Potomac High School football coach Ronnie Crump had been trying to convince recruiters that they should pay more attention to Tavon Young. Towson University offered Young a scholarship, but no other school had, and Crump said the process was like pulling teeth.
When Crump took Young to a Temple football camp the summer before the player's senior year, he hoped the cornerback would do enough to stand out among 600 kids. Crump watched Young settle in with the rest of the defensive backs and then left to see another one of his players.
"By the time I got back to that side where the defensive backs and wide receivers were, all I heard about was Tavon Young," Crump said. "He basically shut down every receiver that coaches were looking at. Two days later, he got the [Temple] scholarship offer."
The opportunities haven't always come immediately for Young, but he's wasted no time in seizing them when they do. That was true at Temple, where Owls coach Matt Rhule says Young "helped change our culture maybe more than anyone else." That's been the case so far with the Ravens as Young has started three games as a rookie fourth-round pick and has not been overwhelmed in matchups against proven speedsters DeSean Jackson and Antonio Brown.
Young did such a commendable job against Brown on Sunday that Ravens coach John Harbaugh, heeding the advice of linebacker Terrell Suggs, awarded him a game ball following the Ravens' 21-14 victory.
"It felt good, but I know I need to keep pushing and get better every week," Young said following Tuesday's practice. "I need to move past that."
With Shareece Wright still dealing with a hamstring injury, Young is expected to get another start in Thursday's primetime game against the Cleveland Browns at M&T Bank Stadium. In eight games, he has 25 tackles, two passes defended, two interceptions, a fumble recovery and a 63-yard two-point return of a blocked extra-point attempt in Week 2 at Cleveland. His ball skills, work ethic and competitiveness have stood out to Harbaugh.
He might have impressed his teammates most, though, in how he responded to getting beat by Odell Beckham Jr. for a decisive 66-yard touchdown pass in the Ravens' Oct.16 loss to the New York Giants. Young, who ran into safety Eric Weddle on the play, took accountability for the touchdown. He then returned to practice the following Tuesday like nothing happened.
"I could tell when we drafted him, my first day practicing with him in camp and in OTAs, that he was a Raven," veteran safety Lardarius Webb said. "Just with how he bounces back — he's a fighter. That's the type of guy you want. He gets up and competes. He'll never back down from a challenge."
Growing up in Oxon Hill in Prince George's County, Young dabbled in several sports, but athletics were hardly an obsession. His father played high school football. His mother was a cheerleader. Tavon played a couple years of recreational football, but he gave up the sport — at least the organized version — for much of his adolescence. He honed his ball-hawking skills in neighborhood pickup games where his friends starting calling him "Ed Reed" because he always seemed to be getting interceptions.
Young played his sophomore and junior seasons at Frederick Douglass High in Upper Marlboro before transferring to Potomac in time for his senior season. There, he joined a team that included Florida State recruit Ronald Darby, a Buffalo Bills 2015 draft pick; and Dondre Echols, who became a standout sprinter at South Carolina. Crump said nine players from the team got college scholarships.
Surrounded by so much talent, Young didn't stand out too much, and that was fine with him.
"He has a reserved personality," Crump said. "Sometimes you didn't even know he was in the room. You wouldn't even know he was in the building."
There was also the matter of his size. Young had the speed — he was on a 4x100-meter relay team at Potomac that set a state record — but he was just 5-foot-9. There weren't too many Division I schools lining up to offer scholarships to undersized cornerbacks.
"At first it did bother me," Young said about people questioning his size. "But it's just football. If you can play, you can play. That's how I've always looked at it."
Embracing coaching in college
Young started two games and had two interceptions as a true freshman at Temple, but his first year at the Philadelphia school challenged him. He didn't respond well to coaching and the Owls' struggles on the field made matters worse.
"Coaches would cuss at me and I didn't take that lightly," Young said. "I didn't talk back to them, but it was just my demeanor. As soon as [Coach Rhule] came in, he brought me into his office and laid the rules down. He said, 'You either cooperate, get better or change your ways, or you'll be gone.' So I changed."
Young made so much progress that by his sophomore season — Rhule's first at the helm of the Owls program — the cornerback was helping to lead defensive back meetings and breaking down game film with coaches. Young was so respected by his teammates that before the 2014 opener, he was voted to wear Temple's No. 1 jersey, awarded to the team's "toughest player." The Owls made a four-win improvement from 2013 to 2014 and then won 10 games and went to a bowl game in 2015.
"He's one of the most competitive players I've ever been around and that competitive nature doesn't just lend itself to going out and covering Antonio Brown. That's how he goes about getting better every day," Rhule said. "He's a guy that studies the game, loves the game, studies himself. He made it cool and acceptable and fun for guys to want to get coached."
Young started 32 of 48 games in four seasons at Temple, had seven career interceptions and 127 tackles and scored two touchdowns. As a senior, he shut down Notre Dame wide receiver and Houston Texans first-round pick Will Fuller. But when it came time for the draft, some teams didn't have Young on their draft board because of his size.
"There are some teams that won't draft a [cornerback] under 5-11, 6-foot," said Rhule who believes Young had first-round talent. "He landed in a great spot. The Ravens are obviously a team that knows defensive personnel as well as any team in the National Football League."
An 'Ozzie Newsome-type player
Surrounded by family and friends, Young watched the first two nights of the NFL Draft at the D.C.-area house of his godmother, Cydni Bickerstaff, the daughter of longtime NBA coach Bernie Bickerstaff. He didn't expect to go any earlier than the third round, but he grew frustrated when he saw some defensive backs he believed he was better than going earlier. When Crump left Bickerstaff's home following the end of the third round, he predicted that Young wouldn't be on the board much longer and mentioned that his former pupil was an "Ozzie Newsome-type player."
With the first of his five fourth-round picks, Newsome, the Ravens' general manager, selected Young. After getting the call, Young and his family and friends immediately hopped in their cars and drove to M&T Bank Stadium to attend a Ravens draft event.
"It was almost like a presidential parade," Crump said.
Crump admitted that sitting in the stands at M&T Bank Stadium this past Sunday and watching Young match up against Brown, one of the game's most prolific receivers, was surreal. He marveled at how far Young had come.
Five years earlier, Crump had a hard time garnering interest from a college program in the high school senior. Three weeks earlier, Young was victimized by Beckham for a game-winning touchdown. He learned much from both experiences.
"He loves the game and we love everything he brings to our team," Ravens safety Eric Weddle said. "His confidence, his energy and he has a quiet demeanor that kind of calms everyone when we are out there."