There are two words a football coach probably doesn’t want to hear about a player five games into his college career:
Yet, five games is all it took for University of Wisconsin freshman tailback Jonathan Taylor to enter the Heisman conversation.
Taylor’s 249-yard rushing effort in a prime-time game at Nebraska, his second 200-plus game of the season, was his national coming-out party. He’s nowhere near the top of anybody’s Heisman watch list, but he is starting to get mentioned as a candidate on the rise.
It’s not hard to see why. While some of the preseason Heisman favorites faltered in the early going, Taylor was putting together a strong resume.
A 5-foot-11, 214-pound blend of speed, power and elusiveness, Taylor leads the Big Ten Conference and is fourth in the nation with 153.4 rushing yards per game. His nine rushing touchdowns also lead the Big Ten. He has 26 runs of 10-plus yards, the nation’s fourth-best total. He is the second true freshman in UW history to record multiple 200-yard rushing games, joining 1999 Heisman winner Ron Dayne.
Just as important for a player’s Heisman candidacy, UW is 5-0 and ranked seventh entering today’s game against up-and-coming Purdue at Camp Randall Stadium.
“He’s an outstanding running back, without question,” Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said. “Whether he’s a freshman or a senior, the guy can flat play. He’s been very productive so far this year. The good thing is he’s got great talent around him.”
That leaves only two questions: Will this blast of notoriety affect Taylor’s play? Does he actually have a chance to win the Heisman?
The safest bet is that Taylor’s mindset won’t change no matter how much Heisman buzz he gets. He doesn’t seem like the type to have his head turned by success, having arrived at UW with a mental and physical maturity that goes well beyond his years.
So far, he’s been able to block out any Heisman talk by concentrating on the task at hand.
“I think it’s pretty easy to handle because you’re so focused on what you have to do,” Taylor said. “You have practice. You have class. Maybe later on in the night you just check things out on social media, but that’s not something you try to worry about too much because you’re just totally focused on your main goal.”
Even if Taylor were to show signs of letting the hype get to him, the program won’t let him stray far. It starts with running backs coach John Settle, who is nothing if not demanding.
“Coach Set always talks about controlling what you can control,” Taylor said. “The outside noise, that just all comes with the game. But the only thing we worry about is winning one game at a time and coming one step closer to our goal.”
One of the best things about UW’s program is that Taylor’s teammates also will hold him accountable should he show signs of being overwhelmed by the hype. At UW, the players who have been around the program for years are charged with showing the way.
“They set the example of how you handle things,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said.
“I think that is the foundation of your program — the guys that have been in it. How they handle their business. How they work each day. We can say all the words we want as coaches, we can do all the things, we can have anyone come and talk to them, but the example is set by the guys that have been in the program. I have great faith in those guys and great respect for how the guys in the program handle it so young guys go with that current. That current’s strong and we need to keep it that way.”
As for Taylor’s chances of reaching New York City, keep in mind this is not your father’s Heisman race. Many of the old voting taboos have gone by the boards in the past 10 years.
Quarterbacks have dominated the award since 2000, but Alabama tailbacks broke through to win in 2009 and 2014. The Heisman is no longer an award for upperclassmen, either. Florida’s Tim Tebow was the first sophomore to win in 2007 and redshirt freshmen Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Jameis Winston of Florida State won in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
There is precedent for UW tailbacks getting into the mix, too. Since 2009, John Clay, Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement have entered seasons on Heisman watch lists. Ball finished fourth in 2011, Gordon second in 2014. Clearly, UW tailbacks are on the radar screens of voters and, of course, they typically get to run behind dominant offensive lines.
Team record matters as well. Of the previous eight Heisman winners, four played on national championship teams and a fifth reached the title game. Those eight winners played on teams that lost 12 games total.
Winning the Heisman will be hard in a year when veteran tailbacks Saquon Barkley of Penn State and Bryce Love of Stanford have jumped into the lead, but Taylor does have some things going for him. UW is unbeaten, the offensive line is among the nation’s best and he’s already in the Heisman discussion.
“He just goes out and does his job to the best of his ability,” Rudolph said, “and his abilities help him to make some big plays.”
If he keeps making them at his current pace, this won’t be the last time we hear Taylor and Heisman in the same sentence.