Jonathan Taylor isn’t interested in waiting his turn. Just three weeks into the season, the freshman running back has cut to the front of the line and stationed himself as the primary ball-carrier in Wisconsin’s offense.
Wisconsin doesn’t have a true line of succession per se, but that’s how it’s worked out for about the last six years. Running backs tend to spend a year or two in a backup role before being handed the keys to the finely-tuned automobile that is the Badgers’ rushing attack.
Montee Ball did it. Melvin Gordon did it. Corey Clement did it. You get the picture.
Paul Chryst probably wanted that trend to continue this season, especially after Bradrick Shaw flashed some potential in his freshman campaign last fall. He rushed for 457 yards behind Clement and Dare Ogunbowale and was next in line to be the workhorse in the backfield. An early injury to Shaw has derailed that plan, at least on a temporary basis.
Taylor has seized his opportunity.
Coming into the year, Taylor had received some high praise as a three-star recruit and a top 25 running back in the 2017 class. He was going to see a significant number of snaps this season. But nobody could’ve anticipated the type of success the freshman would enjoy in his first three games at the college level.
Taylor has rushed for 438 yards and five touchdowns on 53 carries in the first three weeks. He leads the B1G — you know, the conference which includes Saquon Barkley and Justin Jackson — and ranks sixth nationally in those categories.
The freshman rushed for 223 yards and three scores in Wisconsin’s 31-14 win in over Florida Atlantic in Week 2. So, yeah, the Badgers have been just fine without Shaw in the lineup.
It’s not uncommon for freshmen to have an impactful role at Wisconsin. Quite the opposite at running back, actually. Deal, Clement and Gordon all eclipsed the 500-yard mark during their freshman seasons in Madison.
Year RB Yards TDs 2015 Taiwan Deal 503 6 2013 Corey Clement 547 7 2012 Melvin Gordon 621 3 2010 James White 1,052 14 2008 John Clay 884 9 2006 P.J. Hill 1,569 15
Taylor’s contributions have been a little more significant, though. The freshman is averaging 146 yards per game through the first three weeks of the season, a pace that, if sustained, would put him at 1,752 yards by the end of the year. He’d become just the fifth Wisconsin ball-carrier hit the 1,000-yard mark as a freshman, and the first since James White (2010). It’d also make Taylor the second-most productive freshman back in school history, behind only Ron Dayne.
He’s also better than two-thirds of the way to surpassing Gordon’s freshman mark, the highest total for any newcomer over the last six seasons.
Comparing Taylor to a former Heisman Trophy winner and the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher is a little premature after three games. The point is, not many freshman wearing a Badger uniform have encountered this type of success.
Moving forward, the question is whether or not Taylor could sustain this type out output on a weekly basis.
Obviously the injury to Shaw and the talent level of Wisconsin’s opponents have played a role in Taylor’s impressive numbers. Utah State, Florida Atlantic and BYU all rank in the bottom-third nationally in run defense. And the progression of quarterback Alex Hornibrook — who’s completing passes at a 70 percent clip and has thrown for 701 yards and eight touchdowns — has given Wisconsin an added dimension offensively. Defenses haven’t been able to load up the box and sell out against the run.
Sure, maintaining an 8.3 yards per carry average against B1G defenses is a big ask. But would preserving a 100-yard per game average be all that difficult? It’s a pretty reasonable goal, especially with such a strong offensive line and an improved passing attack, even for a freshman.
At some point, Shaw will return to the lineup and the number of touches will likely be divvied up between the two backs. Then again, if Taylor stays hot, Chryst might stick with the freshman as the primary ball-carrier for the remainder of the season.
One thing is for sure, Taylor isn’t interested in sitting around and waiting for Wisconsin’s unofficial line of succession to work in his favor. He’s carved out a substantial role for himself in only a few short weeks.
He’s already well on his way to becoming one of the more prolific freshman running backs in Wisconsin’s history.