Inspired by late mother, undrafted rookie Taylor overcomes odds to make Lions' roster

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — When Demetrius Taylor's phone didn't ring in April, throughout the three days of the NFL draft, it was disappointing, but not unexpected. When it didn't ring Tuesday, it was both validation and relief. 

Undrafted after earning first-team, all-conference honors back-to-back years at Appalachian State, the undersized defensive lineman overcame long odds to make the Detroit Lions' initial 53-man roster this week. In doing so, he avoided the dreaded call to come to the practice facility and bring his playbook. 

Instead, when he showed up to work as scheduled on Tuesday, he got the news he made the team via a coach in the meeting room telling the players there this was the group they'd be "rocking with" heading into the season. 

"That was the confirmation for me, a weight lifted off my shoulders," Taylor said. "Being undrafted, an undersized guy, there was a lot stacked against me, but just to be able to make it my first (offseason), it's an accomplishment in itself. Now I'm in it, I'm on the team, now I just want to show them I can play at a high level against starters and everything."

Rookie defensive lineman Demetrius Taylor works over obstacles during drills.

With his status secured, it was Taylor's turn to pick up the phone. His first call was to his brother, Tremaine. That wouldn't have been the case two years ago. No, there's no doubt who Taylor would have wanted to share the joy and success with before anyone else — his mother, Yolanda Whitehead. 

Whitehead was everything to Taylor. She was his mom, his best friend, his inspiration. In a 2019 interview with his college paper, he explained the importance of their bond. 

"She raised me and my brother by herself, so watching her struggle influenced me to be better in school, sports and anything I did," Taylor said. "I hope to pay her back for everything she did for me one day."

Six months after that interview, she was gone.

Whitehead died of congestive heart failure at the age of 37, leaving Taylor to climb out of what he described as a massive hole. On top of it all, he also had to balance his first foray into fatherhood, welcoming twin boys into the world two short months after his mother's passing. 

Climbing out wasn't easy, but with mom providing continuing motivation, Taylor did. He dominated the next two years for the Mountaineers, recording 24 tackles for a loss and forcing three fumbles during that stretch, earning those all-conference honors each season. 

That was enough to put him on the Lions' radar, promoted as an undrafted target by area scout Steve Neal and assistant director of college scouting Brian Hudspeth. And once Taylor got his foot in the door in Detroit, his play did the rest of his talking. 

While fans didn't get to see much from Taylor during the preseason, the 6-foot-1, 295-pounder was a relentless force on the practice field, routinely finding himself in the backfield. 

"Man, all the kid did is made plays and continued to be productive and disruptive in the run game and the pass game," Lions assistant GM Ray Agnew said. "He made it hard to overlook what he'd been doing, regardless of the size. You see the size and you think, 'Is this guy big enough?' But he's quick off the ball and he continued to prove himself. By the end of camp, you just said, 'This guy is too good to move on from.' He earned everything he got."

More impressively, Taylor accomplished his goal of making the roster while learning a new position. At Appalachian State, he lined up more as an edge rusher. But with Taylor at nearly 300 pounds, the Lions understandably wanted him to shift inside to defensive tackle. 

With a lightning-quick first step, he took to the new role almost immediately. He credited the team's veterans, particularly Bruce Hector, Alim McNeill and Isaiah Buggs, for taking him under their wing and showing him the ropes. Hector was a steady source of assistance with Taylor's technique, while McNeil and Buggs provided insight on how to best beat the blocks of NFL-caliber offensive linemen. 

With his initial goal accomplished, Taylor still has a long road ahead to carve out a defensive role and meaningful playing time. But he's up to the challenge, ready to put his quickness and natural leverage to use. 

"I can beat a lot of guys inside," Taylor said. "Now, it's just me learning and perfecting the techniques so I can do that more consistently. I have shown it and done it plenty of times during the preseason and in practice, but throughout the season, I have to get more consistent. I'm going to be going against these veteran guards and centers and they may know tricks you've never seen before."

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers