A.J. Taylor jogged to the middle of the Rockhurst High School football field during an afternoon practice last week, when he promptly turned back toward the line of scrimmage and prepared to camp under a punt.
Only one play earlier, he had set up on the other side of the ball, where he functioned as the focal point of a running play. Another play earlier, he was part of the defensive backfield, shadowing a go-to receiver on a passing route.
After the three-play sequence concluded, Taylor approached the sideline, unstrapped his helmet and prepared to take a quick breather.
(This story is part of The Kansas City Star's Football 2015 special section that publishes Sunday, Aug. 30. Pick one up and check out more here.)
An assistant coach shouted Taylor’s name, then waved for him to get back on the field. The extra-point team needed a body.
“Yeah, I definitely get tired doing it all,” Taylor said, smiling, as if the question was obvious.
“I have no problem falling asleep when I get home — I’ll put it that way. The past few nights, I’ve been in bed by about 8:30 or 9 o’clock.”
On a team that played for the Missouri Class 6 state championship last season, coach Tony Severino considers Taylor his best option at five positions. At least. And he plans to use Taylor at all of them.
It requires a heavy practice load. It requires an even heavier load on game days.
Taylor, a senior who has signed to play at Wisconsin, serves as the Hawklets’ primary running back, punt returner and kickoff returner, and he sees plenty of time on defense. Severino hopes to keep Taylor on the field for 70 snaps per game.
It’s not based on necessity. It’s based on talent.
“You gotta be careful. You don’t want to overuse him,” Severino said.
“But here’s the bottom line: You can’t afford to watch a big play go the other way and you have him standing next to you on the sideline when it happens.”
And therein lies the essence of the high school playmaker. Versatility. Every-down use.
The four- or five-star athletes only roll through a school’s hallways every so often. Even fewer can provide impact in such a dynamic manner, placing a sense of urgency to turn the unique talent into trophies.
How? Utilize it in every manner possible.
“If you have that special high school athlete, he can make a big difference, probably even more so than the college or the NFL level, because of how many different ways you can use him. The special athletes really stand out,” said Winnetonka coach Sterling Edwards, who used Marquise Doherty last season in a similar fashion. “When you have a kid like that, you just want to have him decide the outcome of the game as much as you possibly can.”
There’s a fine line, of course, between maximizing talent versus overusing it. And coaches can disagree on where that line falls.
St. Thomas Aquinas coach Randy Dreiling, who won seven state championships during his time at Hutchinson, says he rarely uses players on both sides of the ball. And guarding against fatigue is only part of the equation.
“You get people who stick around a lot longer and feel like they have a chance to contribute because they know you’re not just going to play the best guy — you are going to start 22 different guys,” Dreiling said. “And all of a sudden (you have) this senior who stuck around, gained 20 pounds, got a little bit quicker, a little bit tougher, and you’ve got a left guard that (otherwise) might have quit a few years ago thinking he never had a chance.”
On the other hand, when employed correctly, the do-it-all playmaker can be quite rewarding, especially at the high school level.
In 2011, when Blue Springs South won the Missouri Class 6 state championship, Connor Harris almost never left the field. That’s no exaggeration, either. He played quarterback and free safety, while also handling the kicking and punting duties.
Ironically, he’s picked up another new position in college. He’s a middle linebacker at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo.
Harris cautioned it takes more than talent to be effective in the all-encompassing capacity. It takes proper preparation, as well as recovery time. Harris recalled literally limping into film studies the days following games and spending a considerable amount of time in the ice tub.
All worth it.
For Harris. And for Blue Springs South.
“I was sore all over,” Harris said. “But it was something I loved doing, so to me, I have no regrets at all. I’ve always looked back at that year as some of the best memories of my football career.”
Another factor that made it an easy decision: Harris was a defensive player first and foremost, so when offered the opportunity to play with the football in his hands, it was a no-brainer.
Blue Valley West senior Mark Collins Jr. was presented with a similar offer this offseason. While he is being recruited by colleges to play defensive back — a position his father played in the NFL with the Chiefs and the New York Giants, where he won two Super Bowls — he will also spend time at wide receiver and even quarterback this season.
He’s never played quarterback in his life, but Blue Valley West coach Scott Wright says, “As a coach, you’re a little shortsighted if you don’t try to find a way to get that kid an opportunity to make plays.”
And it’s not as if Collins is complaining about it.
“I like it because it gives you a way to help the team in more than one way,” Collins said. “I can help the offense, defense or special teams.”
But it won’t be easy to hide him.
Collins projects he will spend only 20-25 snaps per game on offense — in an effort to conserve energy for defense — so when he’s on the field, it will likely provide opposing defenses with a pretty clear indicator where the ball is headed.
And that demands creativity.
With Doherty, who has continued his career at Missouri, Winnetonka moved him all over its offense to disguise play calls. Other times, the coaching staff put Doherty at quarterback to ensure he received enough touches in a game, even though it wasn’t so confident in his throwing ability.
Similarly, Rockhurst will move Taylor around within its offense, with one goal in mind — get him the ball with space to run.
“I told my assistant coaches I have to make sure A.J. touches the ball 30 times,” Severino said.
“Why?” a coach responded. “Do you think you’ll get fired if he doesn’t?”
“No,” Severino replied. “You’ll get fired for not reminding me.”
Before he committed to Wisconsin earlier this summer, Taylor says college coaches presented him with different plans for his future.
A Kansas State recruiter mentioned him in the same sentence with Tyler Lockett, whom the Wildcats used as a receiver and return specialist. A Nebraska coach envisioned him as the next Ameer Abdullah, a running back who ran for 1,600 yards in each of the last two seasons.
In his final high school season, Taylor will see the bulk of his touches as a tailback, but he’s also the team’s leading receiver and kick returner from the state-runner up team last season. He expects to see time in both those roles.
While cycling through a similar workload last season, Taylor totaled 1,606 all-purpose yards and 15 touchdowns.
He thinks he could do more. On a middle school team, he played quarterback and also served as the kicker.
He’s ready in a moment’s notice.
“If something went wrong with the first two quarterbacks, I think I could take over” he said. “I’m ready to go.
“Wherever they need me.”