Running rampant: Poised for history, Badgers RB Jonathan Taylor enters junior year focused on improving

From the Get ready for Badgers football season with State Journal's complete 2019 preview series
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Running rampant: Poised for history, Badgers RB Jonathan Taylor enters junior year focused on improving
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One of Camp Randall Stadium’s north end zone tunnels, where the University of Wisconsin football team emerges on Saturdays in the fall, follows a winding path through the lower level of the Student Athlete Performance Center.

Mounted along the wall before it reaches the locker room are reminders of the legacy left by those no longer in the program — All-Americans, Heisman Trophy winners and every NFL player who called Madison home on his way to the pinnacle of their sport.

Current UW running back Jonathan Taylor, like the rest of his teammates, passes these shrines nearly every day.

“We’re chasing those guys that are on the wall,” Taylor said. “They set a standard. If those guys came through this school and just set a mediocre bar, then a lot of people would be able to pass that bar.”

The standard couldn’t be set much higher for running backs — from Ron Dayne to Montee Ball to Melvin Gordon and plenty more in between. In short order, however, Taylor has put himself on par with all of them.

In four months, Taylor could be preparing to leave UW and join that wall himself as arguably the most productive running back in the history of college football.

He’s played just 27 games. It wasn’t all that long ago, in August 2017, when Taylor sat fifth in the tailback pecking order, unsure if he’d even see the field as a freshman. In the 4,171 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns since, he has two top-10 Heisman Trophy finishes, became the school’s 10th unanimous All-American and won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best running back.

His rise certainly came more swift than most, breaking Adrian Peterson’s FBS freshman rushing record before shattering Dayne’s mark of 3,566 — the previous high for rushing yards through a player’s sophomore year. By season’s end, Taylor could approach the NCAA career rushing record with a season of eligibility to spare.

If you ask Taylor about breaking records, he’ll simply say he’s in a great situation, and that he’d stack up the program’s past two offensive lines against any other.

If you suggest many of his accomplishments already compare favorably to other all-time great running backs, Taylor’s response will focus on why his deficiencies force him to keep pursuing those he idolized growing up.

While Taylor mastered media training long ago, this self-deprecation doesn’t always translate as politically correct remarks from a humble, well-raised kid. It often feels like his honest opinion.

“I don’t even know if he realizes how good he is as a football player,” UW running backs coach John Settle said. “I know he has a lot of his teammates that tell him he’s one of the best in the country, but he looks at other guys as being better than he is. I don’t know if that’s for motivation, or if he really doesn’t look at himself as being that dominant.”

No other running back in college football comes close to Taylor’s domination over the past two years, and the 2019 season presents an opportunity for the Salem, New Jersey, native to cement his place among the greatest to ever play at UW — or anywhere else, for that matter.

From a rushing perspective, Taylor couldn’t have done much more during his first two years with the Badgers. He hits 200 yards more often than he’s held under 100, and his 321-yard performance in a triple-overtime win at Purdue last year will go down as one of the school’s greatest individual efforts.

Another typical Taylor season could see him reach the 5,000-yard mark — something no junior running back has done — by mid-October.

Still, Taylor sees no reason for complacency.

“It seems like, there’s so much you want to do, and you haven’t done it yet,” Taylor said. “I grew up watching Arian Foster and Adrian Peterson, and then I started watching Saquon (Barkley) and (Leonard) Fournette. All these guys, you see the things they do that you haven’t done yet, and you’re like, ‘Well, if they were a great back and they did that, then I’ve got to try to do that as well.’

“You look at it and you’re still chasing those things. I still have to try to get better at these things.”

‘He only needs a sliver’

Stories of Taylor’s first fall camp at UW quickly became folklore.

Coaches and players raved about his first scrimmage two years ago. Settle even pulled him out after a handful of carries, the result of a near-instant realization that Taylor would play a major role that season.

Former UW cornerback Derrick Tindal reminisced about his first eye-opening experience with Taylor on Twitter earlier this month. According to Tindal, the entire defense thought Taylor was “trash” until his first carry in full pads. It went for a 75-yard touchdown, included “about eight broken tackles” and ended with Taylor throwing Tindal over his shoulder.

“It was just kind of a shock, like, ‘What happened?’” Taylor said of the play. “I’m turning around like, ‘Was I being extra?’ I didn’t know if the first series was not tackle or something like that.”

Taylor credits former UW running back Corey Clement, who grew up 24 miles from Taylor in Glassboro, New Jersey, for inspiring him to jump-start his efforts towards becoming a great player in high school.

In Taylor’s first collegiate start, only a few weeks after his initial fall camp revelation, he recorded a 200-yard rushing game — something Clement never did.

UW coaches and players offer many different responses when asked for their favorite Taylor run over the past two years. Common picks include his 75-yard touchdown at Nebraska in 2017 (Taylor’s pick) and his walk-off winner in triple overtime at Purdue last season.

A couple fondly remember a run from that first start against Florida Atlantic, when Taylor broke onto the scene with 223 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

His second score came from 29 yards out with 6:40 left in the first quarter. The freshman took a stretch handoff to the left, broke a tackle from a blitzing cornerback 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage, froze a linebacker with a stutter-step, threw a safety to the ground and outran everyone else to the end zone.

Settle shook Taylor’s hand on the sideline after the play.

“I was like, ‘Now, that impressed me,’” Settle said. “Since that point, he’s trumped that, but I thought after watching him on that run that he wasn’t just a speed guy, he wasn’t just a power guy, he was a football player. I believed at that point that he’d have an opportunity to do some great things here.”

That’s much of what makes Taylor great — a rare combination of elite speed and power.

During summer conditioning this year, according to Taylor and Settle, the 5-foot-11, 220-pound back ran an electronically timed 40-yard dash in less than 4.4 seconds. Taylor doesn’t always have an opportunity to run a straight line in games, but he’s rarely caught from behind when he does.

Nearly as infrequent are his negative runs. Taylor can almost always avoid being tackled for a loss, even when facing the bulk of defensive attention. It happened zero times during his masterpiece at Purdue last season, when 27 of his 33 carries went for at least three yards.

UW inside linebacker Chris Orr picked an 8-yard run in practice as his favorite of Taylor’s career. Orr came free on a blitz into the backfield and thought he had a tackle for loss immediately after the handoff. Taylor somehow spun away and gained yardage.

He’s done the same in games, too, including a mind-boggling escape to gain 10 yards in the second quarter against BYU last season — the type of plays most soon forgot or never even saw.

“Plenty of runs like that,” Orr said. “It’s not on a highlight reel. There’s runs where he’ll get hit twice in the backfield and gain five yards. That’s unheard of. People don’t really know. … That’s greatness.”

Taylor said running track helped him reach this level. He won four state titles in high school and competed in a few meets for UW this spring.

Settle calls Taylor “a big guy that has little-guy speed,” but track did more for Taylor than just make him faster. He said it increased his explosiveness more than anything. Getting out of the blocks — that first step when he runs the 100-yard dash — can simulate the quickness needed to burst through fast-closing holes Taylor sees every week on the football field.

“It’s proven throughout film and history — he only needs a sliver to make a play go 60 yards,” UW center Tyler Biadasz said. “He can do the rest.”

Those holes sometimes close quicker for Taylor than others. Defenses key in on him, particularly last season when the passing game struggled to take pressure off the team’s star running back.

Taylor often faced eight or nine defenders in the box and game plans designed specifically to slow him down. He still rushed for 2,194 yards — 285 more than any other FBS player — in 13 games.

“It kind of makes it a challenge, in a sense,” Taylor said. “You want to put nine in the box? Well, you’re going to still need more to beat me.”

‘His best years are ahead of him’

Falling in love with football isn’t something Taylor quite experienced as a young child. It didn’t necessarily click after his first carry or even his first touchdown.

Prior to his junior season at Salem High, Taylor realized he had no choice but the take on more of a leadership role. He sensed eyes were on him during every practice rep, that his teammates now leaned on him for guidance. He could no longer just play football.

“It made me love the game,” Taylor said. “It made me love the preparation even more because I knew that I wasn’t just preparing for myself. I was preparing for the season, for my teammates because I knew they looked up to me.”

Taylor now finds himself in a similar situation entering his junior year.

Multiple coaches said Taylor took over a primary leadership role for the first time this offseason. He’s no longer the freshman preoccupied with learning the playbook or the sophomore more comfortable deferring those responsibilities to upperclassmen.

“It’s going out there with a certain attitude,” Taylor said. “You’re paying attention to the little details. You need to show the younger guys that little details matter. They might think that I’m Jonathan Taylor, but once they see me paying attention to the little details, that might rub off on them. If they’re not, then being that vocal leader and saying, ‘Hey, make sure you finish through the line.’”

Taylor hopes that’s not the only thing that changes about his game this season.

Despite instantly morphing into a star upon his arrival in Madison, Taylor didn’t master UW’s playbook — or even know all of it — until much more recently. He even admits to underestimating the importance of film study until after his freshman season.

The Badgers used Taylor more in passing situations during fall camp and appear to be experimenting with a package that features Taylor and third-down back Garrett Groshek in the backfield together.

Taylor said he didn’t know UW’s third-down plays as a freshman since the coaching staff wanted to limit his knowledge base so he could play as fast as possible. He learned them as a sophomore but still only caught eight passes for 60 yards.

The goal this season is to finally apply what he’s worked on the past two offseasons and contribute in those situations more frequently.

“He wants to be a great receiver,” Settle said. “He’s put in a lot of time catching the ball, running routes, that type of thing, and I believe it’s going to pay off for him. When he adds that part of his game to the package, it’s going to elevate him above any other running back in the country.

“Honestly, and I’ve said it before, I think his best years are ahead of him.”

Improving on or even replicating last season won’t be easy. The Badgers must replace four starters on the offensive line, though a revamped passing game could divert some defensive attention away from Taylor.

But if he does break the 2,000-yard mark again, or even approaches it, Taylor will set himself apart historically. He’ll break many more records and reach a level of greatness and consistency only a select few have attained.

“You look at the history, and you kind of look at it as a road map,” Taylor said. “You take it as a challenge. Can you beat that? How great can you be? How great do you want to be? It pushes you in order to reach new heights.”

BIO

23 | Jonathan Taylor 

5-11, 219, Junior, Salem, N.J.

2018 SEASON

Rushed 307 times for a nation-leading 2,194 yards (7.1 average) and scored 16 touchdowns. … Reached the 100-yard mark in 12 of 13 games, including seven 150-plus yard games and five games of 200 or more. Rushed for career-high 321 yards and three touchdowns at Purdue, including the winning score in third overtime. … Caught eight passes for 60 yards. … Doak Walker Award winner. … Maxwell Award semifinalist. … Walter Camp Player of the Year Award semifinalist. … Big Ten Running Back of the Year. … Unanimous first-team All-American. … Consensus first-team All-Big Ten. … Finished ninth in Heisman Trophy voting. … His 4,171 career rushing yards rank as the third-highest two-year total in FBS history.

2017 SEASON

Recorded 299 carries for 1,977 yards (6.6 average) and 13 touchdowns. ... Caught eight passes for 95 yards. ... Rushed for 223 yards in first career start against Florida Atlantic, becoming the fourth true freshman in school history to record a 200-yard game — a feat he accomplished two more times in the next four games. ... Finished sixth in Heisman Trophy voting. ... Doak Walker Award finalist. ... Maxwell Award semifinalist. ... Walter Camp Player of the Year Award semifinalist. ... Named second-team All-American by The Associated Press, the Football Writers Association of America, Sporting News and Walter Camp. ... Earned Freshman All-American honors by the FWAA, ESPN and USA Today. ... Consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection. … Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

HIGH SCHOOL

Four-star prospect by Rivals and earned three-star rating from 247sports, ESPN and Scout. ... Finished with 4,642 rushing yards and 51 total touchdowns. ... Set New Jersey single-season record with 2,815 rushing yards as a senior. ... Also broke South Jersey single-season record of 2,510 yards previously held by former UW running back Corey Clement. ... Won four Group 1 state championships in track and field, claiming both the 100 meters and 4x100 relay titles as a junior and senior.

PERSONAL

Father Jonathan James played basketball at San Francisco State. … Volunteered with community food drive, as peer tutor and with Operation India project to rebuild a classroom for students in India. … Majoring in philosophy.


This is Part One of the State Journal's 2019 Badgers football preview. Check back at Madison.com throughout the week as we count down to UW's season opener Friday at South Florida. 

This article originally ran on madison.com.

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