Ta'Quon Graham: Path to the NFL Draft
Texas defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham heads to the 2021 NFL Draft after years of terrorizing offenses that have passed through the state. The Temple native has gone from being a dominant high school defensive end to the solid anchor of the Longhorns defensive line. In a sobering thought for NFL offensive linemen, his best is perhaps still to come.
“I haven’t even touched my ceiling yet. I feel like I’m a pretty good player now and I’m only going to get better in the future, from week to week.”
Whereas some players travel across the country in pursuit of their football dream, Ta’Quon Graham’s path to the NFL Draft has run straight through the heart of Texas. Finding a love for the game by playing Madden football with his brother, he grew up surrounded by a family of Dallas Cowboys and Texas Longhorns fans. Then came the first opportunity to play.
“One day I was at the boys and girls club during the summer, and this guy walks up to me and asked me if I wanted to play. I brought it back to my mum and at first she told me no! Eventually my brother convinced her and I started playing. My first year, I didn’t necessarily like football, it wasn’t what I thought it was. Probably year two, I figured it out and started to excel at it and it all started from there.”
It comes as no surprise that he names former Cowboys Marion Barber and DeMarcus Ware as his early football inspirations. However, he reserves some admiration for two pioneers of the game, with the latter providing the inspiration to become defensively dominant.
“Michael Vick. Just how electric he was. There really wasn’t a lot of guys like him at the time. A 6’0” QB who could run a 4.4, 4.3 and zip the ball around. It wasn’t normal! Someone I wanted to model my game after was J.J. Watt. He was a two-star type of player, didn’t have a direct path to Wisconsin, but he ended up being an All-American, being drafted first round. Watching how hard he worked, and the things he’s been through is something that I really admired.”
Friday Night Lights
After excelling at the boys and girls club and playing at elementary and middle school, the brightest stage in high school football awaited. Texas high school football has a reputation for being the best in the land, and even in a small town like Temple, the Friday Night Lights illuminated the town.
“Growing up, Friday nights during fall season, man there’s not many cars on the road. There’s a lot of people in the stadium, a lot of people cheering on the Temple Wildcats. When I was growing up, they weren’t really winning that many games, they had pretty much losing records. Kinda when I got to high school was when it took off. The stadium was full, the band was rocking, you kinda expected the Wildcats to win every Friday night.”
“Texas football is crazy man. I remember going to state my sophomore and senior year. There’s probably a little bit over 40,000 people in attendance. It’s crazy. I was kinda highly recruited or whatever, and BOOM there’s a camera in my face. Just looking on social media and seeing some of the coverage from those games is crazy. We’re only in high school and there’s a camera in my face and BOOM it’s on the internet. I just kinda thought it was crazy playing at a level where we get this much media attention. Texas football is serious. People’s stadiums are filled up, whether they’re winning or losing. It’s like a code or something that people here go by.”
Ta’Quon Graham had an incredibly successful high school career at Temple High School. As a sophomore he was voted the District 17-5A Newcomer of the Year. As a junior he logged 23 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles as he garnered All-State honors.
In his final year as a high school player he was named an All-American, led Temple to the 5A Division I State Championship Game, and was voted to the 2016 Dave Campbell Texas Football Super Team.
“It’s definitely a pretty big honour. It’s something that, being from Temple Texas, I just never thought I’d ever get that type of recognition at the time. I was a shy kid growing up, to receive that award was pretty great and a pretty unreal experience.”
With all the success and attention, it would be easy for any kid to get carried away, to think you know everything. Thankfully for Ta’Quon Graham, he had a coach at Temple that kept him on the straight and narrow and helped him develop into the player that would leave as one the top players in the state.
“When I stepped on the field as a sophomore, I had a really hard defensive co-ordinator. His name is Scott Stewart. He’s the head coach there now. I’m telling you, this guy taught me some valuable lessons. I definitely learned some of them the hard way. Just me being someone who gets frustrated easily, someone who wants to succeed in anything that I do. I get really frustrated when I fail. He sat me for an entire half at times because I wasn’t getting something or I was frustrated and wasn’t really being coachable at the time. Eventually I got it, got that he was trying to teach me to have patience, trying to get me to learn the game. Being a 15-16 year old, you don’t know anything about football like you think you do.”
Ta’Quon Graham left Temple High School as a four-star recruit. The 15th ranked weakside defensive end in the 2017 class was the 34th ranked player in Texas. His success on the field ensured that he was heavily recruited. For the quiet kid from a smaller town in Texas, it was an eye-opening experience.
“It was crazy. I’d be in class and I’d have to leave two or three times a day. Coaches would come and they’d want to talk to me. Coaches would call, coaches would text. One offer came, then the next one came, and the next one came. I’m getting letters to my house, letters coming to the locker room. I’d get a stack of letters each day. I didn’t know I was going to be in that position when I started this football journey as a seven year old. To be there, it was pretty amazing. The process was pretty nerve wracking at times. I’m still a teenager trying to live a normal life, hang with friends, go to school, and you’ve got coaches blowing your phone up, calling you and texting you at night. It was a crazy experience.”
Those letter came from all over the country. Powerhouse like Georgia joined in-state programs like Texas A&M, TCU, and Baylor in trying to secure the dominate defensive end’s signature. He very nearly ended up on the crimson and cream side of one of college football’s greatest rivalries.
“I was going to take an official visit to OU. I was literally laying on my bed looking at the ceiling thinking to myself where do I want to go? I committed to Texas but BOOM, Charlie Strong gets fired and Coach Herman comes in and I was like do I even have an offer now? They might want different players. I didn’t know how that worked at the time. Maybe I’ve got to make some other decisions. So, I planned an official visit to TCU but I wasn’t sold on the school so I planned one to OU but something didn’t feel right. So, I chose to ride it out with Texas. That’s where I wanted to be and that’s where I wanted to try and excel in my career.”
The Red River Rivalry & Move To The Interior
After choosing to ride it out with Texas, he donned the burnt orange four times against the crimson and cream of Oklahoma University in the Red River Rivalry.
“When you walk into the atmosphere off the bus, you can feel the energy radiate off of you. You’ve got half of the people hating you, screaming a lot of different things at you. Then you’ve got half cheering you on. It’s literally split in half. That’s probably the loudest game you can play in. Even in pre-game you’ve got people shouting “GO TEXAS” and other people screaming some other things that I’m not going to say. That game is always going to be close, could always go either way. Winning it my sophomore year was the craziest experience. Jumping into the crowd, wearing the Golden Hat. Losing that game is one of the lowest of the lows. Man, I don’t know if I ever will play in another game like that with so much love and hate at the same time.”
He made his debut against Maryland in 2017 as a true-freshman and either side of four Red River games Ta’Quon Graham went on to make 48 appearances and 24 starts for the Texas Longhorns. Over his four seasons in burnt orange he registered 21.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, and 70 tackles. Coming out of Temple as a defensive end he would transition to defensive tackle by the end of his Longhorns career.
“Coming into college I was like 260 pounds, and we were running a 3-4 defense so I was playing defensive end for the first three years unless we’d go into some sort of four down package and I’d move around the line a little bit. But I was playing a 4i technique, and after year one I was like man I’m not big enough to play this. I really pounded in the weight room, got to like 275-280 my sophomore year and I finally felt strong enough to play in the trenches. Then, everything inside happens quicker. I really had to tune into film a lot more than I ever had. You really have to watch film all week on guys, see what they like to do, see how they block certain schemes. That was something that honestly took me a couple of years to understand. Once I understood that everything became easier, game really slowed down, even though the Big 12 is a pretty fast-paced conference. From the physical change to the mental preparation before games, it was definitely an adjustment for me as someone who has played on the edge their whole life.”
The End In Austin & Senior Bowl Experience
Although 2020 would see the standout game of his career against Oklahoma State, it would also be another year where Ta’Quon Graham and the Texas Longhorns would fail to win the Big 12 Championship. Despite the NCAA granting another season of eligibility to players this season, the nail in the coffin of another attempt to win the Big 12 Championship would bring about the end of his Texas career.
“Immediately after the Iowa State game, I left my helmet on, pretty emotional, looked around and slowly walked off the field knowing that was my last time playing there. I sat in the locker room for a long time, probably the second to last person to leave – before Sam Ehlinger. I was thinking the whole weekend: what now? And I was like, I really want to get ready for the draft. I decided to finish the regular season, then the Kansas game gets cancelled and I was like, well that’s the end of the regular season. I called my coaches and told them, I think I’m done. It wasn’t an easy decision, sitting in my apartment thinking “wow, it’s over”. It was like something got ripped from a part of who you are, but I feel like it was the right decision.”
Ta’Quon Graham very quickly picked up a Reece’s Senior Bowl invite following the end of his Texas career. The annual All-Star game is an important part of the process every year. However, in this most disrupted of NFL Draft processes, it may have bee more vital than ever before.
“I was very nervous going in, playing the top guys from all over the country. I feel like I did pretty decent. Struggled a bit day two, legs were kinda feeling a little weak from practice the day before. I was getting a little frustrated, couldn’t get my pass rush together. But I bounced back day three, and of course in the game I felt like I performed pretty well. I definitely think I helped myself that week at the Senior Bowl. Just to be a part of that experience, to be a Senior Bowl alum is another thing off the checklist. I did that! It was a pretty cool experience and fun to compete against the top seniors from across the country.”
'It Would Mean The World To Me'
With a little over two months to the 2021 NFL Draft, Texas defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham is busy working out to prepare for his Longhorns Pro Day. He’s also fielding zoom calls with NFL teams after having some decent conversations down in Mobile during Senior Bowl week. He was confronted with some of the interesting and unusual questions that teams are famous for during the process.
“I feel like I’ve done well in the interviews, and it sounds like good conversations. But there’s also a lot of hard questions that they’ve asked, really reflecting back on my career at Texas. Why weren’t you good at this? Why weren’t you doing this? Why weren’t you winning as a whole team? I just felt like the best approach was to be honest, always be honest and up front.”
Having spent his entire football journey in the state of Texas, Ta’Quon Graham is fully aware that the next destination is completely out of his hands.
“This process is nerve wracking from a point where you don’t know where you’re going to get drafted. You hear this, you might go here, you might go there. A lot of advice that I’ve got is that the team that you probably talked to the least is going to draft you. It’s like, I’m talking to all these guys and a team that probably hasn’t reached out has probably got me ranked highest and is going to pick me out of all these people. To me, that’s pretty crazy.”
He might not know where he’s going, but Texas defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham knows what it will mean to hear his name called in the 2021 NFL Draft.
“It would mean the world to me, a lifelong dream come true. It’ll give me the opportunity to put my family in a different situation as well as myself.”
OLIVER HODGKINSON IS A COLLEGE FOOTBALL WRITER FOR THE TOUCHDOWN. HE ALSO WRITES ON THE NFL FOR THE PRO FOOTBALL NETWORK. YOU CAN HEAR HIS OPINIONS ON ALL THINGS COLLEGE FOOTBALL AS ONE THIRD OF THE COLLEGE CHAPS PODCAST.
Huge thanks to Ta’Quon Graham for taking the time to speak to us.