Justin Taylor had an offseason to remember.
The Nazareth senior wide receiver/free safety finalized his lifelong dream of playing college football by committing to Wisconsin on May 13. He watched the Badgers add several high-profile players to their 2023 recruiting class during the summer, and worked on his speed and strength to turn himself into a player to watch across the country.
But Taylor is still searching for an elusive prize that’s been outside his grasp throughout his illustrious high school career – a state championship. Considering Nazareth coach Tim Racki has won a combined seven state titles for two programs, Taylor has a clear understanding of the importance of building toward a memorable finish.
Taylor said his commitment to the Badgers put a target on his back, but he’s become accustomed to the pressure of high expectations playing for the Roadrunners.
“I know I’m not the face of the team, but am someone well-known and also a leader on the team,” Taylor said. “There’s nothing more extra added to it. I know there’s a bull’s-eye on not only my back, but the team because everyone wants to beat Nazareth Academy. We’ve had a lot of great athletes and players that have come through the program.
“I’ve been coming to games since eighth grade. I’ve seen the guys lead and talk and how they hold everyone to a high standard. It was a great example for me.”
The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Taylor is thrust into the WR1 spot following the graduation of do-it-all Trell Harris, now a freshman at Kent State. Taylor, who probably will play on the defensive side of the ball in college, showed he’s ready for the spotlight after a big junior season in which he caught more than 800 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns and tallied 226 yards rushing on 33 carries.
Taylor said he’s ready for the challenge of leading Nazareth, which finished with a 7-5 record last season.
“I think I’ve learned the game a lot more since last season,” Taylor said. “My [football] IQ is a lot higher and allows me to play faster. I’m physically stronger with more speed than last year and better ball skills and am able to track footballs.
“I see a lot of potential for us. We’re a very fast team and we have a lot of young guys that are really good. We’re going to surprise a lot of people on offense. We lost some key guys, but our younger guys coming in are really good. I see our offense being very dynamic.”
Senior Zach Hayes is a key player for the shorthanded Roadrunners. Hayes is a jack-of-all trades, playing wide receiver, defensive back and handling the kicking duties. Hayes, who has three offers, said he’s motivated for a big season, both individually and team-wise. Defense, Hayes said, remains his most experienced side of the ball but he’s excited about getting more reps on offense.
“This group of seniors is hungry to start the year,” Hayes said. “We’ve experienced losing in the playoffs, and we definitely don’t want that to happen again. … I feel this wide receiver group has a lot of potential to do great things. We have multiple weapons, so a defense won’t be able to single in on one of us. I’m looking forward to contributing more on offense like I did in my sophomore year.”
Racki said Taylor and Hayes are two of the building blocks for the Roadrunners this fall. The Roadrunners return five starters on offense and seven on defense, with sophomore quarterback Logan Malachuk slated for a bigger role after passing for 1,806 yards and 18 touchdowns as a freshman last season.
“Justin has taken his game to another level,” Racki said. “But he’s keeping his head where his feet are. Zach has responded really well and is really respected by his teammates. Logan has really taken it to another level for us. Our passing game looks really solid.”