USF hopes it’s not all downhill Friday for Jonathan Taylor

Those who have played with and against the Wisconsin tailback attest to his greatness.
In this Oct. 6, 2018, file photo, Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor runs for a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Nebraska. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File) MORRY GASH  |  Associated Press
In this Oct. 6, 2018, file photo, Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor runs for a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Nebraska. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File) MORRY GASH | Associated Press
Published August 26

TAMPA ― His legend has preceded him to Tampa. Wisconsin junior tailback Jonathan Taylor already is a nimble known commodity on Florida’s collegiate landscape.

Many players and coaches in this state already have marveled at the reigning Doak Walker Award winner, either on film or in the flesh.

“I mean, he’s so fast,” said USF outside linebackers coach Sean Cronin, whose unit faces him Friday in both teams’ season opener. “You don’t see a guy who’s that big and that fast.”

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A lot of Miami’s players have seen Taylor each of the last two bowl seasons. FSU backup quarterback Alex Hornibrook, a Wisconsin transfer, fed Taylor handoffs the better part of the past two years. And of course, the Bulls have studied him ad nauseum.

The general consensus: The 5-foot-11, 219-pound Heisman candidate, who arrives Friday at Raymond James Stadium, is sleek and sturdy, agile and elusive.

Those 4,171 rushing yards ― the most ever amassed by a Division I-A player through his sophomore season ― attest.

“Just one of the things I noticed when I first saw him play, he’s just really elusive,” Hornibrook said earlier this month. “Even while he’s getting tackled he can move, which not a lot of people can do.”

Indeed, Taylor’s consistent ability to shed a backfield tackler and make something out of nothing are nearly as well-chronicled in Madison as his breakaway runs, of which he had three (of 70 or more yards) in 2018.

Though opponents frequently congested the box last season, the New Jersey native still ran for 2,194 yards in 13 games, including 205 on 27 carries in last December’s 35-3 Pinstripe Bowl embarrassment of Miami.

“Most of his runs are down the middle. It’s amazing,” Bulls coach Charlie Strong said.

“You watch running backs, and a lot of them will try to out-run you to the outside. There’s no out-running to the outside. He’s gonna line up, they’re gonna run him right between the A-gap and the B-gap.”

The Pinstripe Bowl exhibition was Taylor’s eighth 200-yard rushing effort of 2018, making him only the third Badgers back (Ron Dayne and Melvin Gordon are the others) to record a 2,000-yard season.

He arrives in Tampa with a career 6.9-yard average per carry. Of the 37 running backs to win the Heisman Trophy, only four (Mike Rozier, Billy Sims, Barry Sanders, Doc Blanchard) have posted a higher per-carry average in their Heisman season.

“He’s a big back,” said ’Canes redshirt senior defensive end Scott Patchan, who ranked Taylor the second-best tailback he has faced behind Boston College’s AJ Dillon. “He’s tough to get down.”

“(It) was more so just the awesome offensive line that they had,” added UM middle linebacker Shaq Quarterman. “It was hard to already beat the block, and he was so gifted. He was fast, great balance.”

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The version the Bulls encounter Friday night could feature an added dimension.

Taylor reportedly has spent a great deal of the offseason refining his pass-catching skills ― to become an even more viable third-down threat ― after making only eight receptions (for 60 yards) in 2018.

Just what USF needs: The college game’s most dangerous runner, who owns 12 career games of 150-plus yards, getting the ball in space.

“It’s downhill,” Strong said. “He runs behind his pads and he’s gonna run over you if you don’t come up there and wrap him up.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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