Five years before 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan became smitten with a too-tiny, too-slow wide receiver, Tony Franklin was the first to fall in love with Trent Taylor.
In 2012, Franklin was Louisiana Tech’s offensive coordinator and Taylor was a 160-pound high school senior who couldn’t get some Division II schools to notice him.
But Franklin couldn’t take his eyes off him when Taylor attended Louisiana Tech’s summer camp. And he wasn’t alone.
Taylor was so impressive that Bulldogs wide receivers Quinton Patton and Myles White, both future NFL players, made mid-camp pleas to Franklin: Give that mighty mite a scholarship.
“They came running across the field at me and were screaming ‘If you don’t take him, you’re crazy,’” Franklin said. “They loved it because Trent absolutely killed everybody there. He didn’t just beat everybody; he made them look silly.”
Others probably thought Franklin was silly when it came to his huge crush on the shrimp-sized slot receiver: Louisiana Tech was the only Division I school to offer Taylor a scholarship.
Now, five years later, Shanahan is in a similar spot. Despite pre-draft speculation that Taylor wouldn’t be picked, the 49ers selected him in the fifth round and Shanahan has said he was his favorite player in the draft.
Franklin, now the offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State, thinks Shanahan will be rewarded for taking a chance on a player who, literally, doesn’t measure up in many areas.
“A lot of times you hear people say ‘This guy is the next Wes Welker,’” said Franklin, invoking the undersized, undrafted wideout who went to five Pro Bowls during his 12-year career. “Every small, white kid’s been Wes Welker since Wes Welker became a star. I’m telling you, Trent Taylor really is.”
Before the first question could be asked, Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz began a recent phone interview with a laugh: “I’ve told the staff, we are going to learn how good we are as coaches post-Trent Taylor.”
Taylor was the engine that allowed the Bulldogs to post 27 wins and three bowl-game victories from 2014-16. In his final two seasons, Taylor amassed video-game numbers (235 catches, 3,085 yards, 21 TDs). He led the nation in receiving yards (1,803) last year and left Louisiana Tech ranked fifth in Division I history in receptions (327).
Still, much of the NFL reacted like those Division II colleges that yawned at Taylor’s highlights from Evangel Christian in Shreveport, La. NFL.com projected Taylor to go undrafted. And analyst Nolan Nawrocki pegged Taylor as a seventh-round pick whose best chance to make a team would “likely come as a punt returner.”
The reason: Scouts focused on other numbers besides the stats Taylor piled up in a pass-crazed offense.
At the combine, Taylor looked Lilliputian among his peers: Of the 53 wide receivers, he was the second-shortest (5-foot-8), the fourth-lightest (181 pounds), had the tiniest hands (8¼ inches) and the second-shortest arms (28¾ inches). And he wasn’t just small; he was slow: His 40-yard dash (4.63 seconds) ranked 44th among 51 wideouts who ran.
Louisiana Tech assistant coach Tim Rattay, an NFL quarterback who spent six of his eight seasons with the 49ers, told skeptical scouts to trust him.
“I told them, he’s going to find a way to make the team and he’s going to find a way to be a very successful player,” Rattay said. “That’s just the way he works. It how he’s wired. He won’t stop until he does it.
“He’s always been that guy that walks on the field and the other team thinks ‘This little dude can’t do anything.’ And he goes out and shreds them. He believes he is going to beat you.”
Taylor’s self-belief was even evident during the first practices of his NFL career. During a recent offseason session, he caught a short pass, motored upfield and punctuated the play by extending his right arm to signal a first down.
It’s a reminder that the combine couldn’t measure his swagger.
“It’s always been like ‘Let’s keep playing football,’” Taylor said when asked how he responds to you’re-too-small trash talk, “‘and I’m going to keep catching touchdowns on you.’”
Taylor credits his dad, Greg, for much of his drive and belief.
Greg Taylor is the son of a high school football coach who raised Trent and Trey, Trent’s older brother by 16 months, with a style that was often more drill sergeant than dad. Greg says he was a “crazy” father until he became a Christian later in life.
His faith gradually inspired him to finally stop screaming and seek other ways to inspire his sons. His mission was to transmit the desire that allowed him to overcome long odds: Greg Taylor was a 5-9, 205-pound linebacker at Western Kentucky who has not forgotten the words he heard from an assistant coach after he graduated.
“He told me ‘You had no business playing here but your will and your drive found you a spot,” Greg said. “And that’s what I tried to instill into Trey and Trent: ‘Hey, if you want it, you’ve got to work for it. You’ve got to out-will them, out-hustle them and out-mental-tough them.’”
The words resonated. Trey Taylor (5-9, 185) was a wide receiver at Division II Arkansas-Monticello, and both brothers grew up believing anything could be accomplished with enough effort.
And if that effort was wanting? Trent says Greg, screaming from the stands, would threaten to bench him during games if he didn’t hustle to the established standards.
“He was my basketball coach when I was a kid and all my friends were afraid of him because he was always yelling,” Trent said. “But he taught us to compete, fight for what we wanted and not let anyone tell us we couldn’t do something. He had a way of pulling things out of you that you didn’t know you had.
Taylor admits his confidence has occasionally wavered.
His college debut came at North Carolina State. And he began to wonder — after surveying the size of the stadium and the Wolfpack cornerbacks — did Louisiana Tech make a mistake?
Said Taylor: “I remember in warm-ups I was thinking to myself, ‘I do not belong out here right now. What am I doing?’”
By that first game, however, he’d already made a believer of Holtz, who was hired after head coach Sonny Dykes and Franklin went to Cal before Taylor had arrived on campus. Holtz honored Taylor’s scholarship, but had modest expectations: In the worst-case scenario, he figured, the little guy could develop into their punt returner.
But Holtz quickly realized that Taylor was going to play wide receiver as a true freshman.
“It was probably after two weeks where you said, ‘You know what? That Taylor kid is pretty damn good,’” Holtz said.
Holtz was won over by Taylor’s Velcro hands, passion, work ethic and shocking durability. He’s never missed a game, even in his pee-wee days, and didn’t miss a practice in college.
Shanahan likes the way Taylor runs “angry and pissed off” and Taylor confirmed he’s short and not so sweet: He was also a defensive back in high school and once broke a wide receiver’s jaw after belting him on a slant route (“Didn’t mean to do that,” he said).
“With Trent, it quickly became clear he could play,” said quarterback Ryan Higgins, who was part of Taylor’s graduating class. “But he was so small, it was like ‘Can he take a hit? Is he too fragile?’ No. It’s the exact opposite.”
Said 49ers vice president of player personnel Adam Peters: “I think it’s just his will and competitive nature that separated him from some other guys.”
Taylor wouldn’t be in the NFL without his desire, but there is an important point to make. He’s freakishly athletic. That is, this is not a modern-day Rudy.
At 2, his dad insists he could track baseballs (yes, Greg would throw them) and hop off picnic tables and take off without breaking stride. In high school, he was an all-state wide receiver … and an all-state point guard. As a senior, he took up organized tennis and reached the state finals in doubles.
At Louisiana Tech, he squatted nearly three times his weight and would catch punts one-handed — behind his back — in practice. In one practice, he was sprinting down the sideline and caught a low, underthrown pass by reaching between his legs without turning to face the ball.
“It was amazing,” Holtz said. “And I told him, ‘If you ever do that in a game, you better catch that dadgum thing or you’re done playing here.’”
Taylor doesn’t possess impressive straight-line speed, but he has elite short-area quickness, which Shanahan thinks is more important for slot receivers. Taylor has a gift for changing direction without decelerating and his jitterbug burst was on display at the combine: He had the fastest time in the three-cone drill and the third-fastest 20-yard short shuttle.
He dominated in Conference USA, but also destroyed the big boys. In his final two seasons, he averaged 9.3 catches and 130.5 yards in four games against Power 5 schools.
Franklin first saw Taylor dominate against far lesser competition in 2012, but he didn’t see him do it in person until last year.
Taylor and the Division I coach who believed in him reconnected when Middle Tennessee State beat Louisiana Tech 38-34 in September. Taylor had 17 catches, 210 yards and two touchdowns, and received a postgame embrace from Franklin, who told him he was “as good as a player as there is in college football.”
Now, Franklin thinks Taylor can be as good as Welker, which many in the NFL might find silly. But he also encountered a few skeptics five years ago.
“Trent’s not an easy one when you walk into the meeting and say, ‘Hey, I want to give this kid a scholarship,’” Franklin said. “But he did more than prove me right. He kicked ass and took names.”
Eric Branch is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Eric_Branch
A look at the 49ers newcomer and some of the little men doing big things in major American sports:
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86 career goals
Trent Taylor, 49ers
5th-round draft pick
Isaiah Thomas, Celtics