INDIANAPOLIS — Jonathan Taylor could have sent major college football’s career rushing record into the stratosphere.
In just three seasons, the former Wisconsin star moved into third place on the all-time list with 6,174 rushing yards. He’s just the fifth player ever to eclipse the 6,000-yard mark in the Football Bowl Subdivision and the first to do it without playing his senior season.
Fellow Badgers star Ron Dayne holds the NCAA record with 6,397 rushing yards, and Texas’ Ricky Williams (6,279) is the only other player ever to run for more yards than Taylor. Both those men won the Heisman Trophy and were first-round picks in the NFL Draft.
Taylor, who finished fifth in the 2019 Heisman voting, lasted until the 41st overall pick this spring and wasn’t even the first player selected by the Indianapolis Colts. But there’s no doubt the team feels as though it got a unique talent in the second round.
“If you didn’t know who Jonathan Taylor was, then you haven’t been watching college football,” Colts running backs coach Tom Rathman said. “But [he’s a] very gifted player, and the thing that’s gonna help him adjust to our game, is that at Wisconsin they were well-coached in different schemes. So he can come in and he’s been running in gap schemes. He’s been running outside zones. He’s been running inside zones.
“So whatever we throw at him, he’s gonna basically know what the understanding of the concept is, and I think that’ll help him with his progression as a football player.”
Taylor compares favorably with a pair of much-celebrated recent Big Ten running backs.
Ezekiel Elliott was the No. 4 overall pick out of Ohio State in 2016. At 6-foot and 228 pounds, he ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash and posted a 32.5-inch vertical leap during an NFL Scouting Combine that helped elevate his already lofty draft status that spring. Two years later, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley went second overall after a superhuman Combine showing that included a 4.40 40 time and a 41-inch vertical at 5-11 and 233 pounds.
Taylor measured in at 5-10 and 226 pounds this spring then blazed to a 4.39 40 and posted a 36-inch vertical. But only one running back crept into the first round, and LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire barely made it as the 32nd and final selection by the Kansas City Chiefs.
There were two main knocks most prominently held against Taylor. He fumbled 18 times during his college career, and he caught just 42 passes.
Indianapolis believes it has the first part covered with Rathman, one of the league’s most relentless teachers of ball security. And the second might well have reflected a simple lack of opportunity.
The Badgers coaching staff made a concerted effort to get Taylor more involved in the passing game in 2019, and he responded with 26 catches for 252 yards and five touchdowns. The highlight was a 28-yard touchdown catch during a critical late-season game at Minnesota that gave Wisconsin a 10-7 halftime lead. Taylor had to turn to make the catch and ran the final 6 yards to the end zone backward with a defender clinging to his upper body.
Plays like that normally end up on Heisman highlight reels. Taylor finished in the top 10 of voting for college football’s most outstanding player three times, but the closest he got to taking home the trophy was fifth this past year.
In another era, he likely would have been a high first-round pick. Dayne went 11th overall to the New York Giants in 2000, and Williams was the fifth overall pick a year earlier – after New Orleans Saints coach Mike Ditka infamously traded eight picks (all six of the team’s selections in 1999 and first- and third-rounders in 2000) for the right to select him.
But the game has changed. Carolina Panthers star Christian McCaffrey – who had 1,387 rushing yards and 1,005 receiving yards in 2019 – is the new prototype.
Taylor’s old-school approach is falling out of vogue. But he might have landed in the perfect spot to highlight his skill set.
The Colts are committed to running the ball behind a dominant offensive line, and even the prospect of sharing the workload with 1,000-yard rusher Marlon Mack doesn’t dampen Taylor’s enthusiasm for his new home.
“You don’t count the reps, you make the reps count,” he said. “So whenever you’re in, you’re on —make sure you are 100 percent. Think about it, you are a professional now. When people are at their jobs — I know my mother is at her job and she likes to do everything correctly to a ‘T’ as perfect as possible. I’m taking the same approach here.
“I mean, whenever my number is called, I’m making sure I’m on at all times because it’s my job now.”
It’s been a lonely spring for Taylor. He worked out with some former Wisconsin teammates before the coronavirus shutdowns began but had mainly been running solo until this week.
Many of the Colts have returned to Indianapolis, and the players are holding workouts without coaches in attendance. It’s the first time for many rookies to meet their teammates and a week that finally is making the NFL experience feel real.
For Taylor, it was an experience he couldn’t miss.
“I mean, shoot, this is one of the first times you’re able to get together,” he said. “So far, it’s just been staying safe and working out and now you get to have a little bit of fun, get around some of the guys you’re going to be working with throughout the season. I had to take advantage of this opportunity.”