Taco Bell is responsible for Taco Charlton’s name. Well, sort of
That’s what Taco Charlton opted to do the day before the NFL draft.
He could’ve done a dozen different things, but Charlton helped his dad, Norm, in the family’s yard with a big party planned for the following day. After all, they weren’t invited to attend the draft in person in Philadelphia so they had to do something on their own.
“I live right down the street and he’s doing yard work with his dad the day before his whole life changed,” said Jay Sharrett, Charlton’s high school coach at Pickerington (Ohio) Central High School. “His life changed, but he didn’t. That’s the same kid who grew up and went on to a great career at Michigan and now he’s with the Cowboys.”
What a party it became when the Dallas Cowboys used the 28th overall pick on Charlton. He felt he could have gone in the top 15, but the wait was worth it.
This is a guy who grew up with a Dallas Cowboys locker and bed sheets in his room, and will wear No. 97 for America’s Team for the first time during rookie minicamp this weekend.
“It was bubbly in your stomach. I had all [six] of my siblings there and … just kind of waiting,” said his mom, Tamara. “The later it got, I just had to cover my mouth and I just prayed on the couch.”
Tamara typed a message in her phone, writing: “Lord, I need the Cowboys to ring the phone.”
Five minutes later, owner Jerry Jones was on the other line talking to his team’s newest addition, a 6-foot-6, 277-pound player expected to bolster what has been a lackluster pass rush in recent years.
“When I watched it on YouTube or Jerry talking, it’s kind of like, I can still hear Taco, you could hear it in his chest,” Tamara said. “It was just like, the whole room, we all wanted to cry.”
Said Taco, “It feels great. I can’t be happier. I’m really happy to play for a great owner like Jerry Jones. I couldn’t be happier.”
Vidauntae “Taco” Charlton made a name for himself early on, and not just because his nickname came from his grandmother relating a 1990s Taco Bell slogan about “rushing to the border” to his premature birth.
Instead, Charlton impressed with his athletic ability. He played both ways on the football team and was a standout power forward on the basketball team at Pickerington Central.
As a junior, Charlton helped Central reach the state championship game in football and win the state title in basketball.
But his most memorable game might have come as a senior in 2012.
The football team had won its conference championship every year since 2006, but an early season loss put that streak was in jeopardy going into the finale against Gahanna.
With 4 minutes left in the game, though, word spread that Central’s rival had lost and its dreams of winning the conference were alive.
Nobody stepped up more than Charlton.
He had a sack on third and 9 to force the opposing team to punt. Then, as a tight end, he hauled in about a 35-yard touchdown pass for the go-ahead score.
“That game really stands out because the weather was just miserable – sleet and rain,” Sharrett said. “And it was a dogfight. When we found out they lost, it really re-energized us and Taco had a big sack and big touchdown pass.”
“Just a great player for us.”
Charlton caught the eye of several colleges, including powerhouses Notre Dame, UCLA and Michigan, but never got a call from nearby Ohio State. That didn’t sit well, considering Charlton grew up a die-hard Buckeyes fan and was born at Ohio State University Hospital.
But Charlton had little choice but to sign with rival Michigan.
As his dad, Norm, put it, “It was one of the hardest things because we’d been Ohio State fans all our life and then you go in there, the rivalry, and say you’re going to commit. It was hard.
“For two weeks, it kind of bothered me. After that, we got over it knowing they didn’t show any love.”
Michigan fared all right.
Charlton contributed all four years, but didn’t crack the starting lineup until his senior season. He had to wait his turn behind Frank Clark, a second-round pick by Seattle in 2015, and Mario Ojemudia, who had a stint with the Baltimore Ravens. Once in the lineup, though, Charlton had his best games against the best opponents.
He had 1.5 sacks against Penn State; 2.5 against Ohio State; and one against Florida State in the bowl game.
“I’ve never thought there’s such a thing as a ‘gamer,’ and I’m sure Rod Marinelli doesn’t either,” said Greg Mattison, Michigan’s defensive line coach. “To me, every game you play as hard as you can. But the great ones seem to find that little extra in the really, really big ones. When you’re going against the best, you say, ‘I’m the best and I’m going to show you.’ ”
Charlton credited his breakout season to simply getting more playing time.
“You can watch my junior year, my last four games, I do a lot of good things because I played more,” Charlton said. “This year, I got a chance to get on the field more. Just all the hard work I put in every off-season. From my freshman year until now, it’s been so much consistent growth just because all of the hard work I put in on the practice field, the weight room and in the film room.
“It just shows on game day.”
The Cowboys went into the draft looking for – in Jerry Jones’ words – “a war daddy.” Jones danced around calling Charlton a “war daddy” after the draft.
But the Cowboys like his upside.
They point to his 34 1/2-inch-long arms. They point to his production increases each year in college. And, as stated, they point to his ability to shine in big-time moments.
The hope is all of that combined overcomes questions such as why it took him so long to break into the starting lineup.
“I’ve heard that before and I just laugh,” Mattison said. “The guy starting ahead of him was Frank Clark, who had 10 sacks for Seattle last season. So I’ve heard it – only started senior year – but he played a ton in the years before that.
“He’s a great athlete with great character that has just barely touched the surface. He’s got a really, really high upside.”
Outside of that, scouts wonder how Charlton will transition to the pro game with his speed. He ran a 4.83 40-yard dash at his pro day compared to quicker times by UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley (4.59) and Wisconsin’s T.J. Watt (4.67).
“It’s a sliding scale with all players,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “Guys have different traits. There are different rushers in this draft who aren’t as long, but might have been quicker. That’s how they get away from guys trying to block them. That’s how they get to the quarterback. Typically longer guys might not be quite as quick or explosive. He knows how to use his length.
“He’s a really good athlete. You see that when he rushes. He stays on balance when he uses spin moves and counter moves. He does a good job getting to the quarterback.”
In the end, getting to the quarterback is what the Cowboys need. The Cowboys had 34 sacks last season, 31 in 2015 and 28 in 2014.
Benson Mayowa, who was benched for three games, led the team last season with six sacks. They had no sacks in two regular-season games (at Chicago and home vs. Washington) and one sack in four others (San Francisco, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Baltimore).
In the playoff game against the Packers, the Cowboys had three sacks – all by defensive backs.
Clearly, pass rusher ranked as a top priority and Charlton feels he’ll add that dimension from the right side.
“I’m a guy who’s very versatile,” said Charlton, who looks forward to honing his skills against All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith. “If you really watch my tape you can see that I can do a lot of different moves from one-on-one step, to a spin, to a speed rush. So I’ve been able to do a lot of different moves and make them successful.
“I can really be a dominant player. If you watch a lot of the big games, I was able to take over those games and make big plays and be an impact player. And I think I can do that in Dallas.”
If he does that, Jones and everyone else won’t hesitate to use the “war daddy” label.