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Sept. 23, 2010
By Bill Hass
As NC State’s fullback, the junior is often the lead blocker on running plays, usually looking to take out a linebacker. On the Wolfpack’s special teams, he’s either seeking out the football on kickoff and punt coverage or trying to spring a teammate loose with a block on kickoff and punt returns.
“Blocking takes a toll on your body and you really have to recover,” he said. “Certain hits feel good and certain hits don’t; sometimes you get stingers in a game and you’ve just got to fight through them. You know after a game that you’re going to be sore and you’re going to be hurting, so you’ve got to fight through it.”
Gentry has suffered two concussions in his college career and still deals with headaches after games. At least those are soothed a bit this year by the Wolfpack’s 3-0 record, the best start of any team in the ACC.
“The morale around the team is awesome right now,” he said. “The guys are walking tall and we have our heads held high. One thing we have to focus on is what’s ahead because we know what’s around the corner.”
And waiting around that corner is a road game Saturday at Georgia Tech, State’s first ACC test of the season. Gentry said the Pack has to guard against looking too far down the road and getting carried away by expectations following early success.
“It’s crucial, that first conference game,” he said. “We’re 3-0 but we’ve put all that nonconference stuff behind us. It’s hard not to think about things in the future but one thing you have to remind yourself is that you’ve got eight, nine, 10 games ahead of you and you’ve got to control one game at a time.
“What people say to you and what everybody around you says has an effect on the way you think, so you have to keep focused and keep executing.”
Gentry is a junior who came to State as a “preferred” walk-on. After his career at Leesville High in Raleigh, he didn’t have any Division I scholarship offers, so he accepted the Wolfpack’s invitation to walk on.
There are no guarantees in that situation. Even if you make the team, you’re not on the travel squad. Your time in practice is spent as a member of the scout team, simulating the offense and defense run by that week’s opponent.
“You have to earn your stripes,” Gentry said.
So he took to the practice field highly motivated and determined to make himself noticed.
“I came out with a very, very aggressive mentality,” Gentry said, “basically hitting anything that moved, trying to rub off on the coaches and let them know that I’m here to stay and I want to play for you.
“I actually got kicked off the field in one of the practices because I hit T.J. Graham a little too hard. I was on the scout team, he was on the first return team. Everybody asked me ‘what are you doing?’ I was just trying to make them remember me, you know?”
Shortly after that, Gentry was made a member of the regular kickoff coverage and return teams and then added the punt teams to his duties. As the 2008 season wore on, he kept catching the eyes of the coaches, and with two games remaining he was named the starting fullback. He was awarded a scholarship in January of 2009.
“He was a guy that kept jumping up in line, trying to get on the field as fast as he could,” coach Tom O’Brien said. “He has a great determination, he has a great enthusiasm for the game, and every time he got in there when he got his opportunity he made plays for us and showed a physical to toughness that we didn’t have at that spot when we first got here.”
Gentry had played some fullback, along with tight end, linebacker and defensive end, in high school. But the way O’Brien uses his fullback was a little different.
“What we look for is someone, number one, who can block and, number two, has to be able to catch the football,” O’Brien said. “They certainly have to have a physical toughness to be able to go block to go block defensive ends or go block linebackers. And they have to be able to be involved in the passing game; we throw our fullback a lot of passes.”
Gentry caught seven balls as a freshman, 10 more last season and four so far this year. Three receptions have gone for touchdowns, including one last week against Cincinnati.
The number of plays State’s fullback appears in varies from game to game. It might be as few as a dozen or as many as 25 plays, depending on personnel packages. Sometimes he lines up in the slot and runs a pattern and sometimes he’s the check-down for quarterback Russell Wilson, finding an open space. Since he never runs the ball, Gentry relishes the touches he gets on pass receptions.
“When I was a freshman and I’d catch one, I’d get that rush of adrenaline and not really process what was happening, just kind of run with the football,” he said. “Now I’m a veteran out there, I’m used to it, and when I catch a football I see what the defense is doing, I see who’s after me and try to make more yards after a catch and just make a play.”
He also looks at his mission on special teams a bit differently.
“My mentality at first was to be more of a wedge-breaker,” Gentry said, “but since I’ve become a veteran on the field I want more tackles. I want to be out there for bigger purposes than just busting a wedge, so I make my reads, shed the block, pursue the football and try to make the tackle.
“Special teams was what I started on and I took that as a pride thing. Those are my favorite things to be on. It’s more of a defensive mentality; you just go out there and smack somebody.”
He made 21 tackles last season and was the Pack’s special teams player of the year. He has three tackles this season, actually trailing his younger brother Zach, who has five. The brothers haven’t teamed up on a special teams stop, but Taylor Gentry believes it’s inevitable.
“We haven’t table-topped anybody yet,” he said, “but it’s one thing we’re waiting for, to hit somebody at the same time.”
Of all the various tasks Gentry performs, blocking is probably the top priority. He has added 40 pounds to his frame and now weighs 250.
“It definitely helps throwing a block,” he said. “When I was a freshman I weighed 210 pounds and when I hit somebody I had to come with a lot of force because I wasn’t able to move him that easily. Now if I hit with the same amount of force when I was 210, they’re going to move.
“Sometimes I block a secondary guy, sometimes on a lead play I get on a linebacker, sometimes it’s a run where I just hit the first thing that shows. I’ve hit everybody, defensive linemen, linebackers and secondary. D-linemen are the guys who are way tougher to move, but it you hit them hard enough, they’ll fall.”
Gentry’s play has caught the attention of opposing coaches, including Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson.
“I think they run a lot of personnel packages that he’s included in and he can do a lot of things,” Johnson said. “He’s a good blocker, he’s a receiver coming out, he’s sound in (pass) protection, he’s a good football player. He’s a big part of what they do.”
A big part of what the Wolfpack wants to do this week is control the ball to keep the Yellow Jackets’ time-chewing offense off the field.
“That’s definitely part of the game plan, just hold the ball as long as we can and keep their offense off the field,” Gentry said. “They can run the clock down with the kind of offense they run. So we need to run our style of offense, keep our defense off the field and make sure they don’t hit their big plays.”
And if State can be successful doing that, it’s likely to be a game full of collisions for him.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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