Following in his footsteps: Julian Talley tries to mimic Victor Cruz’s path to NFL stardom

By Jackson Alexander

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian File Photo

For every Victor Cruz, there’s a Julian Talley.

Cruz and Talley, New Jersey natives, both played wide receiver at UMass and were teammates for three years. They both started their professional careers as undrafted free agents and were given a chance by the New York Giants.

Cruz became the salsa-dancing, Super Bowl champion that everyone knows.

Talley’s still looking for success.

This NFL offseason, Talley was one of 11 receivers fighting for six roster spots, but it was Jerrel Jernigan who won the sixth and final wide receiver roster spot.

Between Talley’s lack of production in preseason games – he caught just two passes for 22 yards – and his indistinguishable play in training camp, the decision to cut Talley came as no surprise.

However, because of his high-profile former teammate, Talley will be remembered differently than the thousands of other players cut this offseason.

For the time being, he’ll be remembered as the New Jersey-born, undrafted wide receiver from UMass that didn’t become a Giant.

Shaking Cruz

There’s little that Cruz hasn’t accomplished in his first two years in the NFL.

He made his initial splash in the 2010 preseason when he accumulated 297 receiving yards and four touchdowns in four games – including an unforgettable performance on Monday Night Football against the Jets in which he caught three touchdown passes.

A year later, Cruz set the team record for receiving yards in a season, and won a Super Bowl with the Giants.

Because of this success, questions about Cruz follow Talley incessantly.

“Almost every day, all day,” Talley said with an exhausted laugh, on how often he’s asked about Cruz.

Considering what Cruz has accomplished in such a short time span, it’s only natural for similar expectations to fall on Talley.

“I feel tons of pressure, but I understood that coming in, and I accept and embrace that,” Talley said. “I enjoy trying to live up to standards because that’s what this game is about – trying to be the best. And if that’s where the bar has been raised to, that’ll only make me better as a player.”

There’s nothing that Cruz can tell Talley that will lead to a breakout season similar to what Cruz enjoyed in 2011, but he has served as a mentor to his former teammate.

“Everyday he’ll coach me up on something, he’ll show me what he’s done before, corrected me on my mistakes or give me a little hint on how to get open on a certain route,” Talley said.

Adjusting to the pros

“Big drop by rookie Julian Talley who was wide open on a deep pass…The UMass kid has struggled in camp.”

That tweet comes from Ralph Vacchiano, a Giants beat writer for the New York Daily News, on Aug. 7 at one of the Giants training camp practices in Albany, N.Y.

The training camp sessions are integral for undrafted free agents like Talley. They provide relatively unknown players an opportunity to gain recognition from the coaching staff.

However, aside from a few dropped passes and a tussle with cornerback Michael Coe, Talley didn’t make much of an impression, whereas fellow undrafted free agent wide receivers, David Douglass and Brandon Collins, shined in training camp, and even received praise from head coach Tom Coughlin.

Collins and Douglass played their way onto the practice team, thanks to a successful training camp.

“There’ve been ups and downs, but it’s something you’ve got to battle through and you have to be mentally strong with it, because it definitely takes a toll not only mentally, but physically,” Talley said.

Unfortunately for Talley, there’s little margin for error when fighting for a roster spot, and in the end, the downs outweighed the ups.

It became evident that Talley had fallen out of favor with the Giants coaches when he didn’t see the field in the team’s preseason game against the Jets. Of the 11 wide receivers on the Giants’ roster, Talley was the only one not to appear in the game.

A week later, he didn’t appear in New York’s third preasason game against the Chicago Bears. Three days later, he was cut.

An experience to remember

While Talley’s training camp ended on a sour note, he received the opportunity to learn from some of the best coaches in football and compete against the cream of the crop; an experience that could prove beneficial in the long run.

“Being here with the Super Bowl champions and this organization has been a wonderful experience,” Talley said.

He even got the chance to show his talents in Week 1 of the preseason versus the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Talley entered in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter, with his team trailing 32-31. He helped advance the ball into Jaguars territory with catches of 12 and 10 yards, and nearly set up a chance for a game-winning field goal.

“I feel like with the time I got, I did some good things,” Talley said.

The advice Talley received from teammates and coaches will never leave him, and hopefully help him in his next endeavor.

“Everybody’s been great, especially with the receiving corps guys like Domenik Hixon and Hakeem Nicks, they really took me under their wing, and they keep me motivated and kept me going,” Talley said.

Down but not out

Talley’s aspirations of making an NFL roster are not dashed because of Friday’s decision.

Cruz made the transformation from training camp hopeful to NFL superstar look easy, but his path to stardom was tumultuous as well. In 2010, Cruz was almost cut as well, as it took the persuading of a few Giants’ front office people to even keep him on the 53-man roster.

His first season in the NFL didn’t go smoothly, as he played sparingly, and when did find the field, his play was highlighted by mental mistakes. And last season, the only reason he cracked the starting lineup was because of injuries to other wide receivers.

Cruz even spent time in training camp in 2010 with the Jets, but like Talley, he was caught up in a numbers game and released. Cruz received a second chance from the Giants and now Talley looks for the same from another team.

There’s no way of telling when, or if, another team will come calling.

The  St. Louis Rams, Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears offered Talley a contract out of college, but for now, Talley can wait, and be proud of the fact that he experienced an NFL training camp.

“I think it’s just been a blessing to be able to say, ‘I lived my dream,’” Talley said, then paused, and not only wrapped up his last sentence, but his entire NFL experience to this point, in one word:
“Almost.”

Jackson Alexander can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @MDC_Alexander.