When wide receiver A.J. Taylor accompanied quarterback Alex Hornibrook to San Diego this spring, the two found the benefits unlike any they could have gained throughout their normal offseason activities at the University of Wisconsin.
Taylor, Hornibrook and tight end Kyle Penniston rented an Airbnb and spent their spring break working with quarterback coach George Whitfield, who Hornibrook had spent time with in previous years. Taylor also had the opportunity to learn from former NFL wide receiver and Super Bowl champion Lance Moore.
The most valuable part of that trip for Taylor, however, came from running routes for the same person he catches passes with nearly every day.
"It helped (Hornibrook and I) build a little bit more chemistry,” Taylor said. "I got to learn what he was thinking on routes. He kind of got to learn what I was feeling or thinking.
"That’s always really good when you can do that with your quarterback, especially when there’s not any pressure or stress. There is still an amount of stress and pressure that comes with spring ball. It’s (easier) to do those things without any other noise."
That improved chemistry became apparent when the season began nearly six months later, and Taylor’s parlayed that into a breakout season in which he’s leading the 15th-ranked Badgers with 18 catches and 354 receiving yards.
Taylor also caught the go-ahead, 17-yard touchdown in the final minute of UW’s 28-17 win at Iowa on Sept. 22, a play in which Taylor said he tweaked his seam route due to the way the Hawkeyes defended the field.
"I should have gone outside the backer but I kind of just relied on my instincts and I decided to cut inside and just straighten it up,” Taylor said after that game. "When I did it, Alex read me very well. He threw it in there and we made it work."
That touchdown exemplified another reason why Taylor’s taken off this year.
Teammates and coaches raved about his work ethic away from the field this offseason. Aside from his extended time with Hornibrook, Taylor lived in the film room.
He watched clips of Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and other NFL stars. He studied how some former Badgers wide receivers, such as Alex Erickson, found success from the slot, the spot Taylor spends much of his time. He even watched fall camp practices from previous years to critique his own performance.
It resulted in a better understanding of his position and an expanded base of knowledge that’s helped him solve any coverage thrown his way.
"A.J. put that time into just understanding fully why he does certain things,” UW wide receiver Kendric Pryor said. “Knowing what to do and also knowing why. If it’s this coverage, what do I do? Then if it’s that coverage, what do I do? ... Him working on the little details, I think that’s the biggest step that he’s taken from last year towards this year."
With the mental side of his game secure, Taylor still wants to eliminate the drops that have plagued him throughout his UW career. The former high school running back said his hands will always be a work in progress but that his lack of long-term experience at wide receiver can no longer excuse him for those type of errors.
"I’m in my junior year,” Taylor said. "A lot of these games, I’m having at least one drop. ... As much as I talk about consistency and how I want to be really good at that, and I’m getting better at it, I still have a lot more room to grow."
His work this offseason led to a fantastic first five games this year, though. The Badgers needed someone to replace the production of wide receiver Quintez Cephus, who’s suspended from the team indefinitely and set to face trail on second- and third-degree sexual assault charges for an incident that occurred in April.
Taylor’s done his best to take over the role of UW’s No. 1 wideout, and the Badgers feel he still has room for growth.
"You see it week to week and you certainly see it year to year,” UW coach Paul Chryst said of Taylor’s development. "I thought that he had a great purpose to his preparation in the offseason. ... As you go through it, you start to do things and you gain confidence from that. You play enough games and you gain an understanding from all the situations, what defenses are doing, and I think you’re also understanding yourself better, too.
"So I think what’s allowed him to continue to progress is his approach. It’s important to him. He certainly has talent, but he wants to be as good as he can be, so I think it’s putting all that together. What’s exciting is he can still get better."