Tony Taylor was on the verge of star status for Georgia as he closed his 2003 sophomore season with a flourish.
There was a 10-tackle performance with one sack against Georgia Tech. Then came an end-zone interception which clinched the Bulldogs' overtime victory over Purdue in the Capital One Bowl. He finished the year with 82 tackles, including 17 against Middle Tennessee State.
"I felt Tony was moving into an elite player category with Thomas Davis and Odell Thurman ... the guys that really became great players, like Boss Bailey," said Georgia coach Mark Richt Wednesday.
Then Taylor suffered a knee injury late in the 2004 G-Day spring game that forced him to miss the 2004 season.
Taylor came back in 2005, moving from outside linebacker to middle linebacker. He recorded an interception against Boise State on his first play of the season, but he didn't match the overall production of his sophomore year.
Now fully recovered and back at his weakside linebacker spot, Taylor has enjoyed his best season as a senior for Georgia, which plays No. 14 Virginia Tech in Saturday's Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Taylor leads Georgia with 87 tackles and is second with five interceptions. He caused two fumbles and had two recoveries.
Taylor returned an interception 24 yards for a touchdown against Vanderbilt and also scored on a fumble return against Georgia Tech.
It's just the kind of production Richt expected following the 2003 season.
"I'm not surprised at anything he did," Richt said.
On a team which struggled with inconsistency before a strong finish with wins over Auburn and Georgia Tech, Taylor was a steady leader. He earned second-team All-Southeastern Conference honors by the league's coaches and The Associated Press.
"I think the biggest thing for me was actually being healthy on the field," said Taylor, who downplayed his rise in big plays as the product of support from teammates.
"A lot of things you might see me doing as an individual, it's because of other guys doing the right things at the right times," he said.
Taylor (6-1, 237) was on track to become the first linebacker since Keith Harris in 1973 to lead the team in interceptions. Then safety Tra Battle picked off three passes in the win over Auburn to finish with six for the team lead.
"We kind of joked about it, actually," Taylor said. "There were a couple stretches there where I got lucky and had a few and then he came back in the Auburn game and had three and he was kind of like 'I got you.' We went back and forth on that for a while."
Taylor, a former all-state player at Oconee County High School near Athens, has been invited to play in the Jan. 27 Senior Bowl all-star game. He has boosted his NFL draft status with the strong season, but Richt also likes to brag about the leadership Taylor showed away from the public eye during his 2004 redshirt season.
"Even through the injury he did such a super job of leading," Richt said. "At the end of the year he was healthy enough to practice, and he came to me and asked if he could be on the scout team and help the offense get better. I was like 'Yeah, that'd be awesome.'
"He goes over there and starts rallying the troops. The level of play of the scout team just went through the roof for us. It just shows what kind of leader he is."
Taylor and center Nick Jones were elected by teammates as overall team captains for the season.
Notes: Virginia Tech practiced at the Georgia Dome Monday due to rain but otherwise has conducted its practices outdoors at Georgia Tech's facilities. Virginia Tech had the option of rotating practice times with Georgia at the Dome, but coach Frank Beamer said Wednesday he prefers to have a set routine with practices at the same time each day. Beamer said he'll bring his team back to the Dome for a light workout Friday. ...
Richt said he continues to take applications for the offensive line coach position that opened when Neil Callaway was named Alabama-Birmingham's head coach. Callaway is with Georgia through the bowl game, though Richt already has named Mike Bobo to succeed Callaway as offensive coordinator. Richt said he is considering the option of naming tight ends coach Dave Johnson the new line coach and then hiring a new tight ends coach. ...
Georgia junior tailback Danny Ware said last week he may leave school early to enter the NFL draft. Ware plans to announce his decision after the bowl game. Ware did not start a game this season but is second on the team with 302 yards rushing and three touchdowns.