After incredible rise, Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor plans to keep on going

Jonathan Taylor ran for 1,847 yards this season, just 78 shy of Adrian Peterson's freshman record. Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports

The longest run of Jonathan Taylor's still-young college career came right around the time he started to notice defenses paying more attention to him.

Wisconsin’s star freshman running back was in the middle of an eye-popping, 249-yard rushing performance against Nebraska in early October when he took a handoff late in the second quarter. He shuffled his feet in the backfield just long enough to allow a blocker in front of him to slip off a double-team and seal a linebacker downfield. Taylor shot through the newly creased hole, shook off an arm tackle and sprinted the rest of the way to a 75-yard touchdown. It was one of many examples Taylor put on tape this season of the rare combination of patience, power and speed that almost instantly made him one of college football’s most productive weapons.

Taylor rushed for 1,847 yards this fall, the fourth-highest total of any FBS back in 2017. If he picks up another 79 (about half of his average) against Miami on Dec. 30 in the Capital One Orange Bowl, he’ll break Adrian Peterson’s FBS freshman rushing record. It didn’t take long for defenses to take note on the largely unheralded prospect from a small town in New Jersey.

“It clicked in midway through the season,” Taylor said. “We started running little packages with me going in motion, and you could see some guys following me. You could see there was some extra attention. I thought that was a great thing.”

Taylor went from fourth on Wisconsin’s depth chart to sixth in Heisman voting and being mentioned in the same breath as Peterson and Badgers Heisman winner Ron Dayne. Those first Dayne comparisons came from Dayne himself, who is back in Madison working on his degree and made sure to send his fellow New Jersey native a pregame text with words of wisdom each week this season.

The inquisitive freshman seeks advice whenever and from whomever he can when it comes to figuring out how to keep that type of vaunted company as he moves forward in his career. He has learned that staying on that path during the offseason will require the same skills that helped him excel on the field this year.

Taylor said learning to be patient was the best lesson running backs coach John Settle taught him in their first season together with the sixth-ranked Badgers (12-1).

On the field, that meant letting blocks develop and taking the 1- and 2-yard gains while waiting for a seam to break a big one. This winter, Taylor says, that will translate to chipping away at new skills he hopes will provide more opportunities for those impact plays.

The rookie has become well acquainted with Wisconsin’s passing machine in the past few weeks as he tries to become more of a threat as a receiver. Badgers coaches started to search for new ways to get Taylor the ball as defenses focused in on him later in the season.

“I definitely want to continue to work on that so I can be as effective as possible in the passing game,” he said. “I always want to be on the field to help my teammates, so I have to make sure I’m ready for all phases of the game.”

Taylor said it was mostly swing passes when he caught the ball in high school, but he’d like to become a competent route-runner out of the backfield and the slot this offseason. While Taylor might have the reputation of a big, physical back -- partly because that’s how Wisconsin backs are typecast and partly because he did put a few defenders on the turf this season -- he has the speed to hurt teams in space, too. Taylor won back-to-back state titles in the 100-meter dash in high school, clocking in at 10.49 seconds at his fastest.

“He’s fast and he’s also a fast learner,” Taylor's high school coach, Montrey Wright, said earlier this year. “He’s learned a lot of technique this year he’s already incorporated into his game. He always wants to learn and he’s just that kind of guy. That’s the advantage he has.”

That plan to expand the way Taylor can affect a game is not far in philosophy from what Penn State did this season to make the most of Saquon Barkley, although it would certainly look a bit different within Wisconsin’s offense. Barkley was one of the two Power 5 backs -- along with Stanford’s Bryce Love -- to finish ahead of Taylor in the Heisman voting. Naturally, he asked both for advice as well.

Taylor was able to spend a couple days with Love and Barkley while in Atlanta earlier this month for an awards show. He said the red-carpet treatment was nice, but he thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to pick the brains of his older counterparts.

“Both of them told me you better make sure you never get complacent,” he said. “Because as soon as you get complacent you’ll start to see a decline.”

Taylor said to him that means attacking the offseason at the same speed with which he hits an opening on Saturdays in the fall.

Part of maintaining the level of production in future seasons will be staying healthy through long and busy seasons. Taylor said he became an avid stretcher after workouts and practice and at least twice on rest days this fall. He credits his stretching routine with helping him stay fresh while carrying the ball 273 times in his first college season. And though luck plays a big role in avoiding injuries, Taylor is hoping to fortify himself a bit further in the weight room during the next eight months.

Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst’s steady advice to his team during its 12-0 start was to allow it to soak in and enjoy each moment rather than worrying about where the Badgers would stand at the end of the season. Taylor, of course, heeded those pearls of wisdom, too.

So yes, he can appreciate the record at stake against the No. 10 Hurricanes (10-2) and the company he has already joined. It’d be a “heckuva” way to end his first college season, he said. But for now, the moment that Taylor is soaking up also includes preparing for the future to make sure he and his team stay a step ahead of what’s coming next.

“I can’t stay at a stalemate,” he said. “I have to try to get better. They’re trying to get better as well.”