CHICAGO – The numbers that Jonathan Taylor has put up in two seasons at Wisconsin are awe-inspiring: the most rushing yards in Football Bowl Subdivision history by a freshman (1,977) and by a sophomore (2,194), adding up to record yardage his first two seasons (4,171).
That’s more than the greatest collegiate running backs ever to play the game, counting Earl Campbell and Barry Sanders and Herschel Walker and even Ron Dayne, a former Wisconsin great who, like Taylor, played his high school football in South Jersey.
“To be mentioned with any of those guys is an honor, whether it’s being close to them, whether it’s beating their record,” Taylor said Thursday while in town for the Big Ten’s football media days. “You look at the careers those guys had and the way they impacted the game, it’s truly an honor to be mentioned with those guys.
“You kind of sit back and you look at how it all came together. You look at the people who helped you along the way. You look at the offensive line. You look at the receivers making certain plays, making defenses play honest. So you just look at everything that’s put you in the position where you are now and you’re very thankful.
“Then you start wondering, well, how can I top that? Then the only thing you can do is put your head down and begin to work again to try to get even better.”
Given the statistics, and his two top-10 finishes (sixth in 2017, ninth in 2018) in the Heisman Trophy balloting, and opponents have to be trembling about facing a better Taylor, a 5-foot-11, 219-pound workhorse who has come a long way from Salem High School.
Taylor is a perfect fit in the line of great Wisconsin running backs. Along with Dayne, Montae Ball, and Melvin Gordon, Taylor has won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top back. And don’t forget Corey Clement, the one-time Glassboro High star who stuck with the Eagles after rushing for more than 3,000 yards with the Badgers.
Only a few years ago, however, college coaches weren’t exactly flocking to the far southern part of New Jersey to watch Taylor at Salem, part of Group I, the smallest classification, even though he would rush for a state record 2,815 yards and 35 touchdowns as a senior.
“One of the biggest things is understanding that you need to keep doing what you need to do to be the best player on the field,” he said. “When you’re at a small school like Salem, you do whatever you can to make sure – no matter what game you’re in, no matter what field you step on – everyone will point to you and say, ‘Who’s the best guy on the field right now at this point?’ and they all point to you.”
After being recruited by smaller schools, some from the Ivy League, Taylor committed to Rutgers at the end of his junior year. However, shortly after making an official visit to Wisconsin in October of his senior year, he decommitted from Rutgers and pledged to the Badgers. Clement, whose state rushing record Taylor broke, played a role in his recruitment.
“Watching him do that in high school kind of inspired me to be a great high school player,” he said. “Then watching him go to Wisconsin and have the success that he did made me not necessarily want to go to Wisconsin, but made me want to go to the next level and do the same thing.”
Taylor said he chose Wisconsin to have “a great balance between an academic and athletic experience.” He is a philosophy major, and he’s also a science geek with a particular interest in astrophysics and Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is renowned in the field.
“I’ve always enjoyed science,” he said, “so one of the biggest things was, watching his documentaries, reading his books. I’ve always been interested in space, so he was a guy who kind of had a broad outlook on those things and a very wise guy on those things.”
Taylor, a two-time state high school champion in the 100 meters, also found time after spring football this year to join the Wisconsin track team. He was thrilled that his first meet was the Penn Relays, where he had competed as a senior at Salem. He ran second leg on the 4x100-meter relay.
“My teammates had never been to Penn Relays before,” he said. “It’s a real crazy event. There’s a lot of people. There’s races going on. There’s a lot of moving parts. I was familiar with it. That being my first meet, being able to calm those guys down, ‘Don’t worry, this is how it is every single year. We’re just fine. Let’s focus up.’ It was a good experience for me.”
The focus now for Taylor is football. He is on pace to reach 6,000 career yards by the end of this season, within range of Dayne’s NCAA career mark of 7,125 yards. Of course, the NFL could come calling for its next draft, but Taylor said that thought has been relegated to the back burner.