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'He totally revamped the position.' Get to know Bears rookie Tory Taylor.

Colleen Kane, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Football

Chicago Bears coach Matt Eberflus found himself drawn into the show his rookie was performing at a June minicamp practice at Halas Hall.

Fourth-round pick Tory Taylor, the punter who became a fan favorite at Iowa, turned the special teams period into a must-watch event with his ball placement.

“He’s like a trick-shot guy,” Eberflus said. “It’s like, ‘Wow.’ … He had a couple on the 1(-yard line) of course, but the spin he could put on it, really amazing. So it’s fun to watch.”

Iowa special teams coordinator LeVar Woods watched those talents for four years after recruiting Taylor out of Australia, and he has many stories about the development of a player Bears general manager Ryan Poles called one of the best punters he ever has seen.

Woods spoke with the Chicago Tribune about Taylor’s transition to American football, some of his most impressive feats and the fanfare he created in Iowa City.

How did you first become aware of Tory in the recruiting process?

Through his group that he works with, his coaches — Johnny Smith and Nathan Chapman — from Prokick Australia. They had reached out about him. We made contact and had a chance to connect via FaceTime, so that was my first introduction to Tory.

Then you went to see him in Australia. What was that experience like and what was your first impression?

Good experience, very unique. Hadn’t ever been there. But it was great. He was an awesome young man, fun to be around, very talented, you could see that right away. Sometimes you can’t see those things on FaceTime or on video, but I got a chance to see it firsthand and see his leg strength and ability.

What was his transition to American football like?

He had never seen a game, never been on a football field. It just wasn’t his life. Once he got here, the first game he ever saw was the first one he played in. I think back to it now, it’s like, “Man, that was a very unique time.” That was also during COVID during 2020, so everything was weird. So at the time, I don’t think I realized how strange it actually was until I look back and think about it now.

What was the process like getting him up to speed on the game?

As soon as he got to the States, when he got to Iowa City, he slept right away because it was a 26-hour trip. And then the first time I got a chance to see him during the daylight in Iowa City, he wanted to go straight to the field and start punting balls. We let him do some work. It was funny, that day, my assistant at the time, who is now a high school coach in Chicago at St. Rita, we were watching. We let Tory just start punting balls.

He would punt one way up in the air, and it would hit at the 5-yard line and roll out at the 1. The next one, he would punt the ball out of bounds at the 1-yard line. The next one, he would accidentally hit the pylon. It was insane. He kept asking me, “Is this good? Is this good? Is this good?” I was like, “This is not good. This is great.” Kind of funny.

How did he handle the transition of being in a new place?

He handled it as well as anyone could. If you think back to that time, during the pandemic, it was very different for everybody, very strange in the United States. We probably had four or five cases of positive COVID tests per day during that time of year — I’m talking about here in Iowa City and on our football team. And then you go to his country, in Australia, they had five in the whole country. They were shutting the place down.

It was just different from that standpoint, but then the standpoint of getting here and his entire first season he played in front of no fans and then he really didn’t know anything outside of Iowa City from his apartment to practice. That’s all he knew because a lot of things were shut down. The campus was shut down. Everything was remote learning. So he really didn’t get a chance to see some of that stuff early on.

From the time he came to you that year to the time he left, how did you see him grow as a punter?

As a punter, he’s phenomenal, incredible leg strength, very good touch, especially when you just let him be a natural athlete. One of the things I shared with him, it’s so fun watching him. At the time, we had a young snapper, and anytime the snap would be off is when you saw Tory be at his best because he had to react naturally as a natural athlete, with a low or a high snap, rather than a little bit robotic at times early on. But when he was natural, man, he was really, really good.

Just seeing how much work he has put in from a technical aspect and getting to the point where he’s comfortable being himself and being the natural athlete he is, he has come light years. And he became a very good leader for us. He was a two-time captain on our team, which is hard to do, especially as a specialist. And he’s an absolute fan favorite. This guy will go down as one of the greatest of all time to ever play at the University of Iowa, not only because of his talent and ability but also what kind of person he is.

You talked about that good first practice, but was there a time when you realized just how special he was?

His very first game he ever played was at Purdue in front of no fans, and he had a career day and didn’t even know it. He thought he did bad. He had one punt that was not a great punt, but it was acceptable. It was average. His very first one was a 55-yard punt. We were backed up inside our own 10-yard line. That was his first punt. That’s hard to do, right?

But I would say just right off the bat, he was outstanding. He had one touchback his freshman year. That’s pretty incredible, hard to do. And one ball that was returned his freshman year. As the years went on, people started to learn him and know him and vet his ball placement a little bit better, so the opponent got better. But at the very beginning, they couldn’t even come close to him.

 

What can you tell me about the way he works?

He’s very disciplined, very meticulous. He’s very focused on his craft, and all he cares about is getting better and winning. That’s all he thinks and talks about. The guy put in a ton of time. I know every time I would walk into our position meeting room, the film would already be up and he’d be studying someone else. He’d be studying Michael Dickson or the punter we were getting ready to face that week. He’d be studying somebody, just trying to learn more and become better at what he does.

What will be the main adjustment in the NFL?

Probably some things in the locker room. The locker room is way different. There are 130 players on our team here. There’s not that in the NFL, especially once the season is going. So that part will be definitely different for him.

And I’ve shared this with him before. When he walks out into Kinnick Stadium here in Iowa City, anybody that sees him, they go crazy. The fans go crazy. They introduce him in pregame warmups, and the fans go nuts. His first punt of every game, we had to use a silent cadence because the fans are going crazy. They’re cheering. They’re waving Australian flags in the stands.

I told him, “This is not real football. You go in the NFL, once the punter hits the field, everyone is booing. They don’t want to see you on the field. They want to see someone else.” So I think that is going to be something for him to deal with or something that is slightly different.

What was that fanfare like for him and for you to watch?

It was great. He plays a position where usually people are booing when he walks on the field. A lot of people don’t necessarily respect his work from that standpoint. However, for a guy like him — he’s such a good person, so charismatic and a fan favorite — that’s a lot of fun to see a guy as good as he is be recognized. I think it turned a lot of people into fans of punting. There are all these different T-shirts, chants and cheers people have. He, in my opinion, totally revamped the position and brought awareness to it.

What is he like off the field?

Very reserved, very cool, calm, collected. Not like a big party guy. He cares about his craft, trying to get better. He’s a good teammate, good friend, from everything I’ve heard and seen. He’s about his business and wants to be as good as he possibly can be.

Do you have a favorite performance of his?

There are two. The most recent one was his senior year. We played at Wisconsin. It was a cold game. The wind was about 20 mph, and it was a very tricky wind. So it looked like it was coming from the left, and really it was coming from the right. It was swirling all over. And watching their punter warm up and watching Tory warm up, it was very obvious Tory had mastered the wind and he had figured it out.

He went into that game and he had 10 punts, which is a lot of punts in a game. But he completely controlled field position that day and he dominated the game. He had one punt he would like to take back, but it was more so the shot I called for him than him actually punting. He had a phenomenal game that game. He was Big Ten player of the week. But it was probably a signature performance for him because of the conditions and the game, and we ended up winning the game and he contributed greatly.

The other one I would say is a nationally televised game we played in 2021. We played Penn State at home. It was a huge game. He was lights out. He punted three balls inside the 5-yard line that contributed to us scoring. We had a safety on one of them. The guy was lights out that game.

What was your reaction when the Bears drafted him?

Not to get super sappy on you, but I will never forget where I was, what I was doing when he called to tell me he was going to be drafted. I was literally getting ready to call him and just say, “How’s it going this morning? Have you heard anything?” And I looked down in my hand and my phone is ringing, and it’s Tory and he’s like, “Are you watching? Are you watching?” I said, “Why? What’s going on? What happened?” And he said, “The Bears are about to draft me!” And I was like, “What?!”

I was in a sandwich shop in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, and so I ran out. My wife and kids were sitting at the table. We had just ordered some sandwiches, and everyone started going crazy and chanting and cheering. I’m crying. My wife’s crying. And we’re all cheering for Tory. It was a pretty special moment.

Anything else you want to add?

I would just say, a lot of times you get in sports and particularly pro sports, and people are all about performance and numbers. I think what Tory Taylor is — he’s a transcendent type of player, where he’s completely revamped the position, completely revamped everyone’s thoughts about punting, the importance of punting, the importance of field position. All of that stuff is great.

But what stands out the most to me about Tory is he’s just a really good human being. He cares about people. He wants people to do well. And he’s a great teammate. He’ll do anything to not let you down. That’s the kind of guy he is. My family — I have three kids and a wife, and they absolutely adore Tory Taylor.

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