If you asked a 15-year-old Jonathan Taylor where he saw himself in five years, winning the Heisman Trophy would never have entered his mind.
Not necessarily because Taylor didn’t believe such a feat to be possible, but rather because he’d struggle to even identify the most prestigious award in college football.
“In all honesty, I would have asked you what the Heisman was,” Taylor said. “Even as a freshman (in high school), I really didn’t know what it was. ... Sophomore year is when I really started locking in and trying to find out as much as possible about the next level, what I had to do.”
The boy from Salem, New Jersey, whose only reason for joining football in fifth grade was to spend more time with his cousin, enters his second year at the University of Wisconsin as one of the leading candidates to take home the coveted trophy and already projects as a high pick in the 2020 NFL draft.
Taylor finished sixth in the award voting after rushing for 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns as a true freshman last year, and with every member of a talented offensive line returning, his sophomore season could be even better.
The 5-foot-11, 221-pound running back entered last season with almost complete anonymity, spending a large chunk of fall camp as the fifth option at his position. By year’s end, he nearly finished as high in the pecking order of the country’s best players.
Needless to say, Taylor’s preseason feels much different this time around.
“I came in not really focused on the Heisman,” Taylor said. “It’s definitely more real now, being as though I’m a favorite and I’m one of the top guys that people are saying that could possibly win it.
“Going into the season with a lot of hype, it keeps you focused on what the standard is because you’ve set the standard. ... You can’t really have a drop-off because you want to keep getting better. You never want to backtrack.”
Star in the making
Taylor nearly didn’t play FBS football.
He’s always maintained a close relationship with his father, former San Francisco State basketball player Jonathan James, but grew up living with his mother, Elizabeth Taylor. Even after her son became one of the best college football players in the country last season, Elizabeth admits she still doesn’t understand some of the game’s more basic concepts.
“Two-point conversion — I still don’t know what that means,” she said.
It should come as no surprise, then, that she also failed to understand why Jonathan Taylor would turn down an education from Harvard.
The Crimson pushed hard to secure his commitment. He visited the school three times, and Elizabeth Taylor said Harvard even took a trip to Salem High School for one last pitch after her son had chosen UW.
Sure, the Ivy League may not have satisfied all of Jonathan Taylor’s athletic ambitions, but it could feed his growing interest in astrophysics and set him towards a fruitful career after football.
“I’m like, a black guy from a little small town going to Harvard? That’s something really big,” Elizabeth Taylor said. “For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why he chose Wisconsin. He kept on saying Wisconsin, and I’m trying to figure it out.”
The decision wasn’t an easy one for Jonathan Taylor, an International Baccalaureate candidate who’s strongly considering a double major in physics and astronomy. He also gave more than a long look to Rutgers, the in-state program where he originally committed before flipping to UW. In the end, UW could provide him with more balance between football and academics than any other school.
It also didn’t hurt that his father presented him data on how many former Badgers are in the NFL, versus those who played for Harvard. Currently, UW’s number more than triples the Crimson.
“I went and did the homework for him,” Jonathan James said. “I said to him, if you want a great job where you can definitely go on to make a lot of money, you go to Harvard. But if you want a good, good chance of making a lot of money and playing professional football, you go to Wisconsin.”
James already knew his son had potential for a real future in football. He recalls his hip being “messed up for a week” when Taylor put a move on him in the backyard during the summer heading into his freshman year of high school. By age 15, James had no chance of keeping up in a foot race.
“My dad would always say, ‘You’re going to be good,’” Taylor said. “I feel like once I got older, after freshman year of high school, he started saying that a lot — ‘Just keep working and you’re going to be good. I can see it.’”
James said he’s the one who encouraged his son to go out for track as a junior after UW coaches voiced concern over Taylor’s top-end speed. He went on to win Group 1 state championships in the 100 meters and 4x100 relay weeks after the Badgers had extended a scholarship offer.
For Taylor to break out as a Heisman Trophy candidate during his first season in Madison, though? No one could have foreseen that.
“I didn’t think he would be ready for that level of competition physically, and that’s what exceeded (my expectations),” James said. “I was like, wow, OK.”
Quick to impress
Before Taylor became an unstoppable force at Salem High, where he rushed for 4,642 rushing yards and scored 51 total touchdowns, he struggled for snaps in the Tri-County Midget Football League. Taylor didn’t overcome his belated arrival to the game overnight, but it didn’t take too long for his natural talent and athleticism to shine through.
Stuck on the Salem Oaks’ B team after joining in fifth grade, he changed his fortunes in a matter of minutes during a scrimmage. Taylor said he scored 99-yard touchdowns on his team’s first two drives. Coaches promptly pulled him the remainder of the scrimmage and moved him straight to the A team.
The scene sounds strikingly similar to what Taylor experienced last August. Sitting fifth on the depth chart with only two weeks before a season-opening game against Utah State, the true freshman compiled a performance for the ages during a closed scrimmage.
He stood out so much, in fact, that running backs coach John Settle said he pulled Taylor after about 10 plays. Suddenly, Taylor’s once-sure redshirt status evaporated, and he’d be taking meaningful snaps against the Aggies days later.
“That was crazy,” Taylor said. “Looking back now, a lot of people on the team say that scrimmage was like a turning point. But really, that was just the first time we got to fully play. That was a game-time experience. (Coach Paul) Chryst talked about simulating the first game, a Friday night game. He wanted to try to make it feel like a real game as much as possible.”
As the following months would prove, that’s when Taylor’s at his best.
After gaining 87 yards and a touchdown on just nine carries against Utah State, he seized an opportunity to start against Florida Atlantic in Week 2 after starter Bradrick Shaw suffered a right leg injury.
Taylor never looked back. He finished with 223 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries against the Owls, becoming the fourth freshman in UW history to record a 200-yard rushing game. He recorded two more — 249 yards at Nebraska and 219 yards versus Purdue — over the next four games, jolting Taylor from afterthought to Heisman candidate in two months’ time.
“He doesn’t necessarily know how talented he is,” UW running back Chris James said. “He just has that extra gear. There are still some things that blow my mind.”
Taylor’s teammates may have enjoyed the rise as much as anyone. Some of his runs became appointment viewing from the sideline.
Taylor wasn’t always the one they focused on when he made open-field moves near his own bench, though.
“We yell at the defender,” James said. “‘Hey, don’t pull a hamstring. He’s gone.’ Because once JT decides where he wants to go, it’s zero to 60, and he’s there fast.
“There are some plays where it may look like that guy’s about to make that play, but we all know he’s not making that play.”
Striving for the next level
The play Taylor’s teammates still often discuss came in the first quarter of UW’s 34-24 win over Miami in the Orange Bowl.
Taylor thought he heard a whistle blow at the snap of the ball. Unfortunately, no one else did, leaving Taylor standing upright in the backfield, arms dangling by his side as 21 other players continued at full speed.
“(Quarterback Alex) Hornibrook pressed the ball in my stomach and it kind of jolted me,” Taylor said. “And I just took off.”
After barely securing the ball, Taylor bolted away from the grasp of a blitzing linebacker and still managed to break off a 19-yard gain.
At first glance, it almost appeared as if UW had pulled a trick on the Hurricanes.
“Really, that was a busted play, and JT just got out of it,” James said. “That just shows you how talented that kid is. ... JT claimed that he heard the whistle blowing, but then he took it and got (19) yards, and I’m like, ‘How? How?’
“That kid’s tremendously talented. The sky’s the limit for him, honestly.”
With an entire collegiate offseason now behind him, Taylor could set his sights even higher when the Badgers open their season against Western Kentucky on Friday at Camp Randall Stadium.
It still wasn’t that long ago that Taylor struggled for fall camp reps, and after a whirlwind freshman campaign, it’s difficult to believe Taylor’s only been in Madison for about 14 months.
“He’s just now gone one lap around the track,” Chryst said. “He knows what it’s like to play in a season and go to school and how to handle your body, how to deal with the outside obligations or things that come along with being successful.”
Taylor hardly had a chance to breathe once his freshman season ramped up and media attention flooded his way. The time since that win over Miami has allowed him to focus on nothing but football.
Taylor proved himself as one of the nation’s best runners last year, but he’s spent the past eight months honing his craft, improving ball security after losing six fumbles in 2017 and becoming a back also capable of excelling in the pass game.
All of it may not translate into a Heisman Trophy, or even a statistical spike from his breakout freshman season, but Taylor’s not settling for a sophomore season in which he doesn’t improve.
“What he did last year was special,” Chryst said. “Now it’s how can he continue to grow? His numbers may or may not be like they were before. The numbers alone won’t tell the story. ... I think that says a lot when you can bring value to a team in those areas that aren’t easily measured. I think he’s one of those people that does that. ... JT’s incredibly talented. He’s a great teammate. He’s a worker. He’s smart.
“And his story’s not done yet.”
23 JONATHAN TAYLOR | 5-11, 221, SOPHOMORE, SALEM, N.J.
Played in all 14 games with 13 starts, carrying 299 times for 1,977 yards (6.6 average) and 13 touchdowns. ... Caught eight passes for 95 yards. ... Rushed for 223 yards in his 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 UW’s 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 and named the Thompson-Randle El Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
Four-star prospect by Rivals and earned three-star rating from 247sports, ESPN and Scout. ... Finished career 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 Badgers running back Corey Clement. ... Had 35 rushing touchdowns as a senior. ... Named first-team All-State as a senior and South Jersey Boys’ Athlete of the Year by the Philadelphia Inquirer. ... Two-year team captain and team MVP. ... Won four Group 1 state championships in track and field, claiming both the 100 meters and 4X100 relay titles as a junior and senior. ... Named South Jersey Times Boys Track Athlete of the Year as a junior and senior.
Father Jonathan James played basketball at San Francisco State. ... Honor roll student. ... International Baccalaureate candidate. ... Volunteered with community food drive, as peer tutor and with Operation India project to rebuild a classroom for students in India.