CONWAY — A couple weeks ago at practice, during an individual drills period, Coastal Carolina running back Lorenzo Taliaferro turned around to take a water break and noticed three NFL scouts had been standing right behind him the whole time.
The scouts come and go throughout the week, and he really hadn’t thought much about it before that afternoon, but Taliaferro has quickly become plenty aware that his coaches aren’t the only ones watching him out on the practice field anymore.
“Definitely, I notice them coming, but I’m still a college player right now,” he said Tuesday. “Who knows what the future holds? I’ve just got to focus on everything that’s happening in front of me and everything else will take care of itself.”
Focus doesn’t appear to be any sort of problem for the 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior – not these days, at least.
Just six games into his first year as Coastal’s feature running back, Taliaferro is on track to break most, if not every single-season rushing mark in the program record books. One could even fall this week as the No. 4/6-ranked Chanticleers travel to Lynchburg, Va., for their Big South showdown with Liberty.
Taliaferro currently ranks fifth among all FCS players with 835 rushing yards, and he’s just 272 from Patrick Hall’s single-season school record of 1,107, set in 2004. His 139.2 rushing yards per game rank fourth at the FCS level and are well ahead of Hall’s 2004 mark of 100.6.
With 13 rushing touchdowns, he’s third in the country and just one behind Aundres Perkins’ 2003 team record. His 125 attempts put him on pace to blow past the program record of 179, and his current average of 6.7 yards per carry is fifth-best in team history.
And with each passing week, he’s turning more and more heads – at both the FCS level and beyond.
“They’re here everyday,” Coastal offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said Tuesday of the NFL scouts visiting practice. “I think there was four here today. I mean, there’s one here every day. Initially they were coming in to see [wide receiver] Matt [Hazel] and checking in on Matt and [fellow receiver] DeMario [Bennett], and [Taliaferro] has just had such a tremendous season and to his credit it’s all kind of worked together.
“I didn’t really envision running the ball as much as we do or as efficiently as we do because we have four really good wideouts and a quarterback who can sling the ball, but to his credit the reason he’s getting 25 carries is because his productivity and efficiency is such that it makes my job a whole lot easier if I can just hand the ball off and get four yards.”
It’s often more than four yards.
After rushing for 357 yards last season in a short-yardage and change-of-pace role as a newcomer from Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania, Taliaferro entered this season anointed as the Chants’ new feature back.He wasted no time proving his value in that role with a 157-yard, 25-carry effort in the opener at South Carolina State.
That performance ranks tied for eighth on Coastal’s all-time single-game rushing list while his 174 yards two weeks later at Eastern Kentucky rank sixth and his 205 yards at Elon rank second. Yep, in just half a season, Taliaferro has accounted for three of the top eight rushing performances in the 11-year history of Coastal football.
“Really, in hindsight, should you have given the guy the ball a little bit more last year? Yeah, probably, after you see what he’s doing this year,” Patenaude said. “But he’s a totally different back than he was last year. He’s in much better shape, he worked on his flexibility a lot. He understands a lot more. He has a really, really good grasp of what’s going on. ... He’s a much more complete player than he was last year.”
Part of that has to do with the changes he made to his dietary regimen in the offseason. Taliaferro has talked a couple times this season about heeding the advice of running backs coach Brock Olivo and adopting a strict diet that he credits with keeping him resilient against injury and as healthy as he’s been in his collegiate career. Patenaude added that there are certain plays – those that require the running back to get out around the edge and make a quick cut up field – that Taliaferro is far better equipped to execute this fall.
Another part of it is learning the system and playing behind a veteran and accomplished offensive line. But maybe as much as anything, it was just about opportunity.
As a productive prep standout at Bruton High School in Williamsburg, Va., Taliaferro had drawn interest from FBS programs like Virginia Tech, Connecticut and Temple, but he hadn’t taken his life off the field – specifically in the classroom – serious enough back then.
None of those schools would ever formally offer the hulking running back a scholarship.
“They couldn’t,” Taliaferro conceded, referencing his poor grades.
“[I was] just lazy in high school, just thinking everything was going to come to me,” he said. “I got a big upset by thinking like that. So going to a [junior college] was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. It just helped me grow up faster, realize that nothing’s going to come to me and I have to work for everything.”
He got his fresh start at Lackawanna, trying to boost his grades in the classroom while starting two seasons for the football team there. Bigger schools started to take notice again. Connecticut touched base again, calling everyday, Taliaferro said, but ultimately they wanted to make him into a straight fullback.
The Huskies weren’t the only program who saw the big man from Lackawanna more as a grinder than a gasher. Aside from about eight to 10 Division II offers, he said Texas Southern and Coastal Carolina were the only two Division I programs that showed interest in him as a ball-carrier.
Former Coastal assistant coach Mike Gallagher, who served as the team’s recruiting coordinator during Joe Moglia’s first year as head coach, had a connection with the staff at Lackawanna and became the link between Taliaferro and Coastal’s program in transition.
“We had just got out from our team dinner,” Taliaferro said. “... I remember coach Gallagher calling me and saying, ‘We want to offer you.’ And I was just so shocked and ready for my first offer, and then I was like, ‘Wait, do you want me for fullback or running back?’ He said, ‘Running back. What do you mean fullback?’ So that was definitely an exciting turning point in my life.”
And, as it’s proven, a pretty big day for the Chants as well – even if they didn’t know exactly how big at the time.
With Moglia being hired in late December of that offseason and assembling his coaching staff over the next month or so, the Chants had a limited window that year to put together a recruiting class. Moglia hadn’t even hired his offensive coordinator yet when Taliaferro committed, and he said his staff wasn’t targeting positional needs then, so much as establishing the foundation for what they wanted to accomplish in recruiting while casting a wider net up and down the east coast.
“The whole objective was we have to get the type of guys we’re talking about,” Moglia said this week, reflecting back. “We have to get guys that can play and compete at the national level that are good, solid character guys that recognize how important it is to take care of their business in the classroom. That was it. And the positions we worried about a little bit later because we didn’t know exactly what we had. ...
“We thought he was very good on film. I think he’s having a sensational year, but we thought Lorenzo was a good football player. We didn’t know exactly what we had, we didn’t know exactly what the competition is [at Lackawanna], but we’re delighted. But I don’t think any of our coaches would say that’s a surprise.”
When Patenaude was hired shortly before National Signing Day that year, he quickly got up to speed on the team’s roster and incoming players. He watched video of Taliaferro running over defenders in one clip and outrunning them down the sideline on a long touchdown run in another.
“I was like, ‘How big is this guy really? Because he can’t be under 225 pounds and [he’s still] running that kind of speed,’” Patenaude recalled. “I caught up with his tape when I was here and was really happy that we signed him.”
It’s worked out pretty well for Taliaferro too. He said he hasn’t been given an opportunity like this since high school. Even in junior college, he was used in multiple roles and wasn’t able to prove himself as a feature back like he has this fall.
And just in time to possibly earn himself an opportunity to keep playing the sport after college.
Patenaude said the feedback from the NFL scouts has been very positive. They like his size and physique – Taliaferro is not only big, but chiseled – as well as his potential to contribute on special teams at the next level while also boasting the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and pass protect.
“It’s definitely exciting,” Taliaferro said of the interest. “That’s what you play the game to do at the end of the day, so just knowing it could happen is definitely exciting.”
But there are still at least six games to play this fall, a few records to secure, maybe even some national honors to vie for and, overall, much left to accomplish in a Chants season that is quickly becoming historic in its own right.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.