Five tailbacks were trying to catch the attention of coach Paul Chryst during Wisconsin’s first preseason scrimmage, but it was difficult for anyone to get a clear look at No. 23 after he took a handoff and showed his stuff in what seemed like a nanosecond.
Linebacker T.J. Edwards admits to having grabbed a lot of air as freshman Jonathan Taylor flew past for a touchdown.
“We had a scrimmage, and he broke an 85-yard run to the house,” Edwards said. “We thought we were going to be really bad or that he was really good. He’s a very explosive guy. He’s built differently — like an upperclassman. He looks like a junior or senior.”
Taylor said hello to Badgers fans by running for 87 yards on just nine carries in an opening victory over Utah State, and he let college football know more about him a week later in his first start by hitting up Florida Atlantic for 223 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries.
Ohio State (10-2) will get a formal introduction to Taylor on Saturday when it plays Wisconsin (12-0) in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis.
Taylor has run for 1,806 yards to rank third in Division I behind Rashaad Penny of San Diego State (2,027) and Bryce Love of Stanford (1,848). He has the third-most rushing yards by a freshman in FBS history.
When Taylor ran for 126 yards in a 38-13 victory over Maryland, he joined the likes of Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk, Adrian Peterson and P.J. Hill by having surpassed 1,000 yards in just seven games.
“It’s definitely humbling to be mentioned with those guys,” Taylor said. “There will never be any tailbacks like those guys — they’re phenomenal.”
The yards and touchdowns have accumulated so fast that Ron Dayne, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1999 for Wisconsin and ran for a Division I record 7,125 yards, tagged Taylor with a nickname midway through the season.
“I call him Little Jersey,” Dayne said.
Dayne, who is from Pine Hill, New Jersey, was asked why.
“Because I’m Big Jersey,” he said.
Taylor was a four-star recruit out of Salem, a town of 4,800 in southern New Jersey.
It’s common for Dayne to exchange text messages with Taylor. What he likes about Taylor is his hunger for more.
“I like the way he runs over people,” Dayne said. “He’s not looking to just get the first down. His eyes are looking down the field.”
Taylor said the best advice from Dayne is simple.
“He’s always telling me to keep smiling and to enjoy the game,” he said. “He also says to keep the big boys up front happy and to make sure they feel loved.”
Playing tailback for the Badgers is similar to being a crown prince. Dayne sits on the throne, but there also have been Montee Ball, Anthony Davis, Hill, Brent Moss, Terrell Fletcher and John Clay.
Left tackle Michael Deiter said Taylor has handled the celebrity well, largely because he doesn’t view himself as that important.
“I think he has handled it very maturely,” Deiter said. “He acts older than he really is. There is a ton of pressure playing that position at this university, and he doesn’t let it get to him. He just keeps playing. He bounces back and trusts his talent.”
Taylor committed to Rutgers but changed his mind in October of his senior year after visiting Wisconsin. He ran for a South Jersey record 2,815 yards in his final season and was in Salem High School’s International Baccalaureate academic program.
“He wanted to be in the place where there have been some good running backs,” Chryst said, “and we were going to help him to grow and be the best player he can be.’’