LEADER OF THE PACK: Physical skills, mental sharpness make Temple sophomore linebacker York special
GO-TO GUY: Temple middle linebacker Taurean York is the Wildcats' leading tackler for the second straight season, having made 80 tackles last year and 50 stops in six games this year. A strong student, the 5-foot-11, 205-pound York is a team captain and one of Temple's top leaders despite the fact that he won't turn 16 until next June. District 12-6A co-leader Temple (5-1, 3-0) hosts Killeen Ellison (1-5, 0-3) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wildcat Stadium. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
Taurean York definitely packs a punch on the football field, where Temple's sophomore middle linebacker has made a team-leading 50 tackles after pacing the Wildcats as a freshman with 80 stops.
He also certainly packs the books, a laptop computer and any other necessary learning materials, as evidenced by making all A grades in advanced classes during this school year's first six weeks following his stellar academic performance as a freshman.
If it seems like York is hungry to succeed, consider how he packed his own lunch Tuesday, something he does every school day.
“I packed a Lunchable, two PB&Js, Pop-Tarts Bites, two packs of (Fruit) Gushers, packs of cheese crackers, six pepperonis, three salamis, nine Ritz crackers, Fruit by the Foot and a BodyArmor drink,” said York, who also received a Chick-fil-A meal at lunchtime Tuesday courtesy of Temple head coach Scott Stewart. “I've been packing my lunch since eighth grade. I pack a lot of food because I get hungry throughout the day.”
That calculating, meticulous approach to daily nutrition is representative of the 5-foot-11, 205-pound York, a team captain who's a bona fide leader for Temple's defense not only through his smart, instinctive play but also with his words and the way he's willing to motivate teammates.
That's pretty heady stuff for a 15-year-old guy who won't turn 16 until next June. But then again, the goal-oriented, well-rounded York – son of former Temple football standout Robert York, who played for Hall of Fame coach Bob McQueen in the mid-1990s – isn't just an average high school student-athlete.
“There's so many things to talk about with Taurean. It's pretty special, to be honest,” Temple defensive coordinator Dexter Knox said. “He's so intelligent and studies the game so much. You don't see a high school kid care as much as he does. He's got two parents at home who love him and you can see how he's been raised.
“He's never satisfied. When we get done with a game, he expects to have the game film (available to watch) within an hour. He knows the ins and outs of this defense. When we need to make checks at halftime or during the game, he can handle it. That makes it fun for a defensive coordinator, because it's like having another coach on the field. He's always on.”
In 2019, York at middle linebacker and his good friend Mikal Harrison-Pilot at free safety became the first two freshmen to start on defense in Stewart's 20-plus seasons as a head coach or defensive assistant coach. Harrison-Pilot now is a starting receiver for Temple's offense, while York – who shared District 12-6A's Defensive Newcomer of the Year award last year – is the Wildcats' top tackler for the second consecutive season.
With York still having approximately 2½ seasons remaining in his high school career, Stewart said York possesses all the required ingredients to achieve unquestioned greatness by the time his Temple days are done.
“We've coached some really, really good ones, but if Taurean can stay healthy, he will conceivably be the best linebacker I've ever coached,” said Stewart, who's in his fifth season as Temple's head coach after two years as the Wildcats' defensive coordinator and previously served as DC on several powerhouse teams at Spring Westfield.
“And I had a kid (Danny McCray) at Westfield who won a national championship at LSU and played six years in the NFL, and (Westfield's) Herman Mitchell was the most instinctive kid I've ever coached and he got a scholarship to Oklahoma. Taurean could be the best production-wise, just because he understands the game.”
After allowing 419 yards against Harker Heights in Temple's 38-36 comeback victory last Thursday in Killeen, York and his defense will seek improvement when the Wildcats (5-1 overall, 3-0 in 12-6A) – tied with Killeen Shoemaker for the district lead – battle Killeen Ellison (1-5, 0-3) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Wildcat Stadium.
TEMPLE'S TACKLING MACHINE: Temple sophomore middle linebacker Taurean York (5) tackles Bryan running back Tason Devault as fellow defenders Cody Little (44) and Johnny Donoso close in during the Wildcats' 44-7 homecoming win over the Vikings on Oct. 23 at Wildcat Stadium. York has compiled a team-leading 130 tackles in 17 career games since he made his varsity debut as a 14-year-old freshman last season. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
York performed well at linebacker last year while starting every game as a 14-year-old for an 8-3 Temple team that shared the 12-6A championship with Waco Midway. Armed with that varsity experience and and a better overall knowledge of his position, York has expanded his game his season as a battle-tested sophomore.
“I'm much more confident. A lot of games last year I knew what I was doing, but I didn't know what was going on around me, which is not particularly what you want for a middle linebacker. You have to know what everybody's doing,” York said. “So this year I've focused on knowing our front seven is doing, and I'm trying to learn what the secondary is doing.”
Not to be underestimated is York's physical maturation. He said he played last season at 5-10 and 186 to 190 pounds – certainly not small but perhaps sometimes not sturdy enough to consistently tackle running backs and quarterbacks
A steadfast regimen of weight training during the offseason – especially when Temple's players couldn't work out on campus because of the COVID-19 pandemic – plus natural growth helped York put on 15 to 20 pounds of muscle and make large gains in his strength.
Through six games this season, the results of York's hard work have been apparent as the Wildcats' defense has allowed 294 yards per outing and limited three opponents to 13 points or fewer. As a team Temple permits a respectable 22.2 points on average, but that doesn't accurately illustrate the general stubbornness of its defense. Three touchdowns by Wildcat foes have come on special teams, and three others resulted from long interception returns.
Along with his team-high 50 tackles, York has two more unassisted stops (37) than any other Temple defender has total tackles – junior end Eric Shorter with 35. York's five tackles for loss are tied with junior end Tommy Torres for third on the squad behind Shorter's 10 and senior nose tackle Jayven Taylor's six. York also has two sacks, one forced fumble and a team-best seven quarterback pressures.
“He can handle the box and he's more efficient and effective in the box just because he can shed those blocks a little easier. It's just the nuances of playing the position,” Stewart said of York. “Looking at some of last year's film, even against Ellison there were some times that he should have fit back and didn't and just didn't see the concept. Those are the things he's picked up on (this year).”
York said he's attained his current level of play by combining added strength with increased intellect.
“Striking through the legs, my pad level and knowing where the ball's going to go before it's snapped,” York said of his keys this year. “You can see on film. I'll be pointing where the ball's going to go.”
Two plays this season encapsulate the type of impact York makes on a regular basis.
At Magnolia West in Temple's second game, the Wildcats led 14-13 late in the first half when the Mustangs broke off back-to-back long runs to move deep into Temple territory. On a rush by effective running back Hunter Bilbo, York used his helmet to slam into the ball and create a momentum-changing fumble that the Wildcats recovered at their 8-yard line.
Instead of allowing the Mustangs to seize the lead, Temple drove 92 yards for junior Samari Howard's 2-yard touchdown run with 17 seconds remaining before halftime en route to a 28-13 victory. After the Wildcats shut out state-ranked Longview in the second half of a season-opening 40-13 win, they did the same thing against Magnolia West.
Last week against Harker Heights, a dreadful start saddled Temple with a 20-0 deficit early in the second quarter before the Wildcats woke up and scored 31 of the next 34 points to grab a 31-23 lead entering the fourth. However, the Knights began the final period with a touchdown and attempted to tie the game with a 2-point conversion.
Heights quarterback Shaun West looked to pass from the pocket, but York raced off the right edge of the defensive line, went unblocked and sacked the 6-2, 190-pound West to preserve Temple's slim advantage, a key play that helped the Wildcats escape Leo Buckley Stadium with a 38-36 win.
“I wouldn't say were shocked, because (Heights) did the same thing to Midway last year. Midway was in first place and Harker Heights shook them, so we kept that in the back of our mind,” said York, who led Temple with nine tackles last week. “Like I said Thursday night, we trained (during practice) in the 11-point deficit situation and I feel like Coach Stewart did that at the perfect time.”
Stewart said York's leadership style – a mixture of by-example actions and purposeful words – played a key role in sparking the Wildcats' rally from their extremely slow start at Heights.
“On defense it was 100 percent Taurean York. I don't mean like he was the only one, but he doesn't panic,” Stewart said. “It was just like, 'Guys, let's go. Let's get our heads out of our butts and do our jobs.' You hear those kinds of things from him.”
Although it might be rare for such a young player to seek or fully embrace a leadership role, Knox said Temple's other players gravitate toward York and listen to him because they're constantly witnessing his many admirable attributes.
“They just see how he carries himself, how hard he works in the weight room and how he attacks film and practice. They respect him,” Knox said. “Actions speak louder than words. When you find a kid who cares that much, a lot of teams can be successful.”
As for York being a team leader despite his relative youth, Stewart said it's something that must take its natural course.
“I quit a long time ago trying to figure out who I wanted (the leaders) to be; I try to figure out who it is and then guide them,” Stewart said. “Try as you may, you don't really get to figure out the hierarchy. Some people have those leadership qualities, whether they use them or not. They have that leadership influence. What I try to do is identify who those (players) are and then train them a little extra.
“Taurean was a guy the kids listened to last year as a freshman. Either they've got it or they don't. He didn't even go through (2019) spring ball, because he was in eighth grade.”
York and Harrison-Pilot – son of Temple linebackers coach Chris Pilot – starred together in middle school at Travis Science Academy and again on the Wildcats' starting defense last year, when Harrison-Pilot earned second-team all-district status at free safety. York admitted to feeling sad when Harrison-Pilot, whom he called “the best person I know,” switched over to offense this season, although they briefly were reunited in last week's game when Harrison-Pilot played cornerback in a goal-line situation.
Knox said York and Harrison-Pilot regularly arrived at the high school at 5 a.m. during the offseason for speed training sessions before the team's organized workouts began at 6. Because York's 40-yard dash time – in the range of 4.8 to 4.85 seconds – isn't considered fast for a Class 6A linebacker, he's made improving his speed a top priority as he seeks to eventually realize his dreams of playing major college football at Ohio State, Oklahoma or Texas Christian. A high-scoring basketball player for Temple's freshman team last season, York also is planning to compete in track next spring.
York made an uncharacteristic misstep several weeks ago with some off-the-field behavior that resulted in him and a defensive teammate being suspended for the first half of Temple's 12-6A opener at Copperas Cove along with performing extra physical conditioning.
“We were being immature kids. Now that I look back at it, it probably wasn't the smartest idea,” York said. “That's probably the first time I've ever sat out in my life. It was weird watching the game from the sideline. I'd never want to do that again. We made the mistake. I just learned from it.”
Said Stewart about suspending York: “I don't hold grudges. What you do (as a coach) is try to establish whether there's going to be a pattern or not. It was just kids being kids. But again, the best lessons are usually the hardest ones learned. I said, 'I realize y'all meant no harm in what you did, but it was a stupid mistake and you've got to pay for it.'”
Temple jumped on Cove early for a 24-0 lead, but the Bulldawgs scored three second-quarter touchdowns as York watched from the sideline to pull within 31-21 by halftime.
“He was champing at the bit (to enter the game), but he did a real good job of cheering on the guys and being a leader and not a distraction,” Knox said, adding that on the Bulldawgs' first offensive snap of the second half their running back took a handoff and York “stroked him” with a punishing hit.
Stewart said York's combination of physical talents and mental sharpness reminds him of former Temple quarterback Chad President, who played at Tulsa and now is an assistant coach for Mike Spradlin – the Wildcats' successful head coach from 2011-15 – at Rockwall-Heath.
“He's a kid who wants to succeed. He's got phenomenal grades," Stewart said of York. "(But) I've seen those kind of kids who don't have the football smarts. I'm like, 'Don't get in trouble in class, because I know what you're doing. You're over there studying film.'"
Stewart offered an anecdote that helps explain what it's like to coach the precocious York.
“It's different on all levels. He'll come up and ask questions quite a bit. He'll go, 'Watch the Waco! Watch the Waco!' And (offensive coordinator Josh) Sadler will be like, 'You're looking at our signals!' And Taurean goes, 'No, he lines up a half-step wider when he runs the Waco route out of the backfield.' I mean, nobody's told him that,” Stewart said, chuckling.
“He comes over to me before our scrimmage and he's got his laptop. We were playing College Station, and we really don't game plan scrimmages," Temple's head coach continued. "He goes, 'Coach, now I don't know if you've seen this, but when he's wide here – this is three plays in a row where he's wide – they're trying to get that edge right there. So do you want me to cheat over? I was like, 'That'd be great.'”
All the weights, sprints, practices, meetings, film study and personal determination that combine to make York who he is and how he is – at age 15, remember – revolve around the sophomore linebacker's singular mission: to help Temple produce a long playoff run in 6A after the Wildcats' first-round exits the past two postseasons.
“I've been part of the Wildcats since I was an eighth-grade ball boy, and I haven't held up a gold ball (trophy) since eighth grade and that was for a middle school district championship,” York said. “The fact that I haven't held up a gold ball (in high school) and I'm 17 games in fuels me even more."