Hard work pays off for Chelsea’s Michigan Football Walk-Ons

ANN ARBOR — When Michigan’s Hunter Neff and Joe Taylor returned to the locker room after the team’s season-opening win over Colorado State on Sept. 3, they were in for quite a surprise as they checked their phones.

Both received numerous text messages after Chelsea High’s walk-ons each saw the field in play and made an impact. Neff, a senior, had an 8-yard reception on an out route on his first career snap, while Taylor, a sophomore, played on special teams and returned a 24-yard kickoff in the fourth quarter.

“Just very proud of these guys,” said Chelsea manager Josh Lucas of his former players. “It was great to have those two guys there and what they meant to our football program on and off the pitch. At the night game (vs Hawaii) I was at the parents’ tailgate with Joe’s dad and Hunter’s dad so it was nice to see those guys and see how happy they were to know their boys were playing out there. It’s really cool.”

For Neff and Taylor, getting on the field was rewarding not only because of the close eye they had from a large group of family members, friends, and former teammates and coaches, but also because of the work they put into the offseason to to get this opportunity.

Neff, a senior, did not appear in a game in his first two years at Ann Arbor and then suffered a cruciate ligament tear during spring practice in 2021 that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. The 6-foot-3, 231-pounder has always been a die-hard Michigan fan and frequently attended games growing up, but he wondered if the injury could ruin his dream of playing in the Big House.

Neff’s rehab process took 10 months to come back to full strength and he said it was worth living his dream. He played two snaps against Colorado State and had four more in the win against UConn last week, but it was his first and one he’ll always remember.

“I just had so much adrenaline out there,” he said. “It was almost like an out-of-body experience.

“It was a lot more of a process coming back than I expected. I don’t think anyone is really prepared for what it takes to get back to where they were before. But it was definitely a rewarding process. It took a lot of work, but it was a blessing.”

Meanwhile, Taylor, a sophomore, only appeared in one game last season and didn’t dress for most of them, including Michigan’s first win over Ohio State since 2011. That he wasn’t in uniform while celebrating the win was fired the 5-foot-10, 185-pound sophomore during the offseason.

“I think that was kind of a turning point for me,” Taylor said. “I remember sitting on the field during the Ohio State game and thinking, ‘I’m going to do everything in my power to get dressed.’ I never wanted to feel like I couldn’t get dressed again, so I made sure I could. I have to make sure I have a role next year.”

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Michigan’s Joe Taylor celebrates after a tackle against Hawaii September 11. (Photo courtesy of Michigan Photography)Michigan photography

Taylor earned a significant this season on special teams. He is third on the team with 47 special teams snaps and is in the kickoff, kick return, and punt return units. He also has the third highest special team grade on the team, according to Pro Football Focus.

The 2020 Ann Arbor News Offensive Player of the Year also played his first offensive snap at receiver against UConn, making a key block on the punter to create a seam for AJ Henning, who returned the punt 61 yards for a touchdown.

“He was a big influence,” Henning said of Taylor. “When he was in the receiver room and then just seeing what he does on special teams, the effort and attitude he’s playing with – one of the games last week – he just messed a guy up. You can just see that and you can see the effort he puts into playing, it was great. He took care of the (punter) for me and gave him an extra pat on the back for handling it.”

On last week’s Inside Michigan Football radio show, head coach Jim Harbaugh said Taylor reminded him of senior Caden Kolesar, a former walk-on who has become one of Michigan’s best special teams players, evidently from his blocked punt last week .

“I was just by his side,” Taylor said of Kolesar. “I’m just trying to watch him perfect his craft and then learn from him. He was probably one of the biggest influences I had. He really gets people buying into special teams. He made a career here in Michigan, right outside of special teams. He has been a huge help in getting me where I am today and where I want to be in the future.”

Neither Taylor nor Neff anticipated playing football early on in the Michigan recruitment process. Neff was originally signed to Lawrence Tech before Harbaugh offered him a spot on the team as a preferred walk-on while Taylor was signed to go to the Wolverines baseball team. But an injury to his throwing arm and a phone call from former Michigan football analyst Steve Casula changed his mind.

Both believe they made the right decisions, especially as they are able to play together for the first time since team-mates at Chelsea in 2018, when they were one win away from a state title.

“It was fantastic,” Neff said of Taylor. “We are also good family friends. His dad was our strength coach at Chelsea and he was like a father figure growing up. It was just great to see Joe progress and come onto the field.”

Meanwhile, Lucas is enjoying every moment he can see his former standout players play for a top five team in the country just a few miles away.

“Hunter worked his butt off just to give himself an opportunity to come back,” he said. “Just being out there is one thing, but making a catch in front of 100,000 people in the Big House is another thing.

“From the start, I thought Joe was one of the better players in high school football, and now Michigan is showing that. Each week continues to build for him. I’m just really proud of him and his work ethic and being able to hang my head and go to work every day. He was never given anything for him. He had to earn all these things that he gets.”

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