Undrafted and undaunted, Taylor Gentry vows he will play in the NFL this year. He doesn’t care if you believe in him. He actually prefers that you don’t.
Gentry, a former N.C. State fullback from Raleigh, thrives on proving people wrong. No Division I team wanted him out of Leesville Road High School four years ago. He walked on at N.C. State and started as a freshman.
No NFL team drafted him in April. He signed a free-agent deal with the Kansas City Chiefs and hopes to make the team when camp opens in August.
"I look at it (as) being a walk-on again," Gentry said. "I was told by so many people, even by my friends, I wasn’t going to make it at N.C. State. I’ve got the same opportunity to make a name for myself with the Chiefs, and that’s what I plan to do."
Gentry has been through a rookie camp and mini-camp but hasn’t had the chance to hit anyone yet. Gentry, 6-2 and 250 pounds, first made his mark at N.C. State as a special teams player. He was the unit’s captain for three years, led the Wolfpack in special-team tackles twice and finished his career with 67.
He first got N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien’s attention in practice during his freshman year when he planted returner T.J. Graham in a kickoff drill. Problem was nobody was supposed to get tackled, and Gentry was thrown out of practice.
Gentry eventually endeared himself to the Wolfpack coach with his versatility and toughness, two traits O’Brien believes will go a long way with the Chiefs.
"I’ve known (Chiefs general manager) Scott Pioli a long time," O’Brien said. "Gentry is the kind of player that he loves, especially with his ability on special teams. I think he’s in a great situation."
‘Too good for that’
A chance is all Gentry wanted. As a senior receiver at Leesville, he led the state with 21 touchdown catches and finished with more than 1,200 receiving yards. He made the Shrine Bowl, and even caught a touchdown, but still couldn’t get the attention of college recruiters.
He was projected as a tight end, but in-state Football Bowl Subdivision teams deemed him too small at 6-2, 200 pounds. He would have played for a Football Championship Subdivision team, in the state or in Virginia or South Carolina, except no one called.
"Not one. Zero," Gentry said. "I would have taken the scholarship, I would have gone anywhere."
Heritage High School coach Jason McGeorge was Gentry’s position coach at Leesville and persuaded him to wait for an offer to walk-on at an in-state FBS school.
"It was wrong what happened to him," McGeorge said. "Division II schools where willing to offer him, but he was too good for that."
Gentry’s parents went to N.C. State, as did McGeorge, so Gentry picked the Wolfpack.. He was the sixth-string tight end when practice began in 2008.
By the first scrimmage, he was moved to fullback and already had made an impression on the kickoff team with his hit of Graham and willingness to sacrifice his body.
"He has a fire and a competitive drive that you just can’t teach," McGeorge said.
Gentry started the final two games of the ’08 season at fullback and finished with seven catches. He also earned a scholarship.
A painful ending
By his senior season, Gentry had become a central part of the Pack’s offense, notably in the passing game. He caught 38 passes for 313 yards, with five touchdowns, in four seasons. He caught two touchdowns in N.C. State’s 35-13 win over South Alabama last season.
Gentry never carried the ball, though. O’Brien’s fullbacks never carry the ball. He said Gentry would have changed that particular piece of history last season had Gentry not gotten hurt in the fifth game.
In the first series of N.C. State’s 45-35 loss to Georgia Tech, Gentry sprained his right ankle and broke a bone in his right foot when he blocked a blitzing linebacker.
"It was like somebody took a blowtorch to my toe," Gentry said.
Gentry’s brother, Zach, a junior linebacker last season, watched from the sidelines.
"I thought it was his knee," Zach Gentry said. "His whole leg just buckled and I thought he was done."
The older Gentry knew something was wrong but told his brother he was going back in the game. Earlier in the week, Gentry volunteered to play defensive tackle too. .
He wasn’t going to miss the chance after persuading O’Brien to give him a shot.
"I’m not going to let this stop me," Gentry told his brother.
He played one series on defense with the ankle injury and the broken toe, and caught a 4-yard pass to convert on fourth-and-1, before the pain was too much. He left in the second quarter.
Gentry missed the final eight games, including the Pack’s bowl win over Louisville. After the season, he applied for a medical redshirt, but the NCAA denied it. Four games is the maximum allowed to qualify for a medical redshirt; Gentry played four games and two quarters.
"That stunk for me," Zach Gentry said. "I was looking forward to getting another year with him, but it worked out for him. He’s got a chance to play in the NFL."
Opportunity in Kansas City
Fullbacks are a dying breed in college football, with the popularity of the spread offense, but there’s still a place for them in the NFL.
The Chiefs lost Le’Ron McClain, last year’s starter, to free agency. Gentry and Shane Bannon, a seventh-round pick from Yale in 2011, are vying for the spot.
Gentry already has picked the brain of Kansas City feature back Jamaal Charles for advice and blocking habits. He’s itching to get on the practice field, in pads, and hit someone and show the Chiefs exactly what he can do.
"They’re looking for a fullback to be physical and mean but who can still catch the ball," Gentry said. "I can do that. I know I can do that."
If you don’t think so, Gentry just wants the chance to prove you wrong. Again.