The forehand shot was so well-struck and their opponents so far out of position that the doubles partners relaxed, turned around and started to walk back to their respective spots on the court.
Trent Taylor, however, hadn’t conceded the point.
“All of a sudden the ball comes back over the net because Trent somehow, as quick as he was, got over there, barely got his racquet out and knocked the ball back over,” his high school doubles partner, Dakota Duron, recalled. “It kind of just dribbled past them and they were just in shock. They turned around and were like, ‘Did he just hit that ball back over?’ ”
That duo succumbed to Taylor and Duron during the state tournament in Louisiana in 2013. So did just about everyone else. Taylor and Duron were the state runners up that year, a remarkable feat considering they hadn’t had any formal tennis training until they decided to team up that spring as their senior years drew to a close.
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Instead the two had earned a reputation on the gridiron. Taylor was a wide receiver. Duron was his quarterback and had been since the seventh grade.
They approached tennis like football players. They blitzed the net after every serve and then relied on their quickness to get to any shots their opponents lofted over them. Their unorthodox style took the tournament by storm.
“I think we p----- a lot of tennis guys off because we changed their game,” Duron said. “We didn’t let them use their forehand and backhand. We were getting up on ’em and putting pressure on ’em.”
Said Taylor: “We were a lot more athletic than a lot of the tennis guys were. They weren’t used to a couple of scrappy guys running around the court. I think it threw most people off.”
Taylor’s brief but productive doubles experience highlighted all the traits that make him an NFL receiver: quickness, tenacity, smarts – and that he’s a wiz when it comes to chemistry.
He’s always had an easy partnership with his quarterbacks, beginning with his boyhood buddy, Duron.
At Louisiana Tech, Taylor had a revolving door of passers starting with Ryan Higgins in 2013, Cody Sokol in 2014, Jeff Driskel in 2015 and back to Higgins again last season. The two connected so often that Taylor led the nation in 2016 with 1,803 receiving yards.
“It’s easy to find this statistically – he had a great relationship with all of (the quarterbacks),” Higgins said. “Because they always knew they could count on him and he’d work hard. I know I can speak for the other quarterbacks – third and short or any important down, you know where that guy is.”
The 49ers quarterbacks have had the same experience.
After being drafted in the fifth round, Taylor began catching passes from fellow rookies C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens before working his way up to starter Brian Hoyer by late August.
In their last game against the Rams, Hoyer looked to Taylor at several critical moments, including on a three-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, a failed two-point conversion attempt with less than three minutes to play and a third-and-10 play on the 49ers’ final, last-gasp possession. Taylor caught the ball for 11 yards, but was flagged for a controversial offensive pass-interference penalty that negated the gain.
“If you go back and watch that (touchdown) play you see how fast he can get in and out of cuts,” Hoyer said of Taylor. “That’s what you look for in a guy who’s trying to get separation. Especially in man coverage. He’s done a lot of hard work. The one thing about guys like that is they can get a little crazy with cuts and all that. He’s kind of refined it and made it more smooth and more trustworthy.”
The 49ers list Taylor at 5-foot-8, but he’s not even that.
His official measurement in the run-up to the draft was 5-7 5/8 inches, making him one of the shortest players available. He had the smallest hands (8 1/4 inches) and the second-shortest arms (28 3/4 inches) of all the receivers invited to the scouting combine in February. Most draft observers figured he’d go in the seventh round or not get taken at all.
Taylor’s exceptional coordination and balance, however, separate him from other small-sized receivers.
The rookie has been seen during informal portions of practice catching passes between his legs or punts behind his back. When he was in grade school playing baseball, he’d field grounders between his legs.
“No one’s doing that in elementary school,” Duron said. “But he could. He was timing up balls in center field just to make a diving catch. Because he could get under it if he wanted to.”
Said Higgins: “Some of the things he’s able to do and the tricks he pulls off ... he even does a trick where he kind of flip-kicks a football and it starts spinning, and then puts it through the upright. I just don’t see a ceiling for his athleticism.”
Duron and the other quarterbacks, however, said Taylor’s physical gifts make him notable. It’s the mental connection he’s developed with them that have made their seasons special.
“I think it goes beyond being quick,” Duron said. “He’d make his routes a little bit shorter if he needed to, would make the post route a little bit higher if he needed to. Whatever needed to be done, it seemed like he was seeing what I was seeing. He always seemed to be one step ahead that way.”