If A.J. Taylor’s first two games are more than just a fast start, the University of Wisconsin junior could be in for quite the season.
His four catches of 20-plus yards against New Mexico on Saturday were more than any other Big Ten receiver has managed over two games, and his six receptions of that length this season are two shy of his total last year.
He ranks second nationally at 5.62 yards per pass route among receivers who have run at least 30 routes, per Pro Football Focus. Eight of Taylor’s 15 targets this season were considered deep balls by PFF (targets of 20-plus yards downfield), a 53.3 percentage that sits as the fourth highest in the country for receivers who have been targeted more than 10 times.
Taylor could be emerging into a different level of deep threat, and the Badgers are pushing that agenda by finding clever ways to spring him open downfield.
Let’s take another look at Taylor’s first two catches against the Lobos, which were essentially identical plays. From the slot, Taylor uses outside receiver Jack Dunn to screen off his defender before running free down the sideline. Take note of quarterback Alex Hornibrook tapping his right shoulder before the snap (it’s less obvious in the first video).
Per offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, Hornibrook didn’t change anything about the play. Touching his shoulder was simply a signal to ensure he, Taylor and Dunn were all on the same page in seeing what the defense presented. What they saw on both occasions was New Mexico showing blitz and a safety creeping down into the box. With just one safety patrolling the middle of the field and the Lobos’ outside cornerbacks playing press coverage, Taylor essentially only needed to win a foot race in which he used Dunn to gain a head start.
While the play design did the heavy lifting here, these are also big-time catches from Taylor. On the first one, a key third down after the Lobos’ deflating opening touchdown drive, he uses his body and arm well to maintain separation from the defender before making a one-handed grab. There may have been a slight push from Taylor with his right hand, but it’s minor and subtle enough to not draw an offensive interference flag — a calculated move, in my opinion.
His second reception wasn’t an easy one, either. The defender fell down before the ball arrived, but Taylor had to open up his body to reach the ball and make an off-balance catch.
Taylor, a high school running back, has also developed into a fluid route runner. He ran a crisp, corner-post route that freed him from double coverage on his 44-yard catch late in the third quarter (Taylor starts on the left side of the screen in this video below).
Taylor’s big issue, of course, is drops. He committed three already this season, but his hands have still noticeably improved since he arrived on campus in 2016. They should continue to get better with more time.
Only 13 of Taylor’s 48 targets (27.1 percent) were deep passes last season, per PFF, and he gained just 1.95 yards per route. While the last two weeks are a small sample against inferior competition, those averages have practically doubled.
It’ll be interesting to see if Taylor’s role or target share dips with the return of Danny Davis this week, but he looks well on his way to establishing himself as a more refined vertical threat and the Badgers’ No. 1 wideout this season.
— Isaiahh Loudermilk’s box score numbers Saturday show nothing but his two tackles, but his return from offseason knee surgery looked quite encouraging.
Here are a few snaps on the game’s first drive that seemed to indicate he’s back to his normal self. Loudermilk shows off his strength in the first two, blowing up a play by driving the left tackle into the running back before throwing the left guard aside to make a stop for no gain a few plays later. On the third, his length prevents New Mexico’s right tackle from locking in on him, and Loudermilk’s able to close the gap between him and the running back with one stride.
Despite playing 10 snaps that first drive, Loudermilk finished with just 27, per PFF. Only 12 of those saw him rush the passer — the area UW will need him the most going forward. He said after Saturday’s game that his knee felt fine and he didn’t feel too fatigued during that first possession. Expect his reps and his production to increase over the next couple weeks.
On a side note, Kayden Lyles looked more effective in the run game Saturday and made some really nice plays. He’s still only a couple months removed from the switch to defense, but even with Loudermilk back it looks like he’ll be a season-long starter. The Badgers need him to keep developing quickly.
— Alec Ingold got plenty of pub for his nifty, 39-yard run and fourth-quarter touchdown Saturday, but I found this gem on Jonathan Taylor’s fumble particularly enjoyable.
Ingold came out of the gates with a fantastic run-blocking effort against Western Kentucky — his better of the two games this season, according to Ingold himself — before helping in a number of ways Saturday. He’s an incredibly versatile player, and while Mason Stokke looked much better against New Mexico than you’d expect for someone who switched to fullback less than three weeks earlier, the Badgers certainly won’t want to lose Ingold at any point this season.
— I’ve heard some harsh complaints from fans about Garrett Groshek in pass protection, and I think it’s a bit of an overreaction.
I highlighted a couple of his mistakes in last week’s film room, and I’m still under the belief that Chris James, who out-snapped Groshek 11-8 this week, is their best back in this area. But Groshek’s typically solid, even with a few mishaps over the first two games.
If you go back and re-watch the first video of the A.J. Taylor section above, you’ll see Groshek do his part in making the play work by cutting in front of Hornibrook at the snap to slow down an outside linebacker heading for the quarterback's blind side.
It could be much worse, Badgers fans — as it was for New Mexico on Scott Nelson’s interception.
That’s a really poor effort to block Andrew Van Ginkel, and you could argue Van Ginkel had more to do with that interception than Nelson.
Here are a few more interesting PFF stats to send us off this week:
— Zander Neuville (54) and Kyle Penniston (52) saw significantly more snaps than Jake Ferguson (34) against New Mexico. Ferguson has run 38 routes through two games to Penniston’s 18, however, and Neuville only ran five in his season debut against New Mexico.
— Cole Van Lanen has allowed zero pressures in 29 pass-blocking snaps this season. By comparison, David Edwards surrendered four pressures and a sack in 45 pass-blocking snaps over the first two games.
— Jonathan Taylor is tied for fourth nationally with 13 missed tackles forced in the running game. He recorded 66 last season.
This article originally ran on madison.com.