Taylor Madeby Chad Bishop
Linebacker making plays for the Vanderbilt defense in 2022
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The way CJ Taylor’s vehicle spun, twisted and flipped through the air could be seen as being emblematic of the first 19 years of Taylor’s life.
In early August, just after the Commodores had started preseason practice, Taylor and roommate Quantaves Gaskins headed out to shop for decorations for their new dorm room. Taylor was driving extra cautiously in the interstate’s far-right lane because of a donut spare tire that had replaced a flat.
“All of a sudden, we’re spinning. Boom!” Taylor said. “(Gaskins is) up in the air. Airbag comes out and hits me. They said we flipped, and I don’t remember flipping. I saw the concrete wall, and then I don’t remember stopping.”
Authorities estimated the vehicle that struck Taylor’s car had been going nearly 100 mph. When Taylor came to, he couldn’t get out of the driver’s side of his car and couldn’t feel his left arm. For a split second, he remembers, he actually thought his left arm was missing.
But other than some aches and pains, Taylor and Gaskins were unscathed and, somewhat miraculously, returned to practice a few days later.
That sort of life event can shake the strongest of resolves. But Taylor, who has already lived through one horrific and devastating car wreck, takes it all in stride.
More than two months later, the sophomore linebacker is having a breakout season for at Vanderbilt and showing promise he’ll be a star in black and gold for years to come.
Family Matters in McMinnville
Much of Taylor’s resolve, work ethic and perseverance stems from emulating his mother.
Brandy Pinegar raised Taylor and his three siblings in McMinnville, Tennessee. As the general manager of a fast food restaurant, Pinegar leaned on the help of community to look after her children—especially her youngest son, Taylor.
Taylor’s father, Chad Taylor, who was incarcerated when CJ was 7, had instilled in the son a love for football and a desire to be the best among his peers. That helped mold CJ’s competitive spirit at an early age.
“My dad would always hold me to that higher standard,” Taylor said. “And me being a daddy’s boy, I never wanted to disappoint him.”
Taylor was also surrounded by exceptional talent. Cousin Jauan Jennings starred at Tennessee and is now a wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers. Cousin Alontae Taylor, also a former Tennessee standout, is a cornerback for the New Orleans Saints. Cousin DJ Taylor is a linebacker at Bowling Green State University and spent five seasons at Wake Forest University.
CJ Taylor said part of his drive to succeed as a youth was to “not be the only cousin” who didn’t make it to the next level on the football field. It wasn’t until his senior year of high school, though, that Taylor began to show up on the radar of college coaches.
Warren County’s Winner
To know the recent history of Warren County High School football is to understand that victories have been few and far between.
From 1990 to 2019, the Pioneers never finished with a winning record. Taylor grew up going to Warren County games dreaming for the chance to turn his hometown team’s fortunes around.
He played mostly linebacker and running back in youth football. Then came a fateful conversation with Warren County head coach Matt Turner ahead of the 2019 season.
“He asked if I ever thought about playing quarterback,” Taylor recalled. “I said, ‘I’m tired of losing. If it’s going to get us to the point where we’re winning, I’ll do it.’ He was like, ‘That’s all I needed to hear.’ ”
Taylor rushed for 869 yards and six scores while throwing for 304 as a junior as Warren County’s quarterback. The Pioneers still finished 4-6, but the foundation was there for Taylor and Warren County to build on.
Outside of McMinnville, though, the recognition was still missing. Taylor’s frustration grew in early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States with full force. Uncertainty set in, and Taylor thought he might end up at a junior college or in a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics program and miss his chance to give Warren County a winning season.
On Aug. 21, 2020, things began to change for the better.
“My first game my senior year, I rushed for like 300 yards and my coach was like, ‘If you keep doing this they can’t ignore you forever.’ ”
Taylor received an offer from Tennessee Tech not long after that. A few games later, as Warren County continued to win and Taylor continued to run wild, Austin Peay and Eastern Kentucky offered scholarships. Mississippi State eventually did too.
Though Taylor was on his way to rushing for nearly 2,000 yards and scoring more than 20 times in 2020, he kept hearing the same refrain from major college programs: “We would love to offer you a scholarship, but we’re not ready to honor a commitment until we see how our roster shakes out.”
Taylor ran harder and faster each week in hopes of proving the naysayers wrong.
“I got to the point in games where it wasn’t just about scoring the touchdown, it was about scoring as fast as possible,” he said.
Nearly a Volunteer
It may raise an eyebrow or two, this part of the story.
Just weeks before National Signing Day in February 2021, Taylor almost wound up a Tennessee Volunteer even though he had verbally committed to Vanderbilt in December thanks to a scholarship offer from then Vandy head coach Derek Mason.
Alontae Taylor, the aforementioned cousin, helped former Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt make contact with CJ Taylor’s coaches at Warren County. They gave Pruitt Taylor’s number.
Pruitt told Taylor on the phone that he was impressed with the playmaker’s film. Pruitt was excited for the possibility of Taylor committing to spend his college career in Knoxville.
But Pruitt was relieved of his position at Tennessee on Jan. 18, 2021.
Then Vandy’s decision to move on from Mason to current head coach Clark Lea left Taylor in another sort of recruiting limbo. But Lea, while still serving as defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, had called to tell Taylor he was definitely still welcome as a Commodore.
It wasn’t until the night before National Signing Day that Vanderbilt general manager Barton Simmons convinced Taylor to put ink to paper, signing with Vanderbilt despite a late recruiting pitch from Arkansas State.
Year 1 With Team 1
“It was depressing,” Taylor said of the 2021 season. “When I first got up here, I was mentally … I was not OK. I was crying. I did not want to be here. It was a homesick thing, and I wasn’t playing when I thought I should be playing.
“Knowing what it takes now? And not realizing what it took and being immature and ignorant to the situation? That year I didn’t play helped me a lot to realize what I realize now.”
Taylor admits he had an ego problem: He thought all he had accomplished at the high school level would immediately translate to the college game.
It didn’t help that Taylor broke his hand catching a ball from a passing machine over the summer and had to have surgery. When he was cleared to practice ahead of the season, Taylor still had to wear a protective cast.
And on the defensive side of the ball, he was behind veteran Michael Owusu and the talented De’Rickey Wright on the depth chart.
“When I first got here, I knew who was on the roster and who I had to beat out—and I thought I could,” Taylor said. “But once I knew what college was all about, I didn’t have that. I bring some stuff that other people can’t bring to the table: I have a knack for the ball, I’m very instinctual. I had to tap into that skill set. I think me not playing last year helped my work ethic.”
In six games in 2021, Taylor made just three tackles and spent the majority of his time on special teams. Those numbers could in no way have predicted what would happen next.
With eight minutes and 14 seconds left in the third quarter of a game against Missouri on Oct. 22 in Columbia, Taylor made the play of his young career—and maybe his life.
The call was “LeBron,” a blitz play with Missouri facing a 3rd-and-9 at its own 11 (Vanderbilt had run a similar blitz earlier in the game called “Mamba” where Taylor couldn’t avoid a block that sent him to the ground and sent pain through his previously injured hand).
Earlier in the week during film study Taylor and his position coaches had picked up that Missouri running back Cody Schrader was prone to cut block in his protection of quarterback Brady Cook. Taylor knew when the ball was snapped that fellow linebacker Anfernee Orji was blitzing to Taylor’s right, so Taylor had no choice but to charge Schrader head on.
And the rest is history.
Taylor hurdled Schrader, reached out for Cook with his right hand, knocked the ball loose, scooped it up and scored his second touchdown of the season. It was the breakout moment in a breakout season.
“That was awesome,” Taylor laughed. “I had thought my scoring days were over.”
Ahead of Saturday’s game at Kentucky (6-3, 3-3 SEC), Taylor is fifth among Commodores with 38 tackles, four of those for a loss. He has also broken up three passes and found the end zone Aug. 27 on a fumble return at Hawai‘i.
“CJ Taylor is a ball player. That’s what I call him,” Orji said recently. “Every time I see him, ‘Ball player.’ He just knows how to play the game. He just goes reckless, has fun, knows what he’s doing, plays at a high level, has a high motor, great effort. I just love playing with him.”
Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Nick Howell offers a more seasoned and traditional assessment: “CJ is doing well. The longer you practice, the more comfortable you get. You’re going to get better. He’s young, so he’s just improving. He’s got a real knack for the ball.
“I see a guy that practices really hard and has a good understanding of what he does. He’s a really good athlete, so he’s making the plays that he’s supposed to make. He’s doing a good job of that.”
We 👀 you @seejay2k1 #AnchorDown pic.twitter.com/qeVe0nSzBa
— Vanderbilt Football (@VandyFootball) October 23, 2022
All for Dominque, All for Mom
Taylor’s memories of Warren County Friday nights, of his car crash in August, of that one play against Missouri (which was the No. 1 play on that night’s SportsCenter’s Top 10)—they all play second fiddle to another memory.
On Dec. 1, 2013, Taylor woke up in his home alone. He thought his older brother Dominque Pinegar would be there to look after him, but he didn’t give a second thought to Pinegar’s absence.
Then a family friend arrived at Taylor’s house to pick him up, telling him he’d be spending the night with them. As he got into the car, he looked out the window and vividly remembers passing the restaurant his mom worked at and pulling in to the parking lot of the neighboring hospital instead.
His siblings were already there, as were members of his father’s family—whom he rarely saw. As was his mother.
Dominque DeShawn Pineger had died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. The Warren County High School senior was just two months shy of his 18th birthday.
“It hit hard,” said Taylor, who was 10 years old at the time. “It was like losing a brother, a best friend and father figure all in one.
“Every day I wake up and try not to take anything for granted because I know it could end. Every day is not guaranteed. The next day is not guaranteed.”
Taylor has Pinegar’s likeness tattooed on his right forearm and, he said, not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about his older brother.
“I know he’d be proud of me,” Taylor said. “I try to live the right way for him.”
Taylor also thinks about his mother each day. The medicine, health and society major once gave an interview where he said he works as hard as he does so that his mother never has to work another day in her life.
Taylor is pushing, on the field and in the classroom, to make sure that all she sacrificed throughout his childhood isn’t for naught.
“I’m pushing myself to make her proud. When I’m playing the game, I know I’m playing for more than just myself,” he said. “Every day I wake up and if I don’t have a ‘want to,’ I just think that if my mom could do it, I could do it.
“This is not really even a choice for me. I have to do it—not only for her but for myself, too, so I can show her what she did was worth it.”
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.