other a ton. When we’re here (in the football building), when we get a chance to eat together, it’s just like when we were back in high school, pregame meal before a Friday night game. We just kind of cut up. We like to check in on a lot of our friends to see how they’re doing, get back to how things used to be. It’s been great.”

Get back to how things used to be, before Taylor was told he might not walk again and shouldn’t think about playing. It’s been a long, unlikely process. And there was only one way to make that trip:

“For the past four years,” Taylor said, “I’ve just been going one bite at a time.”