Jonathan Taylor Wants More, More, More

He's already got the stats, the awards and the draft buzz. So what's next for Wisconsin's superstar junior running back? Easy. 'Start looking for more.'
photo of Adam KramerAdam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterMADISON, Wis.September 18, 2019

The sheet of paper in Jonathan Taylor's hands technically weighs only four-and-a-half grams. But the weight of what he's holding—the staggering numbers he's compiled over the past two years, the football giants he has outperformed and the history he's trying to run down—is heavy beyond words.

Seated on a couch inside Wisconsin's football complex, four weeks before his junior season begins, Taylor scans the page in silence.

He starts at the top, combing through a summary of his 2019 season, when he ran for 2,194 yards, the seventh-most rushing yards in a season in NCAA history. More rushing yards than 68 FBS teams. More rushing yards than any sophomore running back ever.

He skips down a paragraph, to his freshman year, when he ran for 1,977 rushing yards. More yards than Adrian Peterson tallied during his breakout freshman season at Oklahoma in 2004. Not bad for a running back who almost attended Harvard and who has found his edge through hot yoga.

Farther down, the name Herschel Walker appears. The former Georgia great, considered by many the best collegiate back ever, ran for 3,273 combined yards as a freshman and sophomore. Taylor bested him by nearly 1,000 yards in his first two seasons.

He flips the page over—glazing through other notable figures. His 154.5 average rushing yards per game the past two seasons. And 29 total rushing touchdowns. And the 7.1 yards per carry he averaged last year. The 829 rushing yards he needs in his third season to reach 5,000, something only three juniors have ever accomplished.

And finally, he reaches the most interesting number: 2,234. The number of yards Taylor needs this season to become the NCAA's all-time rushing leader. With a dream season, the kind of season he has produced two years in a row, there stands a possibility Taylor could break this record as a junior.

He sets the paper down. He doesn't beam with pride. He doesn't smile. In fact, he seems almost disappointed.

"I could've squeezed out a couple more yards," he says. "You go back and look at the film—look over some runs. Maybe I could've made this guy miss, or maybe I should've hit this hole instead.

"You start looking for more."

It's a common refrain for Taylor. In football and in life. There is always something more out there, and the search for perfection must go on.


Taylor's body is always looking for more.

That's where the hot yoga came in.

He doesn't look like the type you might expect to see in a yoga studio. Not on this day, wearing a gray Under Armour shirt that emphasizes massive shoulders and long, powerful arms. At 5'11" and 219 pounds, he has bruiser's body to complement his track-star speed.

But elite athletes are constantly searching for an edge, and Taylor found another one this past offseason in near-100-degree temperatures, forcing his body into uncomfortable new positions.

Wisconsin wideout Danny Davis III invited Taylor to his first class this past offseason. Curious enough to give it a try, Taylor showed up expecting to take some deep breaths and do some methodical, relaxing stretching.

Instead he found a high-heat, high-intensity workout that pushed his core and balance in ways the football field and weight room never had. So he kept going. Twice a week, to be specific.

It became part of his routine for keeping his body—"the center of your temple," he calls it—in the kind of shape to take punishment rarely seen in football these days.

True workhorse-running back punishment. It's a punishment he welcomes.

"You want the ball," he says. "You try to score every single play."

MADISON, WISCONSIN - SEPTEMBER 07:  Jonathan Taylor #23 of the Wisconsin Badgers scores a touchdown in the first quarter against the Central Michigan Chippewas at Camp Randall Stadium on September 07, 2019 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Gett
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Taylor's 299 rushing attempts in 2017 were fourth nationally, and his 307 last season were first. And that's his focus in training: making sure his body is always ready for the next Saturday, so he can always be the focal point of the offense. From cold tubs to recovery tights to extended nights in the training room long after his teammates have left, it's all part of the plan.

"Sometimes I'm feeling pretty s--tty, but I can't even imagine what he goes through," lineman Tyler Biadasz says. "He's getting hit every single play. Imagine that. Imagine getting hit every single play and then popping up a week later, about do this exact same thing."

Ross Kolodziej, Wisconsin's head strength and conditioning coach, isn't surprised by any of it. Not anymore. He knew when Taylor showed up that he would be fast—that he'd run track in high school and had done the 100 meter in 10.49 seconds. But after two years of watching him work in the weight room, the coach knows it's about way more than speed.

"To squat almost three times your weight is pretty wild," Kolodziej says. "And to do it with the volume of running and sprinting and everything else that we do...it's elite level.

"He can run a 4.3 40 all day long."

At 219 pounds, Taylor squats 605 pounds. He can broad-jump 10'9", which would have put him one inch behind the top running back performances at the NFL combine this past spring. His vertical leap of 38 inches would've landed him fourth at the position. And he can do a power clean of 350 pounds.

"We have a couple of offensive and defensive linemen that are around 355, 365, but Taylor is in the top five on the team," Kolodziej adds. "It's freakish."

Adds backup running back Garrett Groshek: "He's probably pound-for-pound the strongest person I've ever met."


Taylor's brain is always looking for more too.

That's why Harvard was a real consideration. In fact, he made the trip to the Ivy League campus three times during high school as he tried to gauge exactly what he wanted his collegiate experience to look and feel like.

Taylor grew up in Salem, a small town nestled in southern New Jersey, near the Delaware River. At Salem High School, he starred in the classroom as well as on the track and the football field.

The appeal of Harvard was obvious. He doesn't know what his life will hold for him after football, but he knew Harvard would put him on an elite path. Ultimately, though, he decided Wisconsin could put him on a similar track and put him in the position to make the most of his football career.

"I had to find a place that was going to put me in the best position to maximize everything," Taylor says. "I wanted to have a great athletic experience. I wanted to challenge myself and play against the best. Wisconsin did that—and had a top-20 academic institution on top of it. That was it for me."

You can hear some of the Harvard in Taylor as he speaks.

It's not just about the way he plays or prepares; it's the way he views life, the way he talks, the way he seemingly bares his soul while answering relatively mundane questions—processing the thought and intent behind it all.

He answers with questions of his own, not to deflect from what is being asked but to carry the conversation further.

It's why he settled on philosophy as a major after taking a long, hard look at astronomy and physics.

"I was kind of struggling between going into a science field and the philosophy world...although they kind of go hand in hand," Taylor says. "I wanted to know how things worked and why people believe what they believe. How do people know what's right from wrong? Who sets the standard? I don't want to be someone who explains how people think, but I want to dissect how people think."

Always looking for more.

MADISON, WISCONSIN - NOVEMBER 24:  Jonathan Taylor #23 of the Wisconsin Badgers lines up for a play in the first quarter against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Camp Randall Stadium on November 24, 2018 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty I
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Like how he spends his free time. Sure, Taylor plays video games like most college students—not Madden, but Call of Duty and Mortal Kombat—but he wanted to diversify what he did outside football and the classroom. So he took up jigsaw puzzles. He likes the idea of assembling something out of nothing, although he has a limit. "Never more than 1,000 pieces," he says.

Or like how he spent his summer. While Taylor is less than a year away from being able to realize his football dreams and fortunes in the NFL, his offseason team was…Merrill Lynch. For four hours each day, normally between workouts and meetings, he would head to the Merrill Lynch office near the Wisconsin State Capitol for an internship. He'd throw on slacks and a button-down. Occasionally, he'd wear a tie.

Most days, Taylor would simply observe and ask questions. The goal was to understand how a wealth management company operates on a day-to-day basis.

Rather than spend his summer consumed by football, Taylor set out to acquire as much intel as he could.

"I just feel like being more aware and educated in the financial world will help me," he says. "You don't want to go into the real world without an understanding of how things work financially. A lot of people learn these things as they go. But if you have a chance to go to the next level, that's something that you definitely need to be aware of."


Taylor's been looking for more at Wisconsin since day one.

Harvard had made its pitch during his recruiting. And as a Jersey kid, he'd felt a certain loyalty to Rutgers too. It was the program he grew up with, and despite the Scarlet Knights' football struggles, the allure of playing in front of his family and friends was intoxicating. Virginia Tech, Boston College and Temple were other options, though as a 4-star running back, according to 247Sports, he didn't have the full laundry list of blue-blood programs chasing him.

He arrived during the summer before his freshman year and instantly attracted curiosity.

Whispers of his weight-room performances began to make their way through the program.

Soon, there were whispers about what he was doing on the practice field too.

During one of the team's first scrimmages, Taylor broke a handful of tackles and scored a 20-yard touchdown against Wisconsin's first-string defense.

Then in the next scrimmage the following week, he took a screen pass 50 yards for another touchdown—breaking five tackles en route to the end zone.

The curiosity quickly turned into eager anticipation.

"You just knew he was something special," Biadasz says. "Even though he was younger, he could still contribute. I think that at that moment, all the coaches knew they wanted him to be in the rotation.

"Then after that, he was off."

Taylor had 87 yards on just nine carries in his first game as a true freshman. Then 223 yards in his second. Then 249 in his fifth. Then 219 in his sixth.

There will always be a tendency to think of the success of any Wisconsin running back as merely the product of a system—the latest 1,000-yarder to come off an assembly line that has manufactured big name after big name over the past two decades, from Ron Dayne to Montee Ball to James White to Melvin Gordon III.

But even by those standards, what Taylor's done is unique.

MADISON, WISCONSIN - SEPTEMBER 07:  Jonathan Taylor #23 of the Wisconsin Badgers scores a touchdown past Norman Anderson #16 of the Central Michigan Chippewas in the first quarter at Camp Randall Stadium on September 07, 2019 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

By the time he took up hot yoga and started showing up at Merrill Lynch, he was already on everyone's 2019 Heisman Trophy watch list. B/R draft expert Matt Miller has him ranked 11th overall on his latest big board.

"Taylor has top-end speed," an NFL scout tells Bleacher Report. "He's durable and can run between the tackles. He's more of a straight-ahead runner than make-you-miss guy, but I could easily see him finding the right team and moving into the first round."

The NFL is coming. But before it does, there is more work to be done.


The unlikely assignment of breaking the all-time NCAA rushing mark in only three years has taken an unexpected turn early this season—not because of injury or a lack of performance on Taylor's part, but because his role is evolving in a way that could make him even more dangerous.

Through two games, Taylor has tallied 237 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns on almost seven yards per carry. By his remarkably high standards, these numbers are OK.

But the part that will keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night is his role in Wisconsin's passing offense. Taylor already has 65 receiving yards—more than he had all last year—and three receiving touchdowns. Through his freshman and sophomore seasons, he never caught a touchdown.

If this trend continues as Big Ten play begins, Taylor could be in line for even greater attention, making himself more appealing to NFL teams as his professional life approaches.

When that time comes, Taylor is hoping he joins the proud legacy those who came before him at Wisconsin have built. He sees their images every day—pictures of All-Americans scattered throughout the running back room and facility. A reminder of the tradition they established.

In that sense, he's proud to be a "system back": the next in a great line of players carving through history, albeit with a style of his own.

"You see what they have done," Taylor says. "They laid out what you should be doing to be great, and the challenge is: How can you be better? And it's kind of something to push you. I tend to not think of it as pressure but as a challenge.

"How can I be better than these guys?"

The curiosity to ask the question and the determination to find an answer will remain his greatest assets. He will continue to ask questions about life and football, all while driving toward history and perhaps something more.

        

Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.

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