Jonathan Taylor is one of the best running backs in college football.
He would be the first to say his success isn’t due to just one person.
There are, of course, his parents, Elizabeth and Jonathan James, and several other family members and coaches. But a single observation by a mentor helped change the entire trajectory of Taylor’s success as a runner.
“I went in and I said, ‘Hey, run track. You need to run track,'” recalled Wisconsin running backs coach John Settle.
Settle, who is in his 10th season mentoring the Badgers’ rushers, was drawn to Taylor’s work ethic while recruiting the New Jersey native in high school. Settle said he noticed watching game film that something was missing from Taylor’s repertoire: Breakaway speed.
“His junior year, he wasn’t breaking any long ones,” Settle said. “Everybody was running him down, you know, running him out of bounds. All of a sudden (after running track), he shows up as a senior, and he was leaving people. So about the second or third game, we offered him (a scholarship).”
Taylor, an honor roll student, originally committed to nearby Rutgers, but then decommitted and elected to join Settle in Madison over attending Harvard.
“I had some other looks, but one of the biggest things was choosing a place that was right for me,” Taylor said. “I know a lot of other places on the East Coast were right for me, my family and friends, but I felt like Wisconsin was the right place for me to fully maximize my collegiate experience.”
Settle has coached four of the top six rushers in school history. At the beginning of each season, long before the team takes the field for spring practice, Settle gathers all the running backs in a room and greets them with a single proclamation: “Somebody in here is going to rush for 1,000 yards.”
“It’s just instilling that confidence in them,” he said. “When they take the field, shoot, they’re going to be prepared, mentally, physically. And then they’re here because they’re talented enough. Now, they can just go out and play.”
In Settle’s first season at Wisconsin, he tutored Big Ten Freshman of the Year P.J. Hill, who led the conference with 1,569 rushing yards, which ranked fifth in the country. Hill would go on to become just the third running back in school history to go over 1,000 yards in three different seasons, joining Ron Dayne and Billy Marek.
Settle’s latest success story is Taylor, who won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back last season after rushing for 2,194 yards and 16 touchdowns as a sophomore. He led the nation in rushing at 168.8 yards per game and was a first-team AP All-American.
“He’s a great running back,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “I really think from the time he got to campus he’s been as impressive if not more. It’s who he is and how he handles it.”
Taylor has rushed for 4,171 yards, the most ever by an FBS player through his first two seasons. Taylor could become only the fourth player in FBS history to rush for at least 5,000 yards through their junior season, joining Herschel Walker, Dayne and LaMichael James.
Taylor continues to do several of the stretches and warmups he learned while running track in high school. And last winter, Taylor conjured up a plan with Settle, Chryst and Mick Byrne, Wisconsin’s director of cross country and track and field, to skip the final week of spring football in April and begin practicing with the track team for the 4×100-meter relay, something he desperately wanted to do at the college level.
“That’s just a testament of what type of guy he is,” Settle said. “He taught me a very valuable lesson … never put limits on your players.”
Taylor made his debut on the track team at the Penn Relays, about a 45-minute drive from his hometown of Salem, New Jersey, and continued to compete with the team through the spring.
His weight — he’s listed at 5-foot-11 and 219 pounds — stayed steady. Taylor said the few months of increased cardio and a different brand of weightlifting helped keep him in shape and will help him on the football field this season.
“There are a lot of hip-mobility warmups,” he said. “There are a lot quick-burst warmup drills that we do. So in order to get the nervous system going a little bit and get those quick-twitch muscle fibers going, I think it’s really important that I incorporate those into my warmup now so I’m ready to run.”
Taylor said he isn’t focused on the record books or the millions of dollars he could one day make in the NFL. A philosophy major, Taylor said he wants to be a better student and become a more consistent runner and more reliable receiver out of the backfield. He spends time before and after every practice every day catching balls from the JUGS machine and working on his routes.
“We have a saying, ‘Be smart enough to know how to get better,'” Settle said. “He understands that when it comes down to football and the run game, he can do it all. He can run up the middle, he can make a guy miss, he can get the edge. In the pass game is where he lacks. He’s taken that upon himself — day in and day out, because he wants to be a complete player — to take that part of his game to a new level.”
Taylor and the 19th-ranked Badgers open the season Aug. 30 at South Florida.
Keith Jenkins can be reached at https://twitter.com/MrKeithJenkins
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