Wisconsin’s football depth chart got redrawn at two key positions in fall camp, and coach Paul Chryst was more than happy to reach for the eraser.
The emergence of true freshman Jonathan Taylor from the fifth tailback to co-starter and the rise of redshirt freshman Isaiahh Loudermilk — son of former Creighton basketball player Carteze Loudermilk — to No. 2 defensive end added jolts of athleticism and competition to areas already considered strong.
Taylor, who didn’t arrive on campus from Salem, New Jersey, until June 17, looked like a redshirt candidate early in camp.
Sophomore Bradrick Shaw, junior Pitt transfer Chris James, junior Taiwan Deal and Pitt graduate transfer Rachid Ibrahim have combined for 440 collegiate carries. But when Deal reinjured an ankle and Ibrahim started slowly after missing two seasons to a torn Achilles tendon, Taylor got a look.
He left his teammates rubbing their eyes.
“Some of the stuff was just crazy that he was doing,” quarterback Alex Hornibrook told the Wisconsin State Journal. “There were three different instances where we were scrimmaging, and I had to ask if we were playing live or it was ‘thud’ because he wasn’t getting tackled. Every time it was live, he just wouldn’t go to the ground.”
Taylor’s transcript says “true freshman,” but his body type says otherwise.
“He doesn’t look like a freshman,” defensive back D’Cota Dixon said. “I think he’s about 220, and he’s moving.”
The emergence of Taylor, listed at 5-foot-11 and 214 pounds, shouldn’t be a total shock.
The one-time Rutgers commit averaged 234.6 yards a game as a senior. His 2,815 yards and 35 touchdowns broke the New Jersey state rushing record set by Corey Clement, who was a two-year starter at Wisconsin and cracked the lineup as a true freshman.
“We were certainly excited when Jonathan came here,” Chryst said. “His role progressed through camp. The first young-guys scrimmage he did some good things, and then he earned the right to get some more reps with the 1s and 2s.”
During a closed scrimmage the day the BTN crew was in Madison, Taylor showed off his 4.42-second speed in the 40-yard dash and 10.49 time in the 100 meters. He ripped off a 70-yard touchdown against the first defense and turned a swing pass into a long touchdown against a mix of starters and reserves.
As for the 6-7, 306-pound Loudermilk, his emergence took more time.
He played eight-man football at a school near Wichita, Kansas. Loudermilk told The World-Herald in an interview that he expected to play college basketball until he grew from 215 pounds early in his sophomore year of high school to 280 as a junior.
“So football became my thing,” he said.
Loudermilk moved with his mother and siblings when he was in second grade to Howard, Kansas (population 687). He grew up following the Big 12 and officially visited Kansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State. He had 13 power conference offers, including Oregon, Missouri, Arkansas and Texas Tech.
“But after I came to Wisconsin on a visit,” he said, “I realized the Big Ten was really the right place for me.”
Badgers receivers coach Ted Gilmore, a former Nebraska aide and a Wichita native, handled the recruiting.
“Coach Gilmore was a huge factor,” Loudermilk said. “He got real close to my family, which was huge for me. My mom really loved the guy.”
After spending his first fall with the Badgers on scout team, Loudermilk caught the coaching staff’s attention in spring drills.
“I just wanted to learn the playbook in the spring because I was on scout team last year running other teams’ plays,” Loudermilk said. “The more I learned, I started making some plays and things started to fall into place for me.”
Now, Loudermilk is expected to regularly rotate at defensive end with seniors Alec James, Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih.
Iowa’s Bazata ready
Finally, there is some good injury news for Iowa defensive tackle Nathan Bazata, who has been hobbled since last October with an ankle injury.
“It really cleared up in the month of July,” Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday, “and he’s been great in camp.”
Thus, the fifth-year senior from Howells, Nebraska, will make his 25th career start and play in his 37th game Saturday when Iowa hosts Wyoming.
Bazata played through the ankle injury — suffered against Wisconsin — through the end of last season. Ferentz said it “seems like forever” since the 6-foot-2, 287-pound Bazata was healthy.
“He fought through that last year, and it continued to nag him in the spring,” the coach said. “Even halfway through summer training, through June, he was limited in what he could do and a little bit frustrated.”
Now, the leg strength and mobility have returned for Bazata, who is like Ferentz’s security blanket in the middle of the defense.
“You wouldn’t want him as a rebounder,” Ferentz joked. “He’s not exactly 6-5, but he plays tough, hard-nosed football. He reminds me of (ex-Hawkeye) Louis Trinca-Pasat. He gives us a lot of stability in the middle and leadership.”
Bazata is a three-time academic All-Big Ten pick and is starting his second season on Iowa’s player leadership group.
P.J. on TV
Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck used the word “priceless” to describe the value the Gophers got from his four-episode show on ESPNU titled “Being P.J. Fleck.”
“It’s the ability to be in all those homes when you’re in a dead period,” he said. “There was one team that wasn’t dead on national television in August, and that was the University of Minnesota four times for 30 minutes in people’s living rooms.”
Fleck said he didn’t know viewership numbers.
“I’m not into the TV business,” he said. “But I do now it’s had a huge impact on our state. I can’t tell you how many emails and texts and Twitter messages you have from people that you haven’t talked to for 10, 15, 20 years.”
ESPNU spent five months around Fleck before narrowing all its footage to two hours of shows.
“They lived our life with us,” Fleck said. “That was pretty exciting. I did not pick the name of the show, just so everybody knows. I would not have picked that name.”
Four start early
Four Big Ten schools will play games before Saturday’s traditional opening day of the 2017 season. Here are my predictions. Other picks will come in Saturday’s column:
» No. 2 Ohio State at Indiana, 7 p.m. Thursday, ESPN: Kevin Wilson was head coach at Indiana until he was forced out in December over questions of player treatment. Now he is Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator at Ohio State. If Wilson gets the green light to go deep into the playbook, that 21-point spread gets covered with ease. Ohio State 45, Indiana 10
» Buffalo at Minnesota, 6 p.m. Thursday, BTN: New Gopher coach Fleck has dazzled the media, but his quarterback combo of Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft won’t. Combined, they have one college start. Still, Minnesota should have enough to top Buffalo, coached by former Husker and UNO assistant Lance Leipold. Minnesota 27, Buffalo 12
» No. 8 Washington at Rutgers, 7 p.m. Friday, FS1: This is way too much for Rutgers to handle in an opener, or at any other time in the next three or four years. Washington 52, Rutgers 14
» Utah State at No. 9 Wisconsin, 8 p.m. Friday, ESPN: The Badgers have the sixth-longest streak of nonconference home victories (37) in the modern era. That isn’t in jeopardy here. Utah State, 3-9 last year, has a new offensive coordinator for the fourth time in four years. Wisconsin 38, Utah State 13
Stat of the week
Rutgers, the birthplace of college football 149 years ago, has two victories in its history over top 10 opponents — No. 3 Louisville in 2006 and No. 2 South Florida in 2007. The Scarlet Knights host No. 8 Washington on Friday.
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How the cookie crumbles: Nebraska's 2017 football schedule
A week-by-week breakdown of Nebraska's schedule with final predictions for each game. Predictions were made before the season started. Broken cookies are predicted Husker wins, whole cookies are predicted losses. Text by Sam McKewon and Evan Bland. Photos by Kent Sievers. Cookies by Sugar Chic Design.