CLEMSON — Dutch Fork baseball coach Casey Waites knew better. But when he saw Will Taylor within earshot at Segra Park, heading back out to right field for another round of pregame stretches, Waites couldn’t resist calling out for “Willy T.”
“He knows my voice,” Waites said, “but he didn’t even hear me.”
That is classic Willy T behavior, so consumed by his task, nobody else exists in those moments. Before a midweek game with the College of Charleston — just Taylor’s fourth in a Clemson uniform — he held a serious expression on his face. Even with family and friends in the stands in Columbia, Taylor’s mind locked onto the process of readying his body.
That laser-focus helps explain how the freshman could return 46 games into a season, fresh off a seven-month recovery from an ACL injury suffered in football, opening with a .300-plus batting average in his first week of games versus Division I pitching.
Taylor was nicknamed “Maverick” during the Tigers’ football season, because the 5-10, 170-pound playmaker was cool and confident like Tom Cruise’s character in the Top Gun franchise. But it’s baseball where Taylor has always held the most potential, turning down a chance to be a first-round pick in last year’s MLB draft to attend Clemson and play two sports.
Waites speaks of “The Legend of Willy T” and tells tales of a five-tool prospect whose blood pressure seemingly dips when the most pressure-packed moments arrive, like when he hit two homers versus Lexington to clinch a region title in 2021. He’s so process-oriented, Taylor can be just as consumed stretching as he is taking swings in the batter’s box.
So it wasn’t all that surprising Taylor completely tuned out a pregame call for “Willy T” from the stands. It was just as revealing, though, when just a few minutes later, just before the national anthem, Taylor broke character.
His head turned toward the stands. His eyes found Waites, which drew a grin.
“You rarely get to see him smile,” Waites said. “I guess he’s been through it, and he’s happy to be back. He cut his eyes at me and gave me that smile.”
Taylor proceeded to take the field and hit 2 for 6 that day. He scored a run, just as he did in each game of a three-game sweep of Georgia Tech the previous weekend.
The coaches who understand Taylor’s talents are happy to see him so seamlessly back on track, because it was hard to see him derailed. Clemson baseball coach Monte Lee made light of his nerves in the fall, saying he would watch football games and take laps around the couch to relieve tension as Taylor took shots. Waites watched the Boston College game on Oct. 2 because word reached Taylor’s hometown that his role was expanding. Plays were installed for Taylor that week.
A three-star football prospect who defied expectations by opening the season as Clemson’s punt returner found himself one-on-one against a Boston College linebacker on a receiver sweep to the left. Taylor tried to juke, but his right leg gave out.
Lee’s worst fear came true. Waites was disappointed, but his gut wasn’t as twisted as you think.
“We have a saying when he does things, the legend of Willy T is just being written, chapter by chapter, moment by moment,” Waites said. “I figured he’d find his way back as soon as possible. Once again, there’s another chapter in the legend.”
That isn’t to undersell the adversity Taylor has had to surmount because Waites knows it was there. He crossed paths with Taylor on the sidelines of a Dutch Fork football game in November. The intensity behind his usually laser-focused expression was somewhat absent as Taylor sat on a bench between quarters. He couldn’t do much of anything, which obviously wasn’t easy for a successful multi-sport athlete.
It’s the only time, ever, Waites has seen Taylor like that.
The switch undoubtedly flipped when Willy T returned to Clemson to ramp up his rehab. Just as he did at Dutch Fork, arriving to a batting cage with a couple dozen MLB scouts ready to watch, Taylor has a way of applying himself when it matters most. It would have been a surprise if Taylor couldn’t meet the moment when his Clemson baseball debut arrived.
After a seven-month wait, Taylor was more than prepared. Lee described him as “amped” arriving to Doug Kingsmore Stadium on May 6 to face the Yellow Jackets. “When he got to the ballpark, just the level of intensity, with his body language in BP and in the cages,” Lee said, “you can tell he’s a football player.”
But everyone was quickly reminded of Taylor’s baseball skill. In his first college at-bat, Taylor shot a single up the middle of the infield. It was almost unfair, because Clemson was caught stealing in the middle of Taylor’s first turn in the batter’s box, so he had a chance to see a few pitches before returning to the plate the next inning.
“It was very exciting. I hadn’t felt that excitement in about seven months,” Taylor said, offering a quick grin before returning to his characteristically serious expression. “It’s good to be back out there, and, hopefully, we’ll keep going.”
Taylor finished 4 of 13 (.308) in his debut weekend, scoring three runs and driving in another. Having proved he was ready for the moment, the freshman outfielder was quickly moved up to No. 2 in Clemson’s order.
He hasn’t lost a step. In fact, Taylor has been told he is actually running at a faster speed than he was before the injury.
Remarkable, for some, but not so much for an athlete Waites considers incomparable to others he’s coached, especially in maturity and just the purity of his competitive drive. There is no doubt Taylor wants to compete at the highest levels, but he would have had to turn down an opportunity to play football at Clemson to become a first-round pick in last year’s MLB draft.
“I think he wants to do it on his terms,” Waites said. “Most people in his position, it’s ‘This is what I’m supposed to do, because it’s this amount of money. Let’s jump.’ He wants to compete on his terms. I get the question of what he likes more, I think he’s a baseball guy. But he loves playing football, too. He loves playing for (Dabo) Swinney.”
Taylor has been somewhat deprived of opportunities this academic year, coming away with about a month’s worth of games in both football and baseball. But there is more time to add to the Legend of Willy T, as Waites calls it.
Next football season, Taylor will totally transition from gadget quarterback and return specialist to slot receiver. In the meantime, he has a chance to add a much-needed bat to Clemson’s lineup down the stretch, as rust-free as it possibly could be under the circumstances.
“He’s a dynamic athlete, for sure,” Lee said. “One of the more talented players in the country, it certainly would have been great to have him all year. But I’m not a big woulda-coulda-shoulda guy. I’m glad that we have him now.”