In the most crucial moment of LSU’s season opener, Mason Taylor looked for the clock. Maybe from years of practice drills or some innate understanding because of his lineage, Taylor knew what to do if he caught the ball with 10 seconds left. Find the sideline and stop the clock.
At the snap, Taylor blocked a defensive end before he released across the field on a shallow cross. Florida State had everyone else covered in the end zone. Quarterback Jayden Daniels hit his true freshman tight end.
“Get out of bounds,” Taylor told himself.
Taylor understood he didn’t need to be the hero. He avoided one tackle and dove toward the sideline at the 2-yard line. Taylor immediately looked at the clock again. It had stopped with one second remaining, and though officials determined he landed inbounds after a review, he gave LSU a chance to win.
“I didn't want to be the guy to get tackled on the 1-yard line,” Taylor said. “If the pylon would have opened up, I would have definitely went for it, but I was trying to work my way to the sideline.”
Not many freshmen would even be on the field then, but three games into his career, Taylor has taken over as LSU’s primary tight end. He has six catches for 58 yards, and he would have more if not for a couple inaccurate throws and stepping out of bounds before he caught the ball once last weekend against Mississippi State.
LSU coach Brian Kelly accepted the mistake. He can coach Taylor on his awareness. More importantly, Taylor possessed the tools to start as a true freshman, easing Kelly’s preseason concerns about the position and giving LSU a reliable, 6-foot-5, 245-pound target on underneath routes.
"He's really good at catching the ball in the flat and turning up with it," redshirt junior center Charles Turner said. "A lot of guys, they catch the ball and get 2 or 3 yards and go down. Mason, he's looking to turn up and take it home."
Before Taylor arrived this summer, LSU didn’t know what it had in him other than someone with remarkable football genes. Taylor’s dad, Jason Taylor, was a first-ballot NFL Hall of Famer. His uncle, Zach Thomas, played linebacker for 13 seasons in the NFL. His older brother, Isaiah, plays safety at Arizona.
Unlike the rest of his family, Taylor never played much defense. He preferred tight end because it set him apart from everyone else.
"If he chose to play on the defensive line, he would be a national, five-star player with his ability to move and his strength and his athleticism," said Roger Harriott, the head coach at St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.) High School where Taylor played. "However, he wanted to do something different."
A late bloomer, Taylor played his senior year as a 16-year-old, not turning 17 until before graduation this year. Harriott thought his development, combined with how the coronavirus pandemic affected recruiting, delayed Taylor’s arrival on national radars until later in his high school career.
But Harriott saw Taylor’s frame and understood his background.
“You could tell he was going to physically evolve,” Harriott said.
The first game of Taylor’s senior year, St. Thomas Aquinas played St. Frances Academy (Baltimore) in a game televised on ESPN. Taylor had eight catches for more than 100 yards, Harriott said, and defensive coordinators focused on him the rest of the season because he presented such a mismatch. Taylor finished with 35 receptions for 403 yards as STA won its third straight state championship.
“The attention was on him,” Harriott said. “It opened up the rest of our offense, and he had no problem in his role.”
But the three-star recruit ranked No. 492 overall nationally wasn't someone LSU viewed as an immediate starter. The staff tried to sign another tight end in the class and searched for an experienced option in the transfer portal with no success.
When Taylor joined the team at 6-foot-5 and 232 pounds, he noticed the size of the players around him. He needed to get bigger.
“It kind of shocks you a little bit,” he said.
Taylor gained 13 pounds, putting on the size to hold his own. He credited director of nutrition Matt Frakes for designing his meal plan and making sure he ate on a regular schedule. He also lifted heavier weights than he did in high school in LSU’s strength program.
“It was pretty easy,” Taylor said. “I thought it would be hard because I don't put on weight that well.”
Pretty soon, Kelly started praising Taylor during preseason camp. Kelly had worried about LSU’s depth at tight end since he arrived, but Taylor’s presence made him feel better about a crucial spot on the offense.
“It's skill set, confidence, and he's put on the necessary size to go into traffic and make some plays,” Kelly said.
Taylor caught four passes in the season opener. He grabbed one more against Southern and another against Mississippi State, though Daniels targeted him twice in the red zone on a drive in which LSU settled for a field goal.
He has made mistakes like any freshman. At one point, Taylor negated a catch by stepping out of bounds.
"I'm OK with those," Kelly said. "That's a learning curve, and those are great opportunities to point out to a freshman that he's not going to make that same mistake twice."
For now, Taylor will contribute most as a receiver. He hopes to develop into a complete tight end. He admires San Francisco 49ers star George Kittle, the way he blocks inside then bursts downfield. Taylor wants to become someone else who can do everything.
Harriott thinks he will. Taylor is already as big as he dad was when Jason Taylor played in the NFL, and he should continue to physically develop. Harriott expects Taylor to thrive at his own position.
“Your son has the same body structure as you,” Harriott once told Taylor’s dad, “but because of his resources, he's going to be bigger.”