While many Wildcats are preparing chips and dip for their Super Bowl parties this weekend, former ACU football standout is counting down the hours till he takes the field in Super Bowl 51.
With over 2900 yards receiving and 27 touchdown catches in three years as a Wildcat, there was no question Taylor Gabriel would be remembered as one the most dominant receivers to play for ACU.
“He’s in that upper tier of people I’ve coached,” said former head football coach Ken Collums, who served as offensive coordinator while Gabriel played for the Wildcats. “It’s one thing to run down the field and catch a deep ball, but being able to still track the ball and use that flexibility at the last second, Taylor could do that.”
But heading for the NFL draft after a season in which he finished with 1060 yards and 73 receptions, Gabriel’s size brought his potential into question, and he went undrafted in the 2014 selections.
John David Baker, former Wildcat quarterback and Gabriel’s teammate for four years, said he saw pro potential from Gabriel especially in bigger games against the likes of New Mexico State, when he recorded 188 yards and 15 catches.
“Those were the games that Taylor seemed to play the best,” Baker said. “And you could kind of tell he stood out from the rest. Even guys at the bigger level had trouble hanging with him. There’s something special about him.”
Fortunately for Gabriel, he was signed by the Cleveland Browns and appeared in all 16 games that season, as he produced 621 receiving yards under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
After Gabriel was cut by the Browns after a less productive 2015, he and Shanahan reunited in Atlanta this season, which has led to Gabriel’s emergence as a lethal slot receiver and Shanahan as the play-caller for the league’s most explosive offense.
Baker has not been surprised by the way Gabriel and the Falcons’ offense have gelled this season.
“One thing that never happened to him, there was never a time when somebody squared him up and tackled him in the open field,” Baker said. “Atlanta runs a West Coast-style offense with lots of verbage. It’s very similar to what he did at ACU. He understands it and what they are trying to do.”
Aside from Gabriel’s raw speed and talent, Collums said he believes it has been his work ethic that has allowed to find success this season.
“I think the No. 1 thing that he learned and I think its the biggest struggle for most guys to learn, it’s about your preparation throughout the year throughout the week and through the offseason,” Collums said. “Talent is only going to get you so far. With a guy with that talent, if they buy in and prepare like crazy then their going to keep developing.”
Regardless of whether Gabriel is able to earn his first Super Bowl ring on Sunday, Baker and Collums are each confident in his NFL future.
“I think this year is just kind of the beginning,” Baker said. “I think people are really starting to realize how special of a talent he is. I think the more opportunities he gets, the more comfortable he’s going to get.”
Collums said during his time around Gabriel, he was always striving to be a better man and that mentality should keep him focused in all aspects of the game.
“I just get a sense from him that he is very grateful for an opportunity to be with the Falcons and have a shot at the NFL,” Collums said. “And because of that sense of gratefulness he’s going to enjoy it as much as he can. Anytime you are grateful it is going to keep you hungry.”
Gabriel will be the first Wildcat to play in a Super Bowl since Danieal Manning led the Chicago Bears’ defense against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl 41.