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Brian Johnston, Asbury Park Press
PISCATAWAY — Before, and especially after Jonathan Taylor verbally committed to Rutgers on May 1, 2016, the thing that stood out to Chris Ash about the Salem native was his speed.
That isn’t just coach-speak given Taylor built himself quite a sprinting resume, winning the NJSIAA Meet of Champions 100 meters twice for the Rams. He held a 100-meter personal best of 10.49, and a 200-meter personal of 21.53. In any given year in New Jersey, both marks would at least make him a state-level contender.
The speed may have been what Ash noticed first, but the third-year Rutgers head coach knew that wasn’t his only good football attribute. In hindsight, Ash knew what Taylor could turn in to.
“He was a fast kid, but you could tell once he got into a strength and conditioning program, the way he was built, he was going to be a big, strong, physical kid,” Ash said Tuesday afternoon on the Big Ten coaches conference call. “He ran the ball hard, he had breakaway speed, all the things you see on film right now. That’s what we thought he would become when we were recruiting him in high school.”
Ash was prophetic. Taylor has become what Ash thought he would, but not for Rutgers. Instead, Taylor is starring Wisconsin, which hosts the Scarlet Knights on Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall Stadium (Noon, Big Ten Network).
Five months after committing to Rutgers, Taylor flipped his commitment to the Badgers. This, after visiting the Madison campus two weeks prior. Rutgers’ loss has very much been Wisconsin’s gain as Taylor has panned out better than anyone could have projected.
In 22 games, Taylor has rushed for 3,132 yards and 21 touchdowns. In eight games this season, he has already rushed for 1,115 yards and eight touchdowns this season for the 5-3 Badgers, who, by their own standards, have underachieved, what with three losses and no longer in control of the Big Ten West after a loss at Northwestern on Saturday.
If Taylor were on a better team with those numbers, he would at least be getting consideration as a Heisman Trophy finalist. Last season as a true freshman, Taylor finished sixth in the Heisman voting after rushing for 1,847 yards through Wisconsin’s first 13 games.
His 130 yards in a 34-24 Orange Bowl win over Miami gave him 1,977 for the season, a single-season NCAA record for a true freshman.
“When you look at Wisconsin and what they’ve had as tailbacks throughout the history of the program, they’ve had some great running backs, but they’ve also been blessed with some really good offensive linemen,” said Ash, a former Wisconsin defensive coordinator, who accurately alludes to the fact the Badgers perennially have a stout offensive line. “When you put a good running back behind a really good offensive line, good things can happen regardless of your age.”
“When he signed, and when he came here, we were excited, but I don’t think you ever know how someone transitions (from high school),” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said. “Even when he has success, how you handle it, does he continue to work and improve? You hope guys transition quickly, but I think what he’s done, and how soon he was able to do it has been truly special.”
Staff writer Josh Newman: firstname.lastname@example.org; @Joshua_Newman