NEW YORK CITY — Every summer, Michael Deiter attempts to sneak an early report on the University of Wisconsin football team’s incoming freshmen.
The All-American left guard doesn’t seek out position coaches, however. Deiter’s curiosity lies with guys who are physically ahead of schedule, and he turns to strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej to ask which newbies are standing out in the weight room and in other aspects of summer training.
Kolodziej’s response to Deiter’s inquiry last year foreshadowed something no one, even Kolodziej himself, could have anticipated.
“You’ve got to watch out for this kid, Jonathan Taylor,” Kolodziej told him.
Taylor, of course, didn’t fly under the radar for long. He wowed coaches and teammates during a fall camp scrimmage shortly after that conversation and went on to rush for 1,977 yards that season, an FBS freshman record, while finishing sixth in Heisman Trophy voting.
This year’s been even better — 1,989 yards and 15 touchdowns in just 12 games, more records and another top-10 Heisman finish. Earlier this month, Taylor became the first sophomore in UW history to earn NCAA unanimous All-American honors and the fourth Badgers running back to win the Doak Walker Award.
He’ll likely become the fifth player in FBS history to rush for 4,000 yards over a two-season span when UW takes on Miami in the Pinstripe Bowl on Thursday at Yankee Stadium.
“Come that one scrimmage that everyone talked about where he had that breakout day, I just remember going, ‘Coach Kolodziej was right. This dude is unreal,’” Deiter said. "And he’s never looked back."
Taking the final step
It felt like everything went wrong for UW in 2018. The Badgers wheezed their way to a 7-5 record in a year when they held a top-five preseason ranking and College Football Playoff aspirations.
Taylor stands as the biggest exception.
“He wanted to prove that the 1,977 wasn’t a fluke,” UW running backs coach John Settle said. “So he wanted to back it up with another year — forget the sophomore jinx and all that kind of stuff. That was his approach."
Plenty of factors could have derailed Taylor and thrown him into one of those dreaded sophomore slumps.
The Badgers’ passing game didn’t do its part to help open up defenses. As a team, UW still sits below 2,000 yards through the air this season. Three-year starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook took a step back from 2017 and battled injuries throughout the year, while sophomore Jack Coan also struggled in his first career starts at Northwestern and Penn State. Coan will start Thursday as Hornibrook deals with reoccurring symptoms of a head injury he suffered earlier this season.
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Teams also honed in to stop Taylor from Game 1. The Salem, N.J., native didn’t even start the season opener last year before ripping off three 200-yard performances over the next five contests. His consistency stands out as a sophomore, rushing for more than 100 yards in all but one game.
"The only difference is I think (teams focused on him) starting Game 1 as opposed to Game 6 or 7,” Settle said. "Early on, I know that was a focus of some teams. And then the thing that he did is he allowed the O-line and those guys to work for him."
Settle, Taylor and other coaches agree that’s the biggest improvement in the star running back’s game — his trust and patience in the guys who block for him.
After working through his first full offseason at UW, Taylor better understands the Badgers’ blocking schemes, how everybody fits into a play and the benefit of waiting for holes to develop. Settle said Taylor relied on his athletic ability, speed and talent as a freshman.
Taylor was playing football last year, according to Settle, but now he’s become more of a football player.
"It’ll probably be hard for people on the outside to say (I) got better going off the year I had last year,” Taylor said. “… Sometimes last year I would kind of scurry off before I truly allowed the hole to develop. I feel like this year I’ve been truly able to trust and be patient and allow the hole to open up, and as long as my teammates and coaches can see that on the film, then I know I’ve gotten better."
That patience, along with his excellent vision, turned him into an even more dangerous player this season, and at no time was that more evident than UW’s triple-overtime win at Purdue on Nov. 17. Taylor dominated after halftime, eating up 247 of his 321 rushing yards in the final two quarters and overtime periods.
A major chunk of Taylor’s success that day came when the Badgers spread the Boilermakers out and handed him the ball on an outside zone. He used his speed to beat everyone to the edge or conjured that patience and vision to find creases, exposing any wrong step by a defender to rip off a big gain.
"He puts the team on his back whenever we need him,” UW safety D’Cota Dixon said. "He’s so innocent. I still don’t think he knows how good he is. (But) the team, they all know."
Luckily for Badgers fans, Taylor can’t move on to the NFL until 2020, and the running back believes he can be even better as a junior next season.
He still rarely plays a role on third down, and Taylor noted that’s the main aspect of his game he wants to improve between now and August. As a runner, he could make even more history. Taylor’s already less than 2,500 yards from breaking Donnel Pumphrey’s FBS career rushing record.
And then, of course, there’s the Heisman Trophy. Oddsmakers tabbed Taylor as one of the top three favorites for the award entering the season before a spectacular year earned him just a ninth-place finish. Taylor mentioned that this year’s finalists — Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins — all deserved that honor, and all three hold the common thread of leading teams that ended the season in the heart of the College Football Playoff race.
In Taylor’s quest to make a return trip to New York City next December, he won’t only be focused on his yardage total or string of accolades. He and the Badgers need to turn their fortunes around in the win-loss column.
“Those things (like the Heisman) come from doing the best that you can do for your team,” Taylor said. "You look at the finalists now — they make the plays that they need to help their team win. Going into a season with that mindset gets you where you need to go."