Running back Lorenzo Taliaferro was the last player to walk off the Ravens’ practice field Saturday, holding an upbeat conversation with coach John Harbaugh following the end of a rookie minicamp.
It was a meaningful moment for the fourth-round draft pick from Coastal Carolina (Myrtle Beach, S.C.) considering that academic problems in high school nearly derailed a promising football career.
Growing up in Williamsburg, Va., Taliaferro was ruled academically ineligible for his sophomore season at Bruton High School. A low grade point average cost him potential scholarship offers to Virginia Tech, Connecticut and Temple. Taliaferro attended Lackawanna Junior College in Pennsylvania before enrolling at Coastal Carolina where he became the Big South Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
During the final day of the NFL draft when the Ravens selected Taliaferro with the 138th overall pick, the 6-foot, 230-pounder graduated with his sociology degree.
“That meant a lot,” Taliaferro said. “By messing up in high school academically, I told myself once I got to college I wasn’t going to have any mess-ups. I didn’t fail one class in college, and I’m the first one in my family to get a degree.
“My mom was a hard-working single-parent, and she definitely wanted me to follow through with my education. I made the commitment to do what I had to do. To be here now with the Ravens, to have coach Harbaugh telling me good things about what I’m doing, it’s very exciting.”
Talent was never a question surrounding Taliaferro, who caught the attention of the Ravens during the Senior Bowl all-star game.
He was an all-state running back in high school who rushed for 1,678 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior. It was just a matter of whether he would qualify academically to play in college.
“Zo was hard-working, listened well and bought into what we wanted,” Bruton coach Tracy Harrod said. “When I first got the job, people were telling me there’s this kid who’s a good running back with some academic issues. If we could get him straight, then he’d be a heck of a player. We sat down with him and he had a great junior year and an outstanding senior year.
“Things started to improve in the classroom and he went to junior college and made the best of it. I praise him for realizing what he had to do. He never stopped believing even when things were a little rough and he was on a long road. He grew up, became a mature man and I’m proud of him. I always knew he could play football at a high level. He worked his butt off to get to the NFL.”
When Taliaferro arrived at Coastal Carolina, a Football Championship Subdivision school, there was little time to waste with just two seasons of remaining eligibility after graduating from junior college.
After operating in a complementary role as a junior, Taliaferro was the featured back as a senior when he rushed for 1,729 yards and 27 touchdowns. He effectively ran inside and outside, caught 23 passes for 153 yards and two scores and provided a blocking presence.
With 4.54 speed in the 40-yard dash, Taliaferro was rarely caught from behind unless a defender had a good pursuit angle.
“The thing that stood out to us the most was how versatile Lorenzo was,” Coastal Carolina offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said. “He could run between the tackles with power and catch the ball. He’s got very good linear speed for a guy that size. Once he turns the corner, little guys bounce off of him or jump on his back and he carries them. He’s a 230-pound guy who’s tough and stood his ground. He was a guy who could stay on the field and do whatever we needed him to do. He was a lead blocker in two-back sets. He was great to coach.
“He’s structured and soft-spoken. He doesn’t say a lot, but he does have a presence. He’s not a big rah-rah guy. Because of his size and the way he carries himself, he doesn’t have to talk a lot to make a point. Especially at our level, sometimes a guy who’s a really good player can sometimes be hard to deal with because they’re a little entitled. That was not the case with him. He bought into the whole concept of grinding out every day.”
Besides becoming an All-American, Taliaferro also hit the books and was determined to earn his degree. Patenaude said the star running back was usually around a 3.0 grade point average.
“He’s not a natural in the classroom, he’s not a guy who could not study for a test and get B’s,” Patenaude said. “It was a maturity thing. As he got older, he understood the value of getting his degree. He didn’t necessarily take it for granted that he would have that opportunity to play at the next level.”
Now, Taliaferro has a prime chance to contribute as a rookie to a running game that ranked 30th in the NFL last season.
Starting running back Ray Rice is facing a potential NFL suspension under the personal-conduct policy due to a felony aggravated assault charge stemming from a domestic violence incident at an Atlantic City, N.J. casino involving his fiancée, whom he later married.
And backup runner Bernard Pierce is out until training camp after undergoing rotator cuff surgery in January. Both Rice and Pierce were unproductive last season as the Ravens had the worst rushing season in franchise history.
“This is a fantastic opportunity, being that I’ve made it to an actual team that was struggling in the running game last year,” Taliaferro said. “The fact that they brought me in means a lot to me personally.
“I think I’ve looked decent so far. There are a lot of things I need to improve on besides just running the ball. I got to get everything down, pass protection, routes and the playbook. I’ve just got to continue to work.”
It’s difficult to judge Taliaferro based on non-contact drills, but he certainly didn’t look lost during his first NFL practices.
Taliaferro ran with authority and caught the football cleanly, drawing positive reviews from Harbaugh.
“I thought Lorenzo was very smooth running the ball,” Harbaugh said. “He did a nice job picking up the aiming points and the reads. He looks like he is a big guy, a downhill guy. I was very impressed with what kind of shape he is in.
“There is not an ounce of fat on him, and he is 230 pounds. Very good at pass protection. I thought he showed excellent hands and get-away ability on his routes when he went against a linebacker.”
Harrod has already made plans to drive up to Baltimore to attend Taliaferro’s games.
He says he’ll be surprised if Taliaferro doesn’t make a quick transition to the NFL.
“I’ve told him, ‘Man, just looking from the outside at the circumstances, you have to be ready to play and you have to be more mentally tough than you’ve ever been in your life,’” Harrod said. “I think he’s geared up. In October, November and December when it’s cold, you’re going to need that big guy to pound it up in there. They’ve got a kid who can run the football in between the tackles that’s willing to block.”