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Taylor Gabriel’s rise spurred by teammate Andrew Hawkins

Posted Aug 27, 2014

How searching on YouTube impacted the Cleveland Browns offense

This story can be seen in its entirety Thursday at 7 pm on the WKYC show Building The Browns.

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It was way past Taylor Gabriel’s bed time. He couldn’t sleep.

The jitterbug 5-foot-8 wide receiver paced around his dorm room at Abilene Christian. He pulled out his laptop and logged on to YouTube.com.

Gabriel entered “Andrew Hawkins” in the search bar. He wouldn’t be falling asleep anytime soon.

Video after video highlighted what Hawkins did best: using his feet to dance past cornerbacks and hauling in tough catches deep down the field. Gabriel was in awe of the Cincinnati Bengals receiver, so much so, that he started to emulate his route running after Hawkins.

“The cat is out of the bag: I’m a big fan of his,” said Gabriel, sheepishly hiding his smile.

The hours on end of replicating Hawkins’ playing style has paid off for Gabriel. At Abilene Christian he became the team’s most reliable playmaker on offense, scoring 27 touchdowns in four seasons. If the Browns were to switch the pair’s jersey numbers for a practice, not many would be able to tell who was who. They are mirror images of each other on the football field.

“I would always tell myself hopefully I will be able to influence somebody else,” said Hawkins. “Maybe a coach or scout would watch tape of someone like Taylor Gabriel and say, ‘He reminds me of Andrew Hawkins. Let’s give him a chance.’ Then I’ve done my job.”

Of any undrafted rookie on the Cleveland Browns, Gabriel’s splash has caused the most ripples. His 68-yard kickoff return against the Rams setup a Brian Hoyer touchdown pass to Hawkins, temporarily flipping the momentum in the game. Gabriel’s eight catches for 90 yards leads all Browns receivers in the preseason – in both receptions and yards.

Right after the St. Louis game, Browns head coach Mike Pettine was asked to name a wide receiver he’s impressed with. His first answer was spoken without hesitation.

“Gabriel’s flashed,” said Pettine. “He’s done some good things.”

Not only has Gabriel given himself a legitimate shot to make the roster, he very well could play a role on offense once the regular season commences on September 7th in Pittsburgh. He’s been one of the few young players to translate strong practices into live preseason game settings.

“I haven’t seen – this is the honest to god truth – many undrafted rookies come in and play the way Taylor has,” said Hawkins.

Replicating Hawkins’ style is now an off the field thing for Gabriel, too. A tweaked hamstring during OTAs put Gabriel in a bad spot. Without practicing, there was no film to evaluate Gabriel. Undrafted rookies who are injured normally have a short shelf life on NFL rosters.

So instead of YouTubing Hawkins videos late at night, Gabriel put his nose in the playbook. At Abilene Christian, their offense was simplified down to hand signals. When questions would arise for Gabriel, he knew Hawkins would have answers for him.

Furthermore, Gabriel watched Hawkins’ interactions on the field. He watched the veteran pour his heart out, even on special teams coverage. He watched Hawkins smile and enjoy the sport as if he were a kid.  

“He treats every day like it could be his last day playing football,” said Gabriel. “Seeing that every day, makes me want to go even harder than what’s expected. He’s helped me become a pro and it’s a blessing that he’s here and I’m here.”

When the end of July rolled around and training camp launched, Gabriel came back fully healthy and out to show the coaching staff he had plans of being a Cleveland Brown for the long haul. Naysayers in the media thought Gabriel was too similar to Hawkins, and that the Browns needed more size at the position.

As time passed, the chirping about Gabriel’s skills became all positive. While rotating in with the second team in practice, the speedy Gabriel developed chemistry with Johnny Manziel. He displayed he could make plays in the slot, over the middle, or on intermediate routes on the sideline. For Gabriel, the dominoes started falling his way. Inconsistencies with other veteran receivers opened the door for the unexpected rookie.

Now, one day away from the last preseason game against the Bears, it would be hard to imagine the wide receiving corps without him.

“He’s going to be a great addition to the Cleveland Browns,” said Hawkins. “He’s going to have an incredible NFL career.”

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