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CHICAGO – Wisconsin tailback Jonathan Taylor’s favorite philosopher is Immanuel Kant, a German who came of age during the 1700s. Taylor can casually launch into a soliloquy on Kant’s “moral objectives,” showcasing why he seriously considered attending Harvard before choosing Wisconsin.
“There are a lot of different perspectives on things, but, at the end of the day, some things just aren't acceptable, some things are.”
That leads us to the philosophical conundrum of the 2018 Wisconsin football season. How did Taylor rush for a transcendent 2,194 yards amid an uncharacteristic 8-5 Badger season? You didn’t need to study the Age of Enlightenment to know which is acceptable and which isn’t.
(Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst clearly missed that lecture in college. When told Taylor studied Kant, he responded “like Chaka [Khan]?”)
Taylor enters 2019 on a historic pace, with numbers former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez, a Badger tailback connoisseur, considers “mind-boggling.” Through two seasons, he has rushed for more yards (4,171) than any player in the history of college football, ahead of Herschel Walker and Ron Dayne. If he registers another season of more than 2,000 yards in his junior year, Taylor could end up among the top-five all-time NCAA rushing leaders. The daunting part is that all the players dotting that list – Donnell Pumphrey, Ricky Williams, Tony Dorsett – all played four seasons.
Essentially, Taylor is on pace to both rewrite the entire NCAA record book and wedge himself onto the Mount Rushmore of Wisconsin tailbacks. While it’s naïve to think he’d stick around four seasons, the possibilities of what he could accomplish in three years are tantalizing.
The fundamental tension in Taylor streaking toward history remains whether Wisconsin can rediscover the identity and philosophy that the program has turned into a brand. The smashmouth Badgers – defined by prolific backs like Dayne, oversized lineman and pro-style leanings that border on defiance – got pushed around at times last season. Wisconsin didn’t dominate the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball for stretches, and the country’s 12th-worst passing game meant Taylor saw more men in the box than an undertaker.
So here’s one of the most compelling scenarios for the 2019 college football season: What if Wisconsin finds a competent quarterback to play complementary football, fills the holes in its offensive line and gets back to, well, being Wisconsin again? Just how far could Jonathan Taylor run?
“He’s going to go down as one of the greatest of all time when it’s all said and done,” said Michigan State defensive end Kenny Willekes. “One of the great backs in college football.”
Wisconsin, Rutgers or ... Harvard?
Taylor’s journey began in tiny Salem, New Jersey, a town of less than 5,000 people that’s a 15-minute drive from Delaware. Taylor jokes that it’s so small that his two favorite establishments – Nyce Touch Barber Shop and Grandma’s Café – have the same owners. Taylor loves the lemon pepper wings on Wing Wednesday at Grandma’s, and pops by Nyce Touch to chop it up on the topics of the week.
Fittingly, tiny Salem High School carries a lot of the same football DNA as Wisconsin. His first two seasons, Salem’s power run game included a full-house backfield with three tailbacks. They evolved to a run-first spread out of the Pistol his final two years. Taylor rushed for 2,815 yards as a senior, breaking the single-season state record. (He also smashed the South Jersey single-season record of 2,510 by Corey Clement, another prolific Badger with Jersey roots.)
Taylor proudly brags that Salem’s roster was “35 strong,” as the town has less than 5,000 people. That meant Taylor played both ways, swapping out as a linebacker on the other side of the ball. “It was actually kind of weird not playing both ways my first year in college,” he said. “First time we went three-and-out, I'm on the sideline, like 'Now what?’”
Taylor explored dual avenues for college, as he had a stream of strong Power Five schools recruiting him and also looked at Ivy League schools. He was initially committed to Rutgers, but flipped to the Badgers after visiting there his junior year. “He's one that we were really excited about when we were recruiting him,” Chryst said. “But it's only gotten better when you're with him.”
He also seriously considered Harvard, in part because of the elite academics and football program with prolific success in developing NFL players. He’s a self-proclaimed science nerd who’d have likely still majored in philosophy. In the end, Wisconsin offered an avenue to be a Renaissance Heisman candidate.
“It was a tough decision, deciding between the two different worlds,” he said. “But I really truly think that I wanted a balance and I'm glad I did.”
Will Badgers help Taylor, bounce back?
From his days as Wisconsin’s coach through his tenure as athletic director, Alvarez has been known to be as verbally blunt as the program identity he created. So when breaking down Wisconsin’s disappointing 2018 season, Alvarez said: “We didn't throw the ball particularly well last year,” he told Yahoo Sports this week. “So last year was an impressive year [for Taylor] because they could really zero in on you.”
Quarterback Alex Hornibrook left Wisconsin to transfer to Florida State this spring after compiling an impressive 26-6 record as a starter. But in the nine games he played in 2018, the Badgers’ pass offense couldn’t muster any consistency as he completed just 58 percent of his passes and threw seven interceptions. Wisconsin finished the season No. 118 in passing offense, a fullback dive ahead of the triple-option teams.
There will be a four-way race for the Badger quarterback spot this summer, which includes junior Jack Coan and ballyhooed freshman Graham Mertz, the highest-recruited quarterback in program history. What makes Chryst think this year will be different? “We need to, that's why,” he said. “There's no choice.”
Chryst said the ability to play complementary football will be the key to unlocking Taylor this season. The most impressive part of 2018 may have been that he made history when everyone in the stadium knew he’d be running the ball over and over. The predictable offense also stressed the defense, which dropped from No. 3 during their 13-1 2017 season to No. 34 last year. “A balanced game makes guys play honest, defend the whole field,” Taylor said. “With any team, you want to make them play honest.”
Since Dayne won the Heisman Trophy in 1999, it kicked off a generation where Wisconsin football became a brand of sorts. Taylor was born that year – “fresh out,” he quipped – when Dayne plowed through college football for 2,043 yards. Since that time, backs like Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon and Anthony Davis have perpetuated that legacy.
Taylor enters this season on the cusp of history because he has attributes from all of them. There’s some of Dayne’s power, Gordon’s sizzle and Ball’s explosiveness, as Alvarez notes his “sprinter’s speed.” Said Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck: “He breaks tackles better than anyone else in the league. When you have him wrapped up, there needs to be three or four people swarming on him to get him down.”
Taylor enters the season appreciative of those who’ve run before him, confident he can continue streaking toward history. The Renaissance Heisman candidate knows that Wisconsin’s football philosophy needs to reset to its familiar physics, delivering blows instead of taking them.
“You kind of pay homage to those guys for paving the way and showing you how things are supposed to go,” he said. “Creating a challenge in a sense. Like, beat that.”
Entering 2019, Taylor is poised to continue beating some of the best tailbacks in Wisconsin and college football history.
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