For Texas Longhorns redshirt sophomore safety Michael Taaffe, the focus has always been winning. Whether in high school, as a walk on, or as a scholarship player, the mission doesn’t change.
Before this season, few outside of Taaffe and the coaching staff would have expected him to lead the team in tackles during a game, record a sack, or reel in an interception. Yet through seven games, Taaffe has done each of these while stepping into a contributing role in the secondary.
Coming off his best performance as a Longhorn in last weekend’s win over the Cougars in Houston, Taaffe will be on every offensive coordinator’s scouting report.
The journey to those standout efforts was not easy and demonstrates the grit, faith, and determination that made Taaffe the first walk on to receive a scholarship under head coach Steve Sarkisian.
Taaffe attended high school just outside of Austin at football powerhouse Westlake where he amassed an exceptional career that included back-to-back Most Valuable Defensive Player Awards in the state championship game, second team All-State defensive back honors, and a handful of offers to play Division 1 football. Suffice to say that Taaffe was a critical member of the on-field success of Westlake.
As a senior, he recorded 60 tackles (48 solo), seven tackles for loss, five interceptions, seven quarterback hurries, and one fumble recovery while catching 18 passes for 297 yards and three touchdown receptions, adding 19 punt returns for 356 yards (18.7 ypr) for good measure.
In the state championship game, Taaffe intercepted current teammate Quinn Ewers not once, but twice, including a remarkable leaping, one-handed interception that ended up on the SC Top 10. Yet his contributions off the field might have been even greater — he was a captain and leader amongst his teammates.
Early in November of his senior year, Taaffe committed to play football at Rice while continuing to receive preferred walk-on offers from schools around the state such as Baylor and SMU.
While neither of those opportunities enticed the two-time state champion away from Rice, it wasn’t long until one did. On January 31st, after talking on the phone with Texas safeties coach Blake Gideon, Taaffe accepted a PWO to join the Texas football team.
Texas knew they were getting a winner and someone dedicated to team performance. But it is unlikely that they expected the 6’0, 180-pound walk on to become the most important recruiter for 2023 No. 1 prospect Arch Manning or play his way into a scholarship and starting role.
For Taaffe, the gamble to attend Texas rather than accept a scholarship offer elsewhere demonstrated was an inspirational bet on himself with a storybook payoff.
Stay patient, let god handle the finish line. pic.twitter.com/uyg4Knv9qj— Michael Taaffe (@MichaelTaaffe4) April 27, 2022
Early in his college career, Taaffe was most known for his role off the field — during the high-profile recruitment of Manning, it was none other than the walk on from Westlake who hosted Manning’s on the five-star quarterback’s official visit and tried to put the program and the city in the best light possible, the result of a budding relationship a walk on and football royalty.
“I just showed him the Forty Acres and I showed him what it meant to be a Texas football player,” Taaffe said Monday.
Yet, the topic that the pair spent the most time talking about was defining narrative surrounding the program for years, especially since the infamous call by Joe Tessitore to cap the overtime win over Notre Dame in 2016.
“He also really wants Texas football to be in the national championship conversation. It was a lot of one-on-one talk about, how are we going to get there? Just me and him, how are we going to bring Texas football to where it needs to be?” Taaffe said.
Manning eventually committed to the Longhorns over other top national programs with more recent track records of success, a huge recruiting win that also thrust Taaffe into the spotlight. Many fans and national pundits could not believe that a walk-on defensive back would be a critical piece to landing one of the most coveted high school players of all time.
For Taaffe, it was just another way to contribute to the burnt orange and white. But the job was not done — Taaffe was not satisfied with becoming an historical footnote to the highest-profile recruitment of the modern era. He came to Texas to win, but also to contribute on the field.
During the 2022 season, Taaffe saw action on special teams and as a nickel back, appearing in all 12 regular season games with one start while recording 25 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, and a pass break up.
In the weeks leading up to the Alamo Bowl, Taaffe’s role and status changed, and his bet on himself paid off in literal fashion. On December 18the in a team meeting, Sarkisian granted Taaffe a scholarship.
For many walk ons, being granted a scholarship is the epitome of success, a payoff for the countless hours of hard work without recognition.
For Taaffe, the job still wasn’t done. He wanted to contribute more on the field.
Against Houston, Taaffe led the team in tackles with eight (five solo) and recorded an interception after getting the start at safety. His interception was a critical forced turnover as the Cougars were driving down the field in an anxiety-inducing game — the Longhorns led by only three points early in the fourth quarter.
Michael Taaffe : Season-high 8 tackles & an INT in the endzone for a touchback pic.twitter.com/5iwv3zsY0W— Lee Harvey (@MusikFan4Life) October 22, 2023
For Sarkisian, Taaffe’s play on defense was worthy of acclaim, but the third-year safety did even more that caught the eye of his head coach, most notably a punt-return tackle
“He got a big-time interception, but what gets lost is how good he played on special teams,” said Sarkisian. “Saturday, he made a tremendous tackle on the punt return — Taaffe comes from across the field and negates a huge return with a heck of a tackle. So it’s not just defense, he’s doing it on special teams as well.”
Sarkisian also commented on the effect Taaffe has off the field.
Just a guy who believed in himself. From day one, never took a backseat. He wanted to be in the front of the line from day one. He just continues to work and hopefully it serves as motivation for a lot of other guys on our team,” said Sarkisian.
To the Texas head coach, the story of Taaffe shows that “when you put your mind to something and you focus on something, you start to gravitate towards it.”
Taaffe has nothing left to prove to anyone.
With two state championships under his belt, he turned a walk-on opportunity into a scholarship and carved out a role for himself on the best Longhorn team in more than a decade.
Yet, if I was betting on anyone to keep working hard and accomplish seemingly impossible tasks in the burnt orange and white, my money would be on Michael Taaffe.