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Wisconsin Player to Watch: Jonathan Taylor

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The Big Ten’s best running back might just be the top running back in the country.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 20 Illinois at Wisconsin
In two career games against Illinois, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor has 232 yards and no touchdowns. He fell just short of the goal line in 2018.
Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Any conversation regarding preseason 2019 Heisman Trophy speculation absolutely has to include Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor. The Illinois Fighting Illini host junior Jonathan Taylor and the Wisconsin Badgers on Oct. 19, the week after the Illini host the Michigan Wolverines.

Looking back at the last Illinois vs. Wisconsin matchup, the Illini held Jonathan Taylor to zero touchdowns. That’s good. The bad? Taylor still averaged 5.9 yards per carry en route to 159 yards on the ground. Even when Illinois “sorta” shuts Taylor down, he still controls the game.

We aren’t just talking about a really good Big Ten running back, we’re talking about one of the best football players in the country.

Jonathan Taylor won the 2018 Doak Walker Award, given to the top running back in college football. His 307 rushing attempts led the NCAA. His 2,184 rushing yards led the NCAA. His 16 rushing touchdowns led the Big Ten Conference. He led the nation in yards from scrimmage.

In his two-year collegiate career, his 4,171 yards rushing already ranks 18th in the history of the Big Ten Conference. After just two years!

Watch Jonathan Taylor’s longest run from scrimmage so far in his career. It happened last year during Wisconsin’s 41-24 blowout win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

He shows burst, strength and breakaway ability once he gets behind the defense. Wisconsin’s had some sensational running backs over the years. None of them (okay, maybe Melvin Gordon) have the breakaway, top-end speed of Jonathan Taylor.

Jonathan Taylor needs help

Minnesota v Wisconsin
Last season’s starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook (no. 12) is gone. Whoever his replacement is could ultimately help Jonathan Taylor (no. 23) and take some of the weight off his shoulders.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Quarterback Alex Hornibrook is gone and out of the picture, having transferred to Florida State. Far from great, Hornibrook completed less than 60 percent of his passes last season and tossed 11 interceptions to just 13 touchdowns. The regression from 2017 to ‘18 was alarming — and with Jack Coan returning and even more significant, the recruitment and early impressions of true freshman Graham Mertz — it’s hard to believe many Wisconsin fans were sad to see Hornibrook leave.

Graham Mertz oozes of potential. His arm talent and confidence could be a huge boost to Wisconsin and to the play (and holes that can open up) for Jonathan Taylor.

Illinois could be in big, big trouble

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 20 Illinois at Wisconsin Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Fighting Illini ranked 124 out of 130 Division I FBS teams in opponent rushing yards per game. Even though the Illini held Jonathan Taylor more-or-less in check last year, the young running back doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Of course, the Illini defense can improve. Even if it does by leaps and bounds, Taylor is still the most talented back the Illini will face in 2019.

Illinois has no choice but to stack the box to stop the run and hope Wisconsin’s quarterback misfires on throws to some 1 on 1 matchups downfield. Expect a low-ish scoring game, maybe like 21-7, or 28-7 type of contest.