CROSS PLAINS, Tenn. – Taylor Groves recently changed his Twitter handle to @iamtaylorgroves, a more assertive and simplified version of the automated @taylorg27045953 name he previously held.
“Everybody can find it now,” he said. “It’s a lot better.”
Contrary to his new username, the East Robertson High School star isn’t someone who has to introduce himself much anymore. At least not to opposing teams, college coaches or football recruiting experts. They are all aware of the athletically gifted 16-year-old with seemingly limitless potential.
Recruiters from bluebloods like Alabama, Clemson, LSU, Tennessee and others have inquired about Groves, who earned TSWA All-State honors in basketball and football as a sophomore last year.
“He’s on everybody’s radar, I’d say,” Indians football coach Atlee Pond said.
247Sports lists Groves as the fifth-best football prospect in Tennessee and the 34th-best wide receiver in the nation for the 2022 class. He has 10 offers from Power 5 schools and seven from SEC programs, despite still having two seasons of high school eligibility left.
How did a native of Cross Plains – which has less than 2,000 residents, a handful of stoplights and two mom-and-pop restaurants – so quickly arrive on the national recruiting scene?
Those who know Groves best point to his competitiveness, insatiable work ethic and natural ability as the reasons behind his rise.
“He’s always striving to be the best,” Pond said. “That’s a great attitude to have, especially if you have a bunch of talent.”
Skills emerge early
It didn’t take long for Groves’ talent to become evident. He was outrunning most other kids by the time he reached elementary school.
But before that, Groves suffered from regular seizures and had to be put on medicine around age five. The medication did its job too well, and soon after, it was no longer necessary. The seizures stopped.
“The medicine made him like a zombie,” said T.A. Groves, Taylor’s father. “He just sat on the couch all the time and wouldn’t do anything. We took him off the medicine, and he hasn’t had a seizure since.”
With the episodes behind him, Taylor was able to excel in youth baseball, basketball and football. Pond is a physical education teacher at East Robertson Elementary and was an early witness to what was coming.
“From a very young age before the hype was around him, you could see a difference,” Pond said. “He stuck out because of his ability and how good of a kid he is.”
His athleticism isn’t necessarily a surprise. T.A. was a basketball standout at East Robertson in the early 1990s and later played at Wabash Valley (Ill.) and Aquinas College in Nashville. Taylor’s mother, Tammy Groves, was a point guard at Logan County High School in Russellville, Kentucky.
Taylor, however, is on track to exceed the sports accomplishments of his parents. They’ve known that for a while.
When Groves played for the East Robertson 10U football team, the Indians went undefeated. He ran for a touchdown nearly every time he reached the open field – a preview of what he would bring to the high school team.
“Nobody could catch him,” T.A. Groves said. “Everybody kind of knew then that he was going to be pretty special.”
Taylor initially preferred basketball over football. He even tried to quit football in eighth grade, but East Robertson basketball coach Kurt Caton talked him out of it.
Once he received an offer from Kentucky after his freshman football season in 2018, Taylor realized he wanted his future to be on the gridiron.
“You don’t like contact as much when you’re a little kid,” he said. “But once I got out there and hit a couple of guys, I was like, ‘Man, I think I like this.’ And I’ve stuck with it ever since then and loved it.”
High school stardom
Taylor already had a leg up by the time he started high school. As an eighth grader in 2017-18, he saw action with the high school basketball and football teams after his middle school seasons ended.
The nervous teenager took some time to adapt to the next level, but with encouragement from former East Robertson assistant basketball coach Melvin Scharklet, Taylor found his groove.
“Moving up helped me a lot in both sports,” Taylor said. “Ever since then, I’ve been calm and collected. I tune out everything that’s not on the court or the field. I don’t get nervous anymore.”
He caught six passes for 111 yards and a touchdown in two football games in 2017. He also averaged nearly 17 points in nine basketball games later that school year.
“Melvin put something in him,” T.A. Groves said. “He just gave you that confidence – it’s like having a second father figure. He could give you a pat on the back, but he could also give you a chewing out when you needed it. And that’s what Taylor needed.”
That confidence has since grown and helped Taylor excel and become a leader for the East Robertson basketball and football teams.
“(But) not to a cocky point,” T.A. Groves said. “Even if he wasn’t my kid, I’d say he’s humble about everything.”
Through 24 high school games, Taylor has produced 2,320 yards of total offense and 22 touchdowns. Most of his time has been spent at wide receiver and defensive back, though he has also contributed at quarterback and on special teams as a holder, punter and returner.
He hit the 1,000-point mark for his basketball career on Jan. 28 and won Robertson County Boys Basketball Player of the Year honors from The Connection, averaging 21 points, 9 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 2019-20. The Indians advanced to the TSSAA Class A state tournament that was canceled in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As individual achievements pile up and more respect is earned, Pond believes Taylor is entering the next phase of stardom.
“You’re starting to see him make other players (better),” Pond said. “Like Michael Jordan, almost. He holds other players accountable and inspires them to work harder. A kid like that can transform your football team.”
Even before colleges were after Groves, Nashville-area private schools were clamoring for his services. But Groves said he feels at home at East Robertson and wants to take the Indians back to the state basketball tournament to honor the late Scharklet, who passed away on April 6 at age 64.
“I was raised here. I want to bring a championship here,” Taylor said. “There’s been plenty of private schools that I could have (attended). But I want to bring one back home.”
Added Pond: “He’s loyal. That’s something you have to respect about him.”
This is where college coaches should especially take note. Just as Cross Plains has offered Taylor a tight-knit community, he hopes to find a similar situation for his next step.
“At East Robertson, he feels like it’s a big family,” T.A. Groves said. “He wants that same feeling in college.”
The choices are growing weekly. Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Virginia Tech have already made offers. FCS programs like Eastern Kentucky, Murray State and Tennessee State have also joined the fray.
That list is expected to grow as Taylor’s film reaches a wider audience. Schools such as Baylor and TCU of the Big 12 and Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon and Southern California from the Pac-12 are among those that have reached out.
“My options are all open,” Taylor said. “I just want to wait for the pandemic to pass or lighten up some so I can take a couple visits, get to know the schools and build relationships with the coaches.”
T.A. said Taylor has been in “constant contact” with Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt and assistant Tee Martin. According to Pond, Martin has compared Taylor to Pittsburgh Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
While the opportunity to play in his home state might be difficult to pass up, Taylor also enjoyed his February visit to Ole Miss. T.A. described Oxford as “a lot like Cross Plains” for its small-town feel.
Much could change before Taylor expects to make his commitment around August 2021, including his primary position.
“I like playing receiver, but I’ve been told by my coaches and parents that I could probably make money by playing defensive back,” he said. “I guess we’ll just have to see when that time comes.”
To college and beyond?
Groves’ dreams don’t stop with simply playing major college football. They go much further, in fact.
“My dream has always been the NFL,” he said. “That’s the goal. I want to win a national championship, be drafted and go to the NFL.”
Less than two percent of NCAA football players earn that opportunity. But Groves, who describes himself “as competitive as they come,” has been putting in the work to get there. He ran routes, did cone drills and lifted weights throughout the pandemic shutdown.
Groves also competes with the National Playmakers Academy (NPA) 18U 7-on-7 team. He gets to line up against the likes of Michigan commit Junior Colson (Ravenwood) and Tennessee commit Walker Merrill (Brentwood), among others.
“It elevates my game a lot,” Taylor said. “East Robertson has a pretty good schedule, but it’s not the Ravenwoods and Pearl-Cohns and Brentwoods. (NPA) makes me play at a high level, and it’s fun and competitive.”
Back in Cross Plains, Pond is hoping to “open up” the offense to get Groves the ball in space more often. He also expects Groves to take on an expanded leadership role.
“Last year, we had good senior leadership and he didn’t have to be as vocal,” Pond said. “But I think now the ball is in his court to take the team over and lead them in the right direction.”
It seems almost certain that time is the only thing keeping Groves from playing college football. He will be there in 2022.
The bigger question: how far can he go?
Groves, his coaches and his family think the sky is the limit. If the cards fall in his favor, he could eventually play on Sundays.
“He’s going to have to keep hitting the weights extra hard,” T.A. Groves said. “He’s still a little scrawny. If he can develop his body, and a lot of things have to go right, he’ll have a chance to play ball somewhere after college.”