Wednesday, September 20, 2006

We need speed. Speed's what we need. Greasy, fast speed!

There is a famous scene in Rocky II where Mickey, the crusty old school boxing trainer, decides that Rocky is too much of a lumbering oaf to beat the champ, Apollo Creed.

So Mickey, saying this was how fighters increased their speed in the old days, lets a live chicken loose in a back alley and tells Rocky "if you can catch this little chicken, you can catch greased lightning!"

Rocky spends the next few minutes chasing the chicken around in circles as it darts around like, well, a chicken with its head cut off while Mickey screams things like "what's the matter, can't you catch a little chicken?". Rocky finally gets tired and gives up, stating he feels like a Kentucky fried idiot.

This scene was the first thing that sprung to mind as I gleefully watched Larry Taylor returning kicks against Wake Forest on Saturday. Granted, I watch way too much TV and have seen the Rocky movies roughly 500 times each (with the exception of Rocky V, which I refuse to ever watch again). But humor me for a moment.

On those returns, Taylor was like the chicken. The Demon Deacons were like Rocky (sans the gray high-water sweatpants hiked up to his chest and the black Chuck Taylors). Taylor ran around, between and over would-be tacklers. He may have even ducked through a set of legs, but I didn't get a good look at the replay. It was, to say the least, impressive. If you've seen the movie and if you saw LT's run backs, you know exactly what I'm talking about.

If there were any lingering doubts as to how Taylor’s knee would hold up following anterior cruciate ligament surgery last October, consider it a dead issue.

Taylor has showed he hasn’t lost any of his trademark explosiveness and elusiveness through the Huskies first two games. In fact, Taylor, whose 27.3 yards-per punt return ranks second in the nation, says his knee feels better than ever.

"It’s like I never even had ACL surgery," Taylor said. "I feel like I’m able to do some things now I couldn’t even do before."

Safe money says that from here on out opposing punters will do everything and everything to keep the ball out of Taylor’s hands. That decision won’t take long after opponents watch game tape of Taylor in action against Rhode Island and Wake Forest.

Last Saturday, the Demon Deacons stopped kicking to Taylor after just two returns. Smart choice. Rocky, after several sessions, eventually caught the chicken in the movie. Opposing teams don't even want to take the chance. Taylor is simply on another level when it comes to kick returns.

"My advantage being small and quick is that I can be elusive on the field and make guys miss," says Taylor, a junior who is just 5-foot-6 and 165 pounds. "As I’m going, I don’t really realize what I’m doing. I’m just reacting off my instincts."

Taylor is often surprised when he sees the game tape. Everything happens so fast during his returns that it’s all just a blur in Taylor’s mind. Opponents whose job is to tackle him have felt the same way since Taylor arrived at UConn.

But there was some question as to whether Taylor would regain his old form.

He tore his ACL returning a kick at Cincinnati last October, and underwent season-ending surgery.

Following the procedure, Taylor put in nearly six months of rehabilitation to regain full function of the knee. He was kept out of spring practice as a precaution, but said by the time preseason camp began in August he was feeling 100 percent.

That’s showed in the numbers. Taylor returned two punts for 49 yards in the opener against Rhode Island, then returned another for 33 yards against Wake Forest. He also returned a kickodd 29 yards against the Demon Deacons.

Both teams decided it would be beneficial to change their strategies. They kicked away from Taylor or hanged punts as high as possible so Taylor was forced to fair catch, even if it meant much shorter kicks.

UConn coach Randy Edsall is preparing for much of the same the rest of the season.

"(That strategy) is a credit to Larry and a credit to our guys on special teams," Edsall said. "It shows the level of respect commanded on the field."

Said Taylor, "It does get frustrating at times when they kick away from you. Hopefully we can come up with some type of schemes to adjust for that if we see they’re going to be doing that early in the game."

Perhaps the opposing coaches can prepare for Taylor like Mickey would, and toss a live chicken on the gridiron. Couldn't hurt, right?


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