No one — fans, coaches, teammates or even his own family and friends — saw Jonathan Taylor’s freshman season coming in 2017.
The University of Wisconsin running back, fifth on the depth chart during the first couple weeks of fall camp, went on to rush for nearly 2,000 yards and finish sixth in Heisman Trophy voting.
“From the first scrimmage, I knew he was really good,” UW safety Scott Nelson said, "but then as it went on he just got better and better."
A year later, Taylor’s far from the only member of the Badgers’ 2017 recruiting class to have already made a major impact on the field.
Eleven players from that class have started at least one game this season, and a few more have contributed with meaningful snaps. Those who started games include Taylor, Nelson, wide receiver Danny Davis, tight end Jake Ferguson, defensive linemen Kayden Lyles and Matt Henningsen, cornerbacks Faion Hicks and Madison Cone, offensive lineman Logan Bruss, quarterback Jack Coan and outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel as a junior-college transfer.
Two walk-ons in the class (Henningsen and offensive lineman Josh Seltzner) already earned scholarships just more than a year after arriving on campus.
UW only brought in 18 scholarship commitments that year — 19 if you include cornerback Deron Harrell, who took a grayshirt from 2016 — and none of the major recruiting services ranked the group higher than 35th nationally. Only two members of the class (Davis and Lyles) were ranked as four-star recruits by 247sports, while Rivals, Scout and ESPN labeled five of them as four-star prospects.
“I knew these guys were good,” Ferguson said. "I thought that all the stars, all the hype that a lot of those places make, it wasn’t true and we were very underrated. I thought we could really play. Even just watching young guys last year, I knew we could play ball. ... It’s good to see us step up and kind of prove everybody wrong."
Ferguson said the class could look even more impressive once more of the offensive linemen in the class earn an opportunity. The Badgers have used Bruss as a blocking tight end often this season, and Lyles switched to defensive line this summer to fill a need, but Ferguson believes Seltzner and Tyler Beach could also already be starting for most programs around the country.
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Both of UW’s starting guards, Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel, are seniors, and offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph said Seltzner “should absolutely be competing for one of those jobs,” in the offseason.
"Bruss wouldn’t be playing if he didn’t go in and do good things for us,” UW offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph said. “And I think the same way with Kayden. You wouldn’t be working so hard to get him on the football field. Now, (Beach and Seltzner) haven’t played as much, but I think they’re kind of right there."
Coaches don’t often try to project a player’s progression. Everyone’s path is different, and it’s difficult to know exactly how each prospect will translate to the next level.
The Badgers were optimistic about their 2017 group, however, and it’s already beginning to produce current and future stars during the group’s second year in Madison.
"I think it was pretty clear early that you saw talent-wise a lot of guys were going to be in a position to contribute early,” UW defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard said. “Whether it was true freshman year, redshirt, you didn’t know. You never quite know exactly how it’s going to play out, but you knew they were mature kids that could handle it."
Hornibrook, others remain questionable
Quarterback Alex Hornibrook, right tackle David Edwards and running back Taiwan Deal remained questionable for this week’s game at Purdue when UW released its updated injury report Thursday.
Badgers coach Paul Chryst confirmed that Hornibrook is still in the concussion protocol. The junior participated in practice Tuesday and was throwing after practice again Thursday.
UW safety D’Cota Dixon was named one of 20 semifinalists for the Jason Witten Man of the Year Award, given annually to the Division I college football player who has demonstrated a record of leadership by exhibiting exceptional courage, integrity and sportsmanship both on and off the field.
Three finalists will be named Dec. 10, with the winner announced at an awards ceremony Feb. 12 at The Star in Frisco, Texas.