MADISON, Wis. — John Settle likes to tell running backs that their legs are moneymakers, which is why he lays down a set of rectangular bags for agility drills every day at practice without fail. Arguably, no position at Wisconsin is as important to the team’s success, and no drill as fundamental to understanding the art of footwork and balance as the bags.
So when Settle, the Badgers running backs coach, set out this summer to see what his latest crop of tailbacks looked like, he began, as always, with the bag drills.
The instructions are simple: tuck the football high and tight, pick up your feet, keep moving until you finish. Then, turn around and start again. Settle heard the rhythmic thuds of cleats hitting turf.
One of the newest members of the group was an 18-year-old freshman from Salem, N.J., named Jonathan Taylor. Settle didn’t heavily recruit him until the spring of his junior year because he wasn’t sure about Taylor’s top-end speed, but he saw potential. Some day, Settle thought, Taylor could be a key contributor in the Badgers backfield.
Settle watched Taylor take his first rep in the agility drill and witnessed something he had never before seen.
“If you ever get close enough to watch us go through the drills, everybody that goes through, you will hear their feet hit the ground,” Settle says, sitting in his office overlooking Camp Randall Stadium. “When he goes through, you will not hear anything. This guy is 215 pounds, and it’s like he’s walking on air. The first time he ever went through, I’m like, ‘OK, this is different.’ Everybody is staring like … ”
Settle leans forward, furrows his brow and quickly turns his head from one side to the other. There is a look of both confusion and excitement. As if to say: Did I really just see that from a freshman running back?
It was the first of many surprises Taylor provided. In the span of four months, Taylor has meteorically ascended from a potential fifth-string running back to a possible Heisman Trophy finalist. In the process, he has become one of the best stories of the college football season for the Badgers, who are 10-0 for the first time in school history and on the cusp of earning a College Football Playoff appearance.
Taylor has rushed for 1,525 yards with 12 touchdowns. He ranks No. 4 nationally in rushing yards per game at 152.5 and could finish with the most yards by a freshman in FBS history. No other freshman this season is close to him.
In one corner of Settle’s office, portraits hang from a wall under a sign in red capital letters that reads: Running Back U. There are photos of Badgers tailbacks from Alan Ameche to Corey Clement. In his first of two stints at Wisconsin, Settle mentored John Clay, James White and Montee Ball, whose pictures are framed. Settle has little doubt he is coaching the next great Badgers tailback.
Clay was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award for the nation’s best running back. White earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. Ball was a Heisman Trophy finalist and Doak Walker Award winner.
“But this guy is far more talented than those guys,” Settle says. “He’s going to have an opportunity to be mentioned with whatever awards are given to running backs. It wouldn’t surprise me at some point in his career if he won them all.”
Taylor’s remarkable journey has just begun. Where it ends, no one knows. But his humility, hard work and raw talent have positioned him for the ride of a lifetime.
“I was talking to my dad the other day, and he was just like, ‘You won’t really understand it now, but 10, 20 years from now, you’ll understand it,’ ” Taylor says. “Right now, I’m just out there having fun and trying to do my best because I’m a competitor.”
Montrey Wright has looked for the essay in recent months to no avail, but he has not forgotten its contents. Wright, the high school football coach at Salem, distinctly remembers reading an eighth-grade essay written by Taylor in which he stated his goal of attending the University of Wisconsin. Taylor, who grew up nearly 1,000 miles away, loved watching the Badgers in football and basketball.
“It was his dream school,” Wright says. “To see him living up to that dream is unreal. He called everything he’s doing right now.”
But while Taylor had Wisconsin on his radar, the Badgers weren’t so convinced. Wisconsin didn’t even offer Taylor a scholarship after his junior season because coaches were concerned about his ability to outrun defenders.
“On film my junior year, I was running away from defenders, but it was like very smooth,” Taylor says. “So it didn’t seem like I was really pulling away. And I noticed that. I just wanted to work on my top-end speed a little bit more so that you could really see the separation on the film.”
Settle told tight ends coach Mickey Turner, who recruited the East Coast, to keep an eye on Taylor and make sure he knew the Badgers were interested. However, Taylor committed to Rutgers on May 1, 2016.
That didn’t deter Settle from flying to New Jersey to watch Taylor participate in a track practice. He wanted to see Taylor’s strength and flexibility up close. He also noticed that, even as Taylor excelled in the 100-meter dash, he never pulled up short and coasted to the finish line. The combination of desire, work ethic and, yes, speed spoke to Settle in a way that he knew would translate to the football field. Wisconsin offered Taylor a scholarship on May 26.
“When I saw him work out, that was kind of the nail in the coffin, so to speak,” Settle says.
During his high school career, Taylor watched with great interest as fellow New Jersey native Clement became a star running back for the Badgers. Clement attended Glassboro High, which was located only 30 minutes northeast of Taylor’s high school in Salem. As a senior, Taylor broke Clement’s South Jersey single-season rushing record. And if Clement could thrive at Wisconsin, Taylor thought he might be able to do the same thing.
Taylor struggled with the idea of de-committing from Rutgers. But he knew in his heart that Wisconsin was where he wanted to be. After all, he had written about it years earlier.
Taylor visited campus for Wisconsin’s prime time game against Ohio State on Oct. 15. Two weeks later, he de-committed from Rutgers. Three days later, he picked Wisconsin.
“It was really hard being an in-state kid, one of the top in-state kids,” Taylor says. “Everyone, all the fans are really excited that you’re going there, and you’re letting them know you’re de-committing. It was tough. But I’m glad I made the decision because Wisconsin is a great place. I love it here, and I had to do what was best for me.”
Taylor arrived on campus without a guaranteed role on the team this season, in a fight for playing time with Bradrick Shaw, Chris James, Taiwan Deal and Rachid Ibrahim. It wouldn’t last long.
During the spring and summer, Settle and members of Wisconsin’s coaching staff watched cut-ups of all the Badgers’ rushing plays from the previous season. Wisconsin ranked third in the Big Ten in rushing offense at a respectable 203.1 yards per game. But Settle didn’t like his group’s inability to gain more yards at the second and third level. The big-play spark Wisconsin needed to be a more dynamic offense was missing.
“We felt like we left a lot of yards out on the field last season, and we wanted to be a lot better,” Settle says. “If the play is blocked for 6 yards, let’s double that. Let’s get 12. If they don’t block one guy, we’ve got to be able to make one guy miss.”
When fall camp began July 29, Settle hoped Shaw or James might be able to generate that push. However, Settle noticed during the team’s first of two scrimmages that Taylor could not only make defenders miss, but run over them. That’s when Settle began to realize: Wow, this guy has something that could help us right away.
Taylor says he didn’t enter fall camp with any expectations beyond helping the team if given an opportunity. He simply didn’t want to be the weak link in the running back room. But he knew he could compete at this level during a “young guys scrimmage” early in camp when he scored a rushing touchdown on an outside zone play.
“At that moment, I loved that feeling,” Taylor says. “That was something that pushed me to work even harder during camp to try to get better.”
The night that solidified Taylor’s place on the team already has been etched into Badgers lore. It came two weeks before the season opener during a Friday night scrimmage under the lights in Camp Randall Stadium. Settle told Taylor earlier in the day to approach the scrimmage like a real game because he would be taking the bulk of the carries.
“He showed up, and he was ready,” Settle says. “It didn’t matter which defense was on the field.”
On the first play of the scrimmage, the 5-foot-11, 214-pound Taylor stood in the backfield with the No. 2 offense and broke off a 70-yard touchdown run against the No. 1 defense. He juked multiple defenders on his way to the end zone and left several Badgers in awe.
“He was bouncing through the gaps, broke one tackle and he ran me over a little bit,” Wisconsin safety Natrell Jamerson says. “He strutted for a touchdown. After that, we all got to the sideline like, ‘Oh, [expletive]. Either we’re bad, or he’s real good.’ That kind of opened everybody’s eyes.”
Later in the scrimmage, against a mix of reserves, Taylor caught a one-handed pass over the middle from quarterback Alex Hornibrook, broke an attempted tackle by linebacker Mike Maskalunas and zipped past the defense down the right sideline for a touchdown. Wisconsin right tackle David Edwards remembers looking at coach Paul Chryst as he mouthed the word, “Whoa.”
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) August 19, 2017
“When you have players from the other side of the ball coming up to you and saying, ‘Coach, this guy is the real deal,’ you know,” Settle says. “Everybody sees it the same. And you’re not going crazy.”
Taylor carried 9 times for 87 yards with 1 touchdown as a backup in Wisconsin’s season-opening victory against Utah State. Shaw sustained a left leg injury in the game, and Taylor took over as the starter the following week against Florida Atlantic. He rushed for 223 yards with 3 touchdowns to strengthen his role as the No. 1 tailback. He has been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week six times, a school record.
Settle insists that Taylor is not merely the product of a Wisconsin system that churns out stat-stuffing running backs. Taylor has demonstrated the shiftiness to make the first defender miss, the power to bowl over the second wave, and the speed to outrun the rest. Settle keeps waiting for Taylor to hit a freshman wall and is convinced Taylor doesn’t know what that is.
He marvels at Taylor’s ability to be as physical on his last carry as his first, calling it “mind-blowing.” With Taylor handling the majority of the workload, Wisconsin is averaging 245 yards rushing per game — an increase of 41.9 yards over last season.
More important to Settle, Taylor has 49 runs of at least 10 yards, tied with Florida Atlantic’s Devin Singletary for the most in the FBS. Last season, Clement led the team with 32 runs of at least 10 yards in 14 games. The big-play spark is back.
“It’s unreal,” Wisconsin fullback Alec Ingold says. “You think back to making a player on a video game, and you make it like JT. And in your freshman year, that’s what you’re doing? You’re going crazy, running for 200 yards a game. He’s doing it all right now.”
It would be easy for someone in Taylor’s position to allow his newfound fame to detract from achieving team goals. Taylor reached 1,000 yards rushing in his seventh game, matching the FBS freshman record for fewest games needed to attain the mark. He joined superstars Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk and Adrian Peterson, as well as former Badgers great P.J. Hill.
Since Heisman Trophy voting began in 1935, only three freshman running backs have finished in the top 5: Georgia Tech’s Clint Castleberry (1942), Georgia’s Herschel Walker (1980) and Peterson (2004).
Taylor needs 401 yards this season to break Peterson’s NCAA freshman rushing record of 1,925 yards and is on pace to shatter the mark. The more Taylor bulldozes opponents while playing for an undefeated team, the greater the possibility that he could become the next freshman Heisman finalist, sitting in the front row at the Marriott Marquis hotel next month in New York City.
Yet what makes Taylor special, teammates and coaches say, is his maturity and humility. While Taylor says he is appreciative of the recognition, he refuses to focus on anything beyond the next game. The real goal, he says, is winning a national championship. Taylor calls himself a perfectionist and spends more time ruminating about his 4 lost fumbles than celebrating his 12 touchdowns. Settle says Taylor is disappointed in himself when he runs for 200 yards but misses a cut that could have given him 250.
“He’s the kind of kid who will rush for 200 yards and then he’ll come to you and be like, ‘Hey coach, is there anything better I can do?’ ” says Wright, Taylor’s high school coach. “He’ll ask you after a great game what else he needs to work on to improve. That shows a lot about his character.”
Taylor says life on campus is the same as when he arrived, and he wouldn’t want to be treated differently. When asked whether Hill had called to congratulate him on tying his 1,000-yard freshman mark, Taylor seemed genuinely surprised that Hill — or anyone else deemed moderately famous in the football world — would even know how to acquire his cell-phone number and want to speak with him.
“You watch TV, you watch movies, and the cocky guy, something always happens to him,” Taylor says. “So you just stay humble. You know where you came from, you know how much work it took to get here. You know there’s still a lot more work to be done, so you’ve just got to keep working.”
Ingold says Taylor has never demonstrated an ounce of cockiness, even when it became clear he was simply better than the other Wisconsin running backs. In fact, his politeness on the first day of summer workouts is the first thing Ingold mentions about Taylor.
Settle notes that type of behavior has made it easy for teammates to root for Taylor’s success. He says the rest of the fullbacks and running backs view Taylor as a little brother and want to teach him how to be even better — a scary proposition for opponents.
“Maybe at some programs, a freshman comes in and takes over, guys would shun him,” Settle says. “He’d be on his own. But these guys have welcomed him in. I think they get a kick out of watching him play.
“Everybody loves good football. When it happens, and the way he’s made it happen some plays, you have to be a fan. If you’re not, all you have to do is watch him to become a fan.”
With Taylor, seeing is believing.