When the University of Wisconsin football team closed practice to the media beginning Aug. 12, true freshman Jonathan Taylor appeared a certainty to redshirt in his first year with the Badgers.
Four players — Bradrick Shaw, Chris James, Taiwan Deal and Rachid Ibrahim — were thought to be ahead of him in the running back pecking order at that point. There didn’t seem to be any room to squeeze in reps for Taylor, nor was there a need for UW to do so with so much depth at the position.
What happened in the two weeks since led Taylor to be named a co-starter with Shaw and James when the Badgers released their first depth chart Sunday.
“Some of the stuff was just crazy that he was doing,” UW starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook said of Taylor’s recent practice performances. "There was I think three different instances where we were scrimmaging offense against defense, and I had to ask somebody if we were playing live or it was thud because he wasn’t getting tackled and he wasn’t going to the ground. Every time it was live, he just wouldn’t go to the ground."
While the practices where Taylor shined were closed to the media, UW football's Twitter account released video of one of his impressive scrimmage touchdowns Aug. 18. Taylor caught a short pass one-handed before juking past cornerback Titus Booker and stiff arming inside linebacker Mike Maskalunas on his way to a long score.
Listed at 5-foot-11 and 214 pounds, Taylor possesses a combination of size and speed that makes him a handful for defenders.
"To be that big, he’s pretty fast,” UW safety D’Cota Dixon said. "For his size, it’s one of the things that stood out for me with him. I think he’s about 220, and he’s moving. … He’s just a downhill guy. He doesn’t try to do too much. He’s a north-south runner."
The Salem, N.J., native came to Madison this summer as a four-star prospect by Rivals and a three-star recruit by Scout, 247sports and ESPN. Like former Badgers running back Corey Clement, also a native of New Jersey, Taylor looks physically ready to play a significant role as a true freshman.
In 2013, Clement excelled as the Badgers’ third tailback behind Melvin Gordon and James White. He averaged 8.16 yards per carry on 67 attempts and scored seven touchdowns.
Based on his co-starter status with Shaw and James, Taylor could be in line for an even bigger workload than Clement did that season.
“I think that we were certainly excited when Jonathan came here,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. "Certainly, he’s talented. We feel good about a number of guys at that position that will contribute, with Jonathan certainly being one of them. I think (his role) progressed through camp. The first young-guys scrimmage, he did some good things, and then he earned the right to get some more reps with the ones and with the twos."
Only those within the team truly know how the carries will be split between Shaw, James and Taylor this season, but Taylor’s positioned himself about as well as possible over the last two weeks to make major contributions in UW’s season opener Friday night against Utah State.
While it’s been a extraordinarily quick rise for Taylor, the Badgers have confidence in the first-year player.
“He doesn’t look like a freshman,” Dixon said. "He’s got a lot of time, too. He’s only going to get better."