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Jonathan Taylor’s presence in Wisconsin’s 2018 passing game will be critical

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Our Players to Watch series continues with the sophomore back who is already garnering Heisman hype.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Wisconsin vs Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

We are less than a month away from the Wisconsin Badgers starting up fall camp, and the 2018 edition of this team could continue to make its presence known not just in the Big Ten Conference but also in the College Football Playoff conversation.

As we count down the days until the pads and helmets are back on, this series is dedicated to the players fans should keep an eye on—regardless of if they’re already household names.

Jonathan Taylor emerged late in fall camp last year before becoming one of the nation’s leading rushers, falling only 23 yards short of 2,000 while becoming a Doak Walker Award finalist in his first year on campus.

Obviously, Taylor is a player to watch in 2018. However, it may be another skill set besides carrying the rock that could make him an even more potent running back.

2018 Rushing Stats

Att Yards Td Long Avg/C Avg/G
Att Yards Td Long Avg/C Avg/G
299 1977 13 75 6.6 141.2

2018 Receiving Stats

Rec Yards Td Long Rec/G Avg/C Avg/G
Rec Yards Td Long Rec/G Avg/C Avg/G
8 95 0 24 0.6 11.9 6.8
In 14 games Stats courtesy UWBadgers.com

Why Jonathan Taylor is worth watching in 2018

This seems really easy to point out. After taking the Big Ten Conference by storm as a freshman with a mature physique and personality behind an offensive line returning all of its starters, there are heavy expectations for a repeat performance of last year’s Wisconsin ground game.

On Thursday, SB Nation’s Bill Connelly praised Taylor in his 2018 preview of the Badgers:

Taylor is so perfect for this offense. Sixty-five percent of his carries came on first down, when everyone knew what the Badgers were going to do, but he averaged 6.3 yards per carry on first down. Oh, and he averaged 9.2 per carry on third down. And 9.1 per carry in tie games. And 7.5 per carry between the 20s. Et cetera.

As good as Taylor could be in the rushing attack this upcoming season, we’ll be watching what he provides in the passing game.

During the spring, the sophomore back worked with head coach Paul Chryst (as well as defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard at times) on running routes during the beginning portions of practice.

Last year, Wisconsin held a stable of backs that could be used on third down, including Chris James, Garrett Groshek, and the now-departed Rachad Ibrahim who, if memory serves me right, played a significant portion of snaps on that crucial down.

Taylor showed he can be a game-breaker in the rushing game, but if he can improve his abilities in two more dimensions—receiving and picking up blocks—a Wisconsin offense that already is dangerous in its aerial attack with quarterback Alex Hornibrook and four very capable wide receivers could be even more explosive.

When asked last week where he feels Taylor needs to improve, Wisconsin running backs coach John Settle pointed to better ball security and “being able to take a hit but hold onto the football at the same time” as well as “just expanding his knowledge of the game.”

“Being able to play all three downs, so we’re going to do some things with him this fall,” Settle said. “We started in the spring with him playing in a third-down package and keeping him on the field because he is one of our better players. We want to have our best players on the field at all times, so when we take him off the field, you may lose a little something in certain areas so we’re trying to figure out ways to keep him on the field but he’s got to be able to do that. Catching the ball out of the backfield, pass protection, understanding the defense, that type of thing, being able to come up and pick up a blitz.

“Like I said, there’s no better place than here because our defense gives us several opportunities during practice to do that.”