MADISON — Safety D’Cota Dixon has only seen running back Jonathan Taylor in person from summer conditioning through fall camp, but he has already anointed a nickname to the true freshman.
That name, along with Taylor’s break-out performance during a particular August practice, seem to go hand-in-hand.
“In the scrimmage, this dude, Jonathan—I call him ‘Beast Mode’—he took one on us the first play for like 60 [yards] against the ones,” Dixon said on Sunday. “I was like, dang. Kid’s got some juice.”
It wasn’t just one starter who called out Taylor’s performance, either. Inside linebacker T.J. Edwards also noted that the young back “torched” the Badgers’ defense twice. Redshirt junior left tackle Michael Deiter called two of Taylor’s plays “spectacular.”
Even offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph acknowledged the performance during the scrimmage, saying Taylor “earned a lot of respect.”
“He stood out,” Rudolph said on Monday. “We’ve had opportunities to scrimmage. When he’s gotten thrown in there, he’s made plays, and so we’re going to give him the opportunity to make more plays. I’m excited about the running back position, and he’s going to add to it.”
Taylor is now listed alongside redshirt sophomore Bradrick Shaw and redshirt junior Chris James as first-team running backs on Wisconsin’s depth chart, released on Sunday with the “OR” designation.
Wisconsin’s Week 1 Depth Chart: Offense
|Bradrick Shaw OR Chris James OR Jonathan Taylor*
|Kyle Penniston/Zander Neuville
|Cole Van Lanen
|Jon Dietzen OR Micah Kapoi
|Jason Erdmann/David Moorman
The site of a three-headed monster at tailback on paper was admittedly foreign to Taylor.
“When I first saw it, I’ve never seen three guys with an “OR” on any depth chart, so I just started laughing just because of coach Sett,” Taylor said, alluding to running backs coach John Settle. “Then I started thinking, ‘Wow, we must really be working hard because coach Sett doesn't have a definite answer,’ so I was kind of proud as a group. Yeah, we’re competing everyday and we’re always talking about how we’re competing to be the best running back group in the country, so that’s one thing we pride ourselves on.”
Taylor did not enroll early in January like six other freshmen from Wisconsin’s class of 2017, so he was unable to participate in spring practices. Unsurprisingly, he said the biggest adjustment from high school was the game speed. Even after breaking New Jersey and south Jersey records last season as a senior, his pre-snap reads and decision making needed to adapt to the game being twice as fast.
Finally, there was a moment last week when Taylor felt like he could compete at the first-team level.
“There definitely was a moment after we had a test in the running back room,” Taylor said. “You know, coach Sett is always keeping us on our toes, making us stay sharp, making sure we know everything we need to know.”
“Once you do good on a test, then you’re starting to think, ‘Wow, I know this stuff.’ I feel as once you get more comfortable, then that’s when your own style starts to blossom and once that started to happen, and I started being comfortable with everything. Then, I could start playing the game more easily.”
Another continual process is digesting and diving deeper into Wisconsin’s playbook. Unlike quarterback Jack Coan or offensive lineman Kayden Lyles, Taylor did not have 15 practices in the spring to help ease the adjustment from high school in learning a college offense.
“He earned himself more reps, and then what he’s put on film since then, has earned him more and more reps, more and more recognition,” Deiter said. “I think with him, it’s now just mental stuff. We’ve seen physically that he’s probably ready to play. He’s just mentally got to get there. Obviously, he’s young. There’s going to be some hiccups here and there, but he’s pretty sharp. He’s a sponge. He learns. He’s going to be a lot of fun to watch.”
That area of the game is not lost on Taylor, who said that’s what one of the key areas he’s currently working on.
“We have a lot of stuff that we can unfold,” Taylor said, “so being able to know each and every single one of those situations and being prepared for anyone of those situations just in case my number is called is one of the biggest things I’m working on.”
Both Taylor and fellow true freshman wide receiver Danny Davis found themselves in the two-deep when the depth chart was released on Sunday morning. Both appeared to have stood out enough to find time on the field, with Davis also holding down a back-up spot behind sophomore Quintez Cephus with injuries to George Rushing (left leg) and Kendric Pryor (facial injuries from a moped accident).
Taylor’s rapid ascension at tailback also builds up the hype for the running back room as a whole. The leading returning rusher is Shaw, who has great downhill speed and rushed for 457 yards last season. Then there’s James, who has the agility and between-the-tackles awareness to be a complete back for the Badgers.
“Every day, we come out there and we always pride ourselves on the being the best running back group in the country, so we’re working hard every day,” Taylor said. “I think that this group is a very special group.”
How many reps Taylor receives on Friday remains to be seen. The message back home from family, despite him being named a co-starter, remains steady. The advice coincides with a maturity displayed early on by Taylor.
“They’re definitely proud, definitely excited, but you know, they definitely told me to stay humble, take it day by day, and just make sure you stay ready,” Taylor said.
“Don’t let all the media get to you head and make sure you stay focused.”