Utah senior safety Justin Taplin-Ross is already the best in a couple of areas among Ute football players.
Dancing, for one.
"Yeah he's a pretty good dancer," says teammate Brandon Burton. "Every time we're outside of football, he's dancin'. That's like his second hobby. He dances all day, every day."
Taplin-Ross is also perhaps the best athlete on the team, with a team-best vertical leap of 39 inches, 4.5 speed in the 40, a 10-foot-plus standing broad jump and basketball skills that earned him Gatorade Player of the Year honors in high school and several college scholarship offers.
"He's a freak athlete," says U. defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake. "He can jump out of the gym and is a great basketball player. He's one of the most athletic guys I've seen, just really talented."
So where has Taplin-Ross been all these years?
Well, he's been stuck behind all-Mountain West Conference safety Robert Johnson, who has taken his talents to the NFL.
This year, Taplin-Ross is taking over for Johnson at free safety and is expected to be one of the leaders of a young Ute defense.
"Justin is a guy we've always known was athletic, but he was stuck behind Robert Johnson for a couple of years," said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham. "This is his opportunity. Justin is getting his chance now and is making the most of it. He had a very good spring and has picked up where he left off this fall."
Everyone who talks about Taplin-Ross uses the word "humble" to describe him. Another word is "smart," which Taplin-Ross shows on the field as well as in the classroom where he has been academic all-MWC for two years and on the athletic director's honor roll.
Taplin-Ross came to Utah in 2007 and admits, "When they first started talking to me I didn't know where Utah was, to be honest with you."
He remembers watching the 2006 bowl win over Tulsa and being impressed with Eric Weddle and Steve Tate and the rest of the Ute defense.
"I saw practice, I loved how they competed, how they swarmed on defense," he said of his recruiting visit. "I had a good feeling and prayed about it and decided to commit before I even left."
Taplin-Ross played right away as a freshman and mostly played on special teams his first two years. Last year, he played in all 13 games and finished with 29 tackles and three pass breakups and started one game when Johnson was injured.
"He came into his own when he got his opportunity to play and did well," said safeties coach Morgan Scalley. "It gave him confidence and now it's his time."
Scalley says Taplin-Ross has all the skills to be a great safety for the Utes.
"He's got the range to play free safety and the coverage skills to play strong safety," said Scalley said. "He's humble and is willing to work. If you give him something to work on, he comes back the next practice and you can tell he's worked on it. He's also a kid who cares about the others in the group. He's not just in it for himself. He wants the best for the safety group, so he's out there, meeting extra with those guys and going over stuff."
The fact that the Utes lost both safety starters, Johnson and Joe Dale, some folks figure it will be a weak area on the team this year.
"We had a couple of guys leave and everyone says this is a weak spot. Me and my group want nothing more than to prove them wrong," he said. "We just need to tighten things a bit and we'll be ready."
At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, Taplin-Ross has the size to play either safety spot and right now he's ticketed for free safety with true freshman Brian Blechin holding the No. 1 spot at strong safety. Others who could see time at safety include Chris Washington, Greg Bird and Damian Payne.
Taplin-Ross was born and raised in central Texas but moved to Murrieta, Calif., when he was in junior high school.
He says basketball is his "first love" and he had college recruiters after him during his senior season. However, he had already committed to play football for Utah, a decision he doesn't regret.
"I've loved it," he says. "It's a beautiful area. We've been to three bowl games ... we have a winning tradition at home ... the coaches know what they're doing ... it was a great choice."7 comments on this story
And what about that dancing? Is Taplin-Ross as good as everyone says?
"Yeah, I'm the dancer on the team," he said. "Wherever there's music, everyone looks to me, because they know I'm going to dance. I like to have a good time with my dancing."
If things go as planned, Taplin-Ross should have a pretty good time starring in the Utah defensive backfield this year as well.