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Westlake duo heads to Texas as Steve Sarkisian makes UT's walk-on program a 'big priority'

Westlake seniors Michael Taaffe, left, and Zane Minors will walk on at Texas. Taaffe is a defensive back who once was committed to Rice, and Minors is a running back who had pledged to Yale.

Michael Taaffe can keep Sept. 18 circled on his calendar.

That's the day the Texas Longhorns are scheduled to host Rice at Royal-Memorial Stadium, a nonconference clash that's surely of interest to the Westlake senior, a talented defensive back who committed to the Owls in November.

That game, however, will no longer serve as a homecoming for Taaffe. Now it will just be a home game.

Last weekend, Taaffe announced that he would not sign with Rice and instead would head to Texas as a preferred walk-on. He'll be walking on with the Longhorns alongside Westlake teammate Zane Minors, a running back who backed away from a previous pledge to Yale.

Football: Newcomers welcomed, but Texas’ Steve Sarkisian focused on developing who’s already here

Westlake running back Zane Minors rushed for nearly 1,700 yards and 23 touchdowns this past season. One of those scores came on a 75-yard run in the championship game win over Southlake Carroll.

"Obviously, I'm going to have to work to earn my spot and to earn that scholarship," Minors said this week. "But I'm as happy as I can be. I'm a Texas Longhorn. I'm a UT football player. That's my dream come true."

On Wednesday, Texas celebrated the national signing day additions of three players from Bryan, Dallas and Mansfield. Keithron Lee, Ishmael Ibraheem and David Abiara aren't the Longhorns' only newcomers, though.

Some prospects have decided they'll join the Longhorns but pay for their own education. Flower Mound's Bert Auburn is arriving as a walk-on kicker. Quarterback Cole Lourd, a three-star recruit from California, will walk on as well. Then there's Taaffe and Minors, who won state championships in each of the past two seasons at Westlake.

Taaffe is a two-time recipient of the state title game's defensive MVP award. He went viral last month for a one-handed interception of a pass thrown by Southlake Carroll wunderkind Quinn Ewers — the nation's No. 1 recruit for the 2022 class, who's already committed to Ohio State — in the Class 6A Division I finale.

Meanwhile, Minors (5 feet 10, 180 pounds) totaled 1,696 yards and 23 touchdowns this past season. One of those scores came on a 75-yard run in the championship game.

"(I'm) just a guy that's going to outwork anyone and is going to be in the facilities 24/7," Taaffe said. "I might not be the fastest or the strongest, but a guy that's going to learn the defensive mindset and everything that (UT special teams) coach (Blake) Gideon tells me to do."

"Wherever Coach needs me to play, whether that be special teams or something else, I'm all for it," Minors said. "I'm there for the team. I'm going to be a team player."

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Any walk-on can look to the Longhorns' Kai Money for inspiration. The former walk-on became a contributor to Texas' receiver rotation in 2020.

Former Texas coach Tom Herman often expressed pride in the health of his walk-on program. This past season, Kai Money became a regular in UT's receiver rotation. Linebacker Cort Jaquess started in the 2019 Alamo Bowl. Justin Mader has been the Longhorns' deep snapper since he arrived on campus in 2018.

On Wednesday, Steve Sarkisian was asked how much weight he likes to throw behind the recruitment of walk-ons. Texas' new coach described the walk-on program as "a big priority."

Fullback Jonathan Amosa, offensive lineman Gregory Christine and tight end Daniel Kanczugowski were former walk-ons who started during Sarkisian's tenure at Washington. He was an assistant at USC when he saw Trojans linebacker Clay Matthews III transform from an underrecruited walk-on into a first-round draft pick.

So finding a diamond in the rough is a perk of a good walk-on program. Sarkisian also noted that better walk-ons mean a better scout team, which leads to better reps for everyone in practice.

"When that mutual respect occurs (between starters and walk-ons), that's when you've really got a great locker room. That's when you've got a great team," Sarkisian said. "The quality of the walk-on player enhances that."

Under Herman, the walk-on program was shepherded by John Michael Jones, an assistant director of player personnel, and Bob Shipley, the director of high school relations. Sarkisian said Shipley will probably shift into a different role at Texas soon. Taaffe and Minors, though, both said Jones was the key figure in their recruitment. (Both players also had contact with their new position coaches, Gideon and Stan Drayton.)

As a walk-on, Taaffe is well aware that he is no longer the "big dog in the school." He hopes to one day regain that status. Make no mistake; Taaffe and Minors believe they can eventually compete for playing time.

If Taaffe needs a source of inspiration, he might just need to look at a nearby campus. Eight years ago, Lake Travis senior Baker Mayfield walked on at Texas Tech and instantly became the starting quarterback. After a falling out with the coaching staff, he left Lubbock and became a walk-on for the second time.

At Oklahoma, Mayfield went on to become a three-time conference champion. He won the Heisman Trophy in 2017. In 2018, the Cleveland Browns selected him with the first pick of the NFL draft.

Lake Travis, of course, is Westlake's bitter rival. There is also no love lost between Texas and Oklahoma. But game recognizes game.

"I think what he did, I can't say that I don't look up to him," Taaffe said of Mayfield. "He capitalized (on his opportunities). That's exactly what I want to do."

Contact Danny Davis at 512-445-3952. Email ddavis@statesman.com or @aasdanny.