Tavon Young couldn’t stop pacing.
It was April 29, and he was sitting in the living room of his godmother, Cindy Bickerstaff, in Washington, D.C. The TV was tuned to ESPN, which was televising the 2016 NFL Draft. Rounds 1 and 2 had gone by without Young’s name being called, which was not surprising. But as other names continued to be announced – Graham Glasgow to the Detroit Lions, Vincent Valentine to the New England Patriots, Rees Odhiambo to the Seattle Seahawks – Young grew more anxious.
Until only the Denver Broncos remained, with the final pick of Round 3.
They took Justin Simmons, a safety from Boston College.
It wasn’t until the next day, and the next round, the Baltimore Ravens selected Young, a cornerback from Temple, with the 104th pick in the draft.
Even still, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome would later admit, “We went to sleep on him.”
It wouldn’t be the first time the sports world forgot about Tavon Young.
And if there is a man who could be forgiven for doing so, it is Stan Mullins.
In 2012, Mullins was the track and field coach at Potomac High School, a 3A school in Maryland known primarily for its basketball team that won state and sent its entire starting lineup that year to Division I schools. Mullins, however, was overseeing a trio of precocious football players turned All-American sprinters: Ronald Darby, Dondre Echols and Joshua Thorne. So he didn’t pay it much mind when he received a call from a man named Tony Young, informing him that his son, Tavon, would be transferring in and would immediately be one of the best athletes on the team. Mullins heard such proclamations frequently.
“I forgot about him,” Mullins said in May of 2012, Young’s senior year.
That is, until the day Mullins was watching a preseason football practice, and his eyes immediately latched onto a defensive back he didn’t recognize, but whose speed was equal to, perhaps even a step faster than, Darby, Echols or Thorne.
“Who is that?” Mullins asked, and an assistant answered it was Tavon Young.
“And I said, ‘that is Tavon Young?’” Mullins recalled.
It’s now unlikely anyone at Potomac High School will forget about Young any time soon.
Over the course of his lone year at Potomac – he transferred from neighboring Frederick Douglass High School, Young anchored a defense that posted four shutouts in 11 games and never once let a team score more than two touchdowns.
Yet his recruitment remained quiet at best, overshadowed by Darby, the No. 38-ranked recruit in the country, and Echols, now a member of the South Carolina Gamecocks who was an All-American on the track team and is still the owner of the Maryland state record with four interceptions in a single game. Exactly one program, Towson, an FCS school outside of Baltimore, extended Young an offer. When coaches visited Potomac, they came to see Darby, Echols or Thorne, not the undersized cornerback toiling in their shadows.
Temple needed one day to change things.
Potomac football coach Ronnie Crump accompanied Young and Thorne to a camp hosted by Temple. There was “about 600, 700 athletes at that camp,” Crump said.
Crump dropped Young off with the corners and wide receivers and went off with Thorne, who would be working out with the linebackers.
“After a while I went to see Tavon,” Crump said. “Maybe 200 of the kids were either wide receivers or corners, and Tavon shut every one of them down. Nobody could do anything on him. It was lights out. And the (Temple) coach at the time, (Steve) Addazio – he couldn’t give a damn about how fast you were or how high you could jump. He was looking for football players, and I’ll always respect him for that, because Tavon was a football player.”
Two days later, Young got a call: Temple wanted him to play defensive back.
At the time, Temple was not known for its prowess on the football field, having gone just 4-7 the year before. Towson, on the other hand, was a burgeoning FCS power, luring talented recruits such as Terrance West, now a running back for the Baltimore Ravens. It wouldn’t have been unthinkable for Young to stay home and play for the Tigers, where he would become an immediate starter and contend for national championships.
But Young chose Temple, and it took barely half a season for Addazio’s staff to realize the talent they had unwittingly discovered.
“One of the defensive backs coaches called me and said, ‘If Tavon does X, Y and Z, he could play in the NFL,’” Crump said.
Though somewhat surprised – it was a rapid ascent from scantly recruited teenager to NFL prospect in less than half a year – Crump had never been one to doubt Young. In fact, he is one of the few, from youth league to this very day, who recognized just how high Young’s ceiling was, despite being only 5-foot-9.
During Young’s junior year of high school, when he played for rival Douglass, “We knew we had to game plan against him,” said Crump, though evidently he didn’t game plan enough. Young’s Eagles beat Crump’s Wolverines by two. The next year, Young transferred to Potomac to play under Crump, who ran both man-to-man and zone defenses as opposed to Douglass’ exclusive use of the Cover-2.
At Temple, Young was learning far more than simple man-to-man and basic Cover-2 defenses. He was “becoming a student of the game,” Crump said. “He really began to learn it. He became a more cerebral player.”
By the end of Young’s sophomore year, he was leading the defensive backs meetings, pointing out the opposing team’s concepts and breaking down film. As a team, Temple thrived, improving from 2-10 to 6-6 to 10-4, winning the American Conference East Division crown. The Owls were ranked for the first time since 1979.
As an individual, Young quietly became one of the best defensive backs in the conference, limiting quarterbacks to a rating of just 46.9 when they targeted him, according to Pro Football Focus. By season’s end, he led the conference with 153 interception yards off a team-leading 4 interceptions.
During his senior year, Young donned the prized No. 1 jersey, an honor voted on by teammates and coaches and awarded to the player who exudes the most toughness. But while it was clear Temple’s coaching staff and players held a great deal of respect for Young, the rest of the nation lagged behind. Despite a senior season in which he held Notre Dame receiver Will Fuller, the Houston Texans’ first-round pick, to 3 catches for 27 yards on 6 targets, and anchored a defense that held opponents to just 20.1 points per game, 18th in the nation, there was little to no hype around Young heading into the Senior Bowl. And it was there, just as it was at the Temple camp his senior year of high school, that Young made a big impression.
“The Senior Bowl helped me a lot,” Young said. “There were a lot of guys from different conferences across the country, some of the great receivers that everybody talks about. Coming into the Senior Bowl, I really had no name, so I knew that I had to show off and do what I had to do. The first day of one-on-ones, I lined up against Braxton Miller, Aaron Burbridge. I lined up against the best receivers that were out there, and I locked them up, and that just put me on.”
Still, reviews, while overwhelmingly positive, were laced with backhanded compliments and adjectives such as “feisty,” “scrappy” or “diminutive.” It made sense, as there isn’t much of a market in the NFL for cornerbacks standing less than 6-foot. But as Crump says, “His height wasn’t a problem in high school. It wasn’t a problem in college. Why would it be a problem now? Everybody was saying how he’s going to have to adjust to the NFL, but in the NFL, everyone has to make an adjustment.”
And on April 30, back in Bickerstaff’s living room for the fourth round of the NFL draft, Young would get his chance. He barely had a moment to celebrate receiving the news from the Ravens when his phone rang again. It was from Darby.
“Congratulations,” Darby said. “You’re lucky, you get to stay home and play in Baltimore!”
“It’s a blessing,” Young said during his conference call later that night, “and I’m overwhelmed that they picked me. It’s like a kid’s dream to play for his hometown.”
Just two questions later, however, he was asked about the issue that had been dogging him his entire football life: Will his size limit him in the NFL?
He answered succinctly and, from the small sample size of Young’s work with the Ravens thus far, correctly: “No.”
Since signing a four-year, $2.95 million contract with Baltimore on May 9, Young has drawn rave reviews from teammates and coaches alike.
Said defensive coordinator Dean Pees: “The thing I like is I’ve seen some production out of him. He shows up around the ball, and his name gets mentioned when we’re in there watching the film a lot. That’s what you want to do as a rookie. You want to be noticed for the good reasons. You don’t want your name mentioned a lot the other way, and it really hasn’t been with him. He has very few mistakes.”
Fellow defensive backs Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith have taken to mentoring Young throughout camp. Both have come away impressed.
“He’s out here making a lot of plays and getting a lot of reps,” Smith said. “I think that, for a rookie, this stage isn’t too big for him at all. He has, I think, the most (pass breakups) of everybody, so that’s a good thing. He’s getting to the ball.”
The Ravens open their season Sept. 11, hosting the Buffalo Bills, when he and Darby, close friends since childhood, will compete against each other. Darby, as he always has been, will be in the spotlight, a national champion at Florida State and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2015. And Young, as ever, will be out to prove himself.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m just a tough guy,” Young said. “I’m a tough player, and that’s what a lot of coaches and people appreciate about me. They always talk about size, but no matter who it is or how big they are, I always come out on top.”