Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor returns to work after soaking up red-carpet experience

MADISON, Wis. — Planners at the College Football Awards Show last week literally rolled out the red carpet for Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor and his peers. Taylor was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, which honors the nation’s best tailback, and spent two days in Atlanta as part of ceremony festivities. There, he soaked up the opportunity to be surrounded by football royalty.

That included a chance to walk the red carpet behind velvet ropes before the awards show. Taylor even bought a navy blue suit for the event.

“You usually see the movie stars, like the actors, walking on the red carpet,” Taylor said Sunday after practice. “But it’s nice that they have something for football players walking on the red carpet.”

Taylor did not win the Doak Walker Award, which went to Stanford running back Bryce Love. But it is quite likely just the start for awards ceremonies in which Taylor will participate during his college career. Perhaps one year soon, he’ll be in New York City to attend the Heisman Trophy presentation.

This season, Taylor finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting, which was awarded Saturday night. He received two first-place votes, seven second-place votes and 38 third-place votes. He became the 10th Wisconsin player to finish in the top 10 of the awards voting and the first freshman. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield won the honor.

“I met him down in Atlanta,” Taylor said. “He had a crazy year, tremendous year. So very happy that he won it. Me, him, Bryce, we were all talking. He deserved to win it. He had a heck of a season.”

So did Taylor, who achieved feats that would be considered remarkable for any player, let alone a freshman. He vaulted from a potential fifth-string tailback before fall camp into the starting role by Week 2. Taylor rushed for at least 100 yards in nine games and eclipsed the 200-yard mark in three of those games. He ranks seventh in the FBS in rushing attempts (273) and third in rushing yards (1,847).

One of Taylor’s strongest attributes was his physicality and ability to run through would-be tacklers. According to Pro Football Focus, he recorded 1,247 yards rushing after first contact, the most among all FBS running backs. It’s no surprise, then, that USA Today already has listed him as one of 10 leading candidates to win the Heisman in 2018.

“The sky’s the limit for that kid,” Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook said. “He came in and as a freshman did what he did. It was crazy to see that. He’s a great teammate, a great kid. So he’s going to do some great things here. He already has. But he’s going to do some more great things.”

Taylor’s on-field accomplishments for his freshman season aren’t done yet. No. 6 Wisconsin (12-1) plays No. 11 Miami (10-2) in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30. Taylor needs only 79 yards rushing against the Hurricanes to break Adrian Peterson’s single-season FBS freshman rushing record of 1,925 yards.

“The last couple weeks of the season I’ve been seeing stuff about that,” Taylor said. “It’s kind of crazy, and I’ve been asked about that a lot. I’m just saying if it happens, that’d be a tremendous milestone, not only for me, but for the program to have a record like that being held by someone that went to this university. It would be really cool to have that.”

Taylor’s biggest flaw this season was losing 5 fumbles, but he rarely struggled throughout the course of a game. He sustained a left leg injury against Illinois and didn’t play the second half. Yet he still averaged 6.1 yards per carry in that contest and returned the following week to rush for 183 yards with 1 touchdown against Indiana.

It wasn’t until the Big Ten championship against Ohio State that Taylor encountered his first significant setback. He carried 15 times for 41 yards and did not produce a run that went for longer than 7 yards. In each of Wisconsin’s previous 12 games, he had at least one double-digit-yard run. Ohio State defeated Wisconsin 27-21 to prevent the Badgers from reaching the College Football Playoff.

“They had a great, fast defensive front,” Taylor said. “Those guys on the line moved very well. Linebackers did a great job of filling gaps. They came out ready to play. It was a fun experience playing on a stage like that. As a kid, those are the moments you live for, those types of games.”

Taylor said he’s eager to help send Wisconsin’s seniors out on the right note with a strong performance against Miami. Taylor’s teammates, meanwhile, can’t wait to see what he has in store for an encore in 2018.

“The thing people forget is our freshmen came in like two or three weeks late to the summer,” Badgers inside linebacker Ryan Connelly said. “It’ll be the same way this year. For him to be able to get a full winter conditioning cycle in and then a full spring ball and a full summer as opposed to half a summer or three-fourths of a summer like last year, it’ll be exciting to see what he turns out next season.”

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