Badgers greats Ball, Davis, Gordon weigh in on Taylor’s rise
Who better to speak about the fantastic season(s) Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor has had than those who have been in his shoes (er, cleats?).
Three of the greatest Badgers running backs took some time to discuss Taylor, including his style of play, memorable moments, amazing accomplishments and more. They also happen to be three of the top rushers in Wisconsin history (at least until Taylor passes each one of them in 2019):
— Montee Ball, second-leading rusher in Badgers history with 5,140 yards and tops in rushing touchdowns with 77. He was the Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2011 and won the Doak Walker Award in 2012. Ball is currently heading up his foundation, the Montee Ball Fund, along with former UW linebacker Chris Borland, and is moving to Denver where he got a job in a hospital clinic.
— Anthony Davis, fourth-leading rusher in Badgers history with 4,676 yards. Davis was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2001. Davis is the assistant dean of students at Winthrop University.
— Melvin Gordon, third-leading rusher in Badgers history with 4,915 yards and tops in yards per carry (7.8). Gordon won the Doak Walker Ward and Jim Brown Trophy in 2014, when he also was named the Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Year. Gordon is in his fourth season with the Los Angeles Chargers and made his second Pro Bowl this year.
Note: Quotes from Ball and Davis were from phone interviews while Gordon’s were culled by the Chargers from questions sent to them.
Does Jonathan Taylor remind you of yourself at all?
Ball: “That’s a good question. He doesn’t remind me of myself … yet. And that’s a good thing to him. Earlier in his career, he was more explosive than I was. My freshman and most of my sophomore season I wasn’t as explosive as I was late sophomore year until I left the university. So he’s showing some signs of Ron Dayne, in a sense. He kind of runs like him. And he’s much faster than you’d expect, which I think most defenders would have said would say when tried to tackle Ron Dayne. I think he has his own gifts and own talents and has been showing that.”
Davis: “I definitely think he’s more powerful than me. We were both explosive type of backs. He definitely runs through tackles more than I did. I was more of a guy who would make you take a bad angle, or outrun you. He can run through you or go around you. So I think he was more of a versatile runner than I was, per se. But we’re both kind of fast backs. I was very patient and ran in a different running scheme than he did. Ran in a lot of zone schemes where I had a lot more flexibility to take the ball where I wanted to take it. So that really helps. But I think we have some similarities in terms of having home run speed and able to break the big runs, but he’s definitely more of a tackle-breaker than I was.”
Gordon: “No, Jonathan Taylor reminds me of Jonathan Taylor. He has his own running style. Different dude. Different runner. He’s great in his own way.”
How would you describe his abilities as a runner?
Ball: “The one thing I was immediately impressed about, and he did it last year and carried it forward to this season, is his ability to make the second defender miss. Whenever I watch high school running backs getting ready to go the next level — and I’m including myself in this — many have trouble and struggle to have a move for that second defender, how are they going to make that second defender miss. Watching Jonathan Taylor last season and this season, he’s most definitely developed that early. If you go back and watch his tapes, he does such a great job of making the second defender miss, bouncing off that second defender’s tackle and taking it for 60-70 yards. That’s very impressive at someone his age. Now I’m expecting a lot from him his junior year.”
Davis: “I really like his style. He does some things naturally that you can’t teach. He’s extremely patient, deceptively fast and he runs with what’s called a great base. He has a low center of gravity, which allows him to break tackles, he’s deceptively fast, he’s shiftier than he gets credit for. He really makes defenders take bad angles, and when they do take bad angles he runs through arm tackles, and sometimes flat-out runs through contract. He’s a great back.”
Gordon: “He breaks a lot of tackles and is a tough guy to take down. You think you have him wrapped up, and then out he goes for 70 yards.”
Is there anything that stands out above all else about him?
Ball: “It’s interesting, I was able to meet with Jonathan Taylor last year and got to speak with him prior to his first season as a Badger and really just get a feel for him as a person and as an athlete, and right off the bat I was like this kid is extremely intelligent. Extremely intelligent. Bright, understands what is going to be expected of him as a player but also he’s really into his studies, his books, his schoolwork, all that stuff. So I knew right from the start I knew he was going to be somebody who’s going to excel, excel in a Badgers helmet.”
Gordon: “Just his playmaking ability. You know, in college you need to be a playmaker at the end of the day. You’ve got to be able to put the team on your back and be consistent. He’s consistent day in and day out and makes plays for the Badgers. That’s what you expect from a running back.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Taylor had 1,175 yards after contact. How hard is it to get hit early and just keep on gaining yards?
Ball: “That’s the impressive thing. That’s something I had to learn, something that a lot of other running backs have to learn, that you have to practice and train for — and not saying that Jonathan Taylor doesn’t train, because there’s always room for improvement. But that seems like something that was God-given talent. That’s just his raw talent that he most definitely uses to the best of his abilities. He’s so great at making that second defender miss and getting those yards after contact and I think that’s what separates him from the other running backs in his class.”
Davis: “It’s extremely difficult. It becomes increasingly difficult the more you move up the chain. It’s definitely impressive that he’s able to run for so many yards after being hit by defenders. Once he gets to the back end it’s almost impossible to stop him unless he trips up himself. He’s put up some pretty amazing numbers. He’s durable, which I think has been amazing. For me, I see an all-around back. I think he can grow a little bit and get involved in the passing game. But there’s still time to do that. He’s got a whole offseason to work on that and hopefully be incorporated more into the offense as a receiver, because I think that adds a whole other element to the offense if he’s catching more out of the backfield.”
He’s so great at making that second defender miss and getting those yards after contact and I think that’s what separates him from the other running backs in his class.
How impressed are you with what Taylor has done his first two years, rushing for over 1,900 yards and with 21 100-yard games in 26 career games — and this with teams stacking the box and game planning against him?
Ball: “I talked to somebody a while ago and they shared with me that this season kind of reminds me of my senior season when we were bouncing around from quarterback to quarterback … they knew when we were going to run the ball 97, 98 percent of the time. And that’s pretty much what I’m seeing this season as well. That again I think shows Jonathan Taylor’s tenacious abilities, to still put up crazy numbers when the defenses know stop the run, stop the offense. But he still put the numbers up and carried the team to, you know, a decent season. Not the greatest of course, but a decent season.”
Davis: “The thing is he doesn’t really have the benefit of having a vertical passing game to complement him. If we ever get a vertical passing game, the sky … he might run for 2,800 yards. Seriously, I really do mean that. But he has been able to do that against loaded fronts. These teams are putting everyone and their mama in the box. I see coaches in the box, cheer squads and fans, they got everyone loaded down in there, but he’s still able to get the yards. I guess one of the good things about playing against a loaded box, if you can get in the back end, there’s nobody there. Their safeties are creeped up. So if you can get in the back end, big runs. There’s some running lanes.”
Gordon: “Very impressed. To come in as a freshman and do what he’s done so far, it’s pretty remarkable to say the least.”
In this era of passing, are you amazed he’s able to pile up the yards he has?
Ball: “Obviously Wisconsin Badgers preach team players. But for him, I most definitely look on the bright side of things and now he has the ability to watch his first season’s tape, now this season, and just take off his junior year. Yeah, this season wasn’t as great as everyone hoped it would be, but I think Jonathan Taylor if he does what he’s supposed to do this upcoming season, the team plays extremely well, wins the Big Ten championship game, I (think he should declare) for the draft, because he’s seen a lot of carries.”
Davis: “One of the things that works in our favor in general is that most teams are recruiting now to be able to stop spread offenses, to be able to cover four receivers. So you see that linebackers are a lot smaller now. If you see some of my game film you’ll see more of a lot more traditional downhill Big Ten type of linebackers, and now with the spread offense being such a thing, schools are recruiting smaller, faster linebackers that can cover ground and get side to side. When you think of that, a lot of schools aren’t gearing their defenses or preparing their defenses to stop a pro-style offense, because pro-style offenses, not many teams are doing it. They’re just not. On the flip side of that, he’s going against faster guys than I went against.”
To come in as a freshman and do what he’s done so far, it’s pretty remarkable to say the least.
Are there any plays, moments or games that you’ve seen from Taylor that have stood out?
Ball: “Hmm, that’s a good question. This season was a tough one. I tell you what, I’ll have to go with the Iowa game (this season). For Jonathan Taylor and the offensive line calling in that game, it’s a tough environment. The way he ran the ball that game, the focus that he had, I really enjoyed his play that game. I really did, and it might have to do something with my personal history against Iowa. I was very impressed just how he carried the football that game. He had other games where he ran for more yards, but for me as a running back, and other running backs would say this as well, it’s not necessarily about rushing for 300 yards in a game, there’s something about just savviness and the flow of a game that you love about a running back. It’s the same reason when I was just watching the Iowa game I just loved that.”
Davis: “Nothing really stands out. The guy is just a playmaker. I remember watching him last year, I think the Nebraska game really stood out. He was just dynamic against Nebraska. It was really fun to watch him in that game.”
Gordon: “The Purdue game is the biggest one that sticks out. It went to OT and put the team on his back. Those are the games that make you who you are, make you remembered by your squad, and be remembered by Badger nation.”
You [Davis] ran for 301 yards in a game once. Taylor ran for 321. Just how hard is it to do that?
Davis: “I think a better question would be how hard is it to recover from running for 300 yards? You really don’t think about it. I was never a guy who kept track of the stats or looked at the scoreboard or any of that kind of stuff, you just go out and do what you need to do and take it drive by drive. You don’t think of that stuff until after the game, someone tells you, hey man, you ran for 300 yards, and I’m like, oh wow, I did that. I didn’t even realize it. You just kind of get lost in the game. But I think that [Taylor’s 321 vs. Purdue] was one the more solid performances I’ve seen out of any Wisconsin player in the past couple of years. Not because of the numbers but because of the game. I really felt as though during that game he took — he put the team on his back. He really took over and dominated, and refused to be denied. And he made some runs that I would say ignited some of his teammates. He made some effort plays. When you’re out there fighting and battling with the guys in a close game and someone makes like an effort play, that just ignites everyone else. And all of a sudden guys are making one-handed catches, you know what I mean (laughs), and making difficult catches and making the throws they need to make, and getting their hands to make blocks they need to make to give the quarterback time. Everyone’s play just elevates when they see one guy giving it his all, refusing to be denied. That’s what I saw with that Purdue game and it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen of any player, either side of the ball, in the past few years.
You [Ball} could have left for the NFL after your junior year but stayed at Wisconsin for your senior season. Is there any advice you would offer Taylor?
Ball: “Absolutely. I was hoping that we would split the carries between myself, James White and Melvin. I’m like, I’m not going to get 300 carries because we have these two other great running backs to split the carries with, and there’s some other stuff I wanted to take of as well. That didn’t happen and I still ended up over 300 carries [Note: Ball had 356 carries, compared to 306 as a junior.] So my advice to Jonathan Taylor would be if he puts up 1,900-2,000 yards, 20-something touchdowns and if this team doesn’t win the Big Ten championship game or if they do the next season, my advice would be to leave for the draft. Because he’s receiving a lot of — I hate using “wear and tear,” I just hate that term — but for a lack of a better phrase that’s what he’s experiencing right now. And it kind of worries me as a fan. I’m hoping that he plays extremely well at the next level and he has a long career, so I would hope for him to leave after the next season if he’s satisfied with his season.”
I really like his style. He does some things naturally that you can’t teach.
Should Taylor be given the ball 30+ times a game?
Note: Taylor has three such games, including two with 33 carries this season. Davis had nine such games in his career, with five of 36+, including games of 39 and 45. Ball had seven, including games with 37, 38 and 39 carries.
Ball: “Everybody is different and every single body is different. So say myself, that wear and tear in college really got to me in the league. I tore my groin, my legs were tired, I was a little sore, I just couldn’t — my legs were done. I’m not saying that will happen to J.T. and I’d never wish that on anyone, but my thing is for Jonathan hopefully he’s understanding the amount of carries he’s been given, and it’s going to continue next season, so hopefully he has an exit strategy that’s going to be mutually beneficial to himself and the program.”
Davis: “I think those days are over — and for good reason. My body still to this day, I feel the aftermath of some of those years. I couldn’t stay healthy after my first two years of playing. So I think there’s certainly benefit to less carries and rotating guys in and keeping them fresh. I also think that helps keep the defense off guard, too. Especially if you got two backs that really complement each other, that gives the defense two different type of runners they have to prepare for. I like the idea of less carries and rotating guys in. I don’t think he’ll be around after next year, so …”
Wisconsin has had some incredible running backs. This might be blasphemy considering Ron Dayne — but if he can keep it up, would Taylor be the most impressive UW back?
Ball: “His numbers don’t lie whatsoever. What he has to do to get that crown is he has to win the Heisman. Melvin and myself made it to the New York and obviously fell short. But Jonathan Taylor if he wants that crown, walk away with the Heisman. The flip side of that is it’s such a flashy, political trophy in a sense. But, yeah, if he continues to do what he’s doing. If he continues to focus on running the football, cleaning up the fumbles, of course, then there’s no question he’s going to be one of the best running backs, right under Ron Dayne. We all know that Ron Dayne did stuff that — yeah — there’s been a lot of running backs after Dayne and no one has come even close. We all learned from Dayne and watched Dayne. We all did some great things … for Jonathan Taylor, he’s done a great job of filling those big shoes, he just has to continue it … and hopefully he walks home with that hardware next year. He’s on the right track to go down as a great.”
Davis: “Yeah, I don’t know. He’s impressive but like, to be honest with you every couple of years I have this same conversation. I had this same conversation with Melvin. Melvin Gordon had one of the most dynamic years I’d ever seen. And now Taylor’s come on and played the game at such a high level that everyone’s like, ‘Man, this guy is the real deal!’ It’s just kind of a tradition we have at Wisconsin. It’s hard to really pinpoint one great one. I’m always going to go back to Dayne just because I look at him as, you know, the face of it all. Kind of like the godfather of this running back tradition that we have. Even before him, I remember watching film on like Terrell Fletcher. Terrell Fletcher and Brent Moss were pretty darn dynamic. They didn’t put up the numbers, but if you watch the actual film, Terrell Fletcher was a load out there. There’s a lot of running backs. Melvin and James White and Montee Ball, (John) Clay, P.J. Hill, (Brian) Calhoun — he was amazing. He was only there for … he started a season and left. I think he could have done a lot of numbers. It’s really hard to say that he [Taylor] would be the best, but he’d certainly be one of the greats and elite within what I consider a very dynamic group.”
Dave Heller is the author of Ken Williams: A Slugger in Ruth’s Shadow (a Larry Ritter Book Award nominee), Facing Ted Williams – Players From the Golden Age of Baseball Recall the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived and As Good As It Got: The 1944 St. Louis Browns
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