When Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor studied film of himself during the offseason, he didn't like what he saw.
"I saw myself maybe take some plays off," he told ESPN.com. "Not necessarily taking plays off, but not finishing to the ball."
It's not that Taylor had an effort issue or a motivation problem. The redshirt junior reflects the no-frills, workmanlike approach Wisconsin wants all of its players to have on the field. Growing up in Ashwaubenon, Wis. -- practically in the shadows of Lambeau Field -- the 6-2, 230-pound Taylor has been a football fanatic from a very young age.
He doesn't say much. He just does his job.
But even the more consistent Big Ten defenders downshift for a play here and there and commit "loafs," as former Badgers defensive coordinator/linebacker coach Dave Doeren would call them.
Taylor wanted to make sure his loafs went away.
"You could be jogging to the ball, thinking the guy's going to get tackled or it's going to be an incomplete pass, but before you know it, the ball's up in the air," he said. "You can get a pick. You can pick up a fumble, or a guy can cut back and you can tackle him. So when you run to the ball, things can happen."
Good things have happened for Taylor throughout a breakout 2011 season.
He leads the Big Ten and is tied for seventh nationally with 108 tackles, six ahead of the Big Ten's No. 2 tackler, fellow Badgers linebacker Chris Borland. In nine games Taylor has nearly doubled his tackles total from 12 games last season (58). He has recorded double-digit tackles in five games and nine stops in two others, twice earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors for his efforts.
Part of Taylor's production spike can be attributed to being healthy. After a promising start to the 2009 season, he suffered a season-ending ACL tear against Iowa. While he played in the final 12 games last year, Taylor wasn't at full speed.
He has performed in fifth gear throughout this fall.
"The most improvement I've had is just running to the ball," he said.
No game better reflected this than an Oct. 29 contest at Ohio State, where 105,511 fans in the Horsehoe got to know the name Mike Taylor. That's because Taylor recorded 22 tackles in the game, the most for a Wisconsin player since 1998 and the fourth-highest total in the FBS this season.
Taylor had 2.5 tackles for loss against the Buckeyes and added a pass breakup.
"You just play and play, and before you know it, those tackles can add up," he said. "I credit just running to the ball and never giving up on a play."
Taylor's most important contribution that night, however, might have come after the game. Wisconsin suffered its second consecutive heartbreaking loss, and for the second straight week the defense was on the field for the decisive play.
In a deflated locker room, the man of few words decided to speak up.
"Keep your head up," he remembers telling his teammates. "The only thing you can do is just move forward. The past is the past. We've still got good things to come."
Taylor's message struck a chord.
"The best leaders, a lot of times, are the guys that say very little and do a lot on the field," coach Bret Bielema said days after the Ohio State game. "But when they speak, a lot of people listen. So I think Mike's in a position to really say some great things and have our guys pay attention."
It helps when the speaker backs up his words, as Taylor did the following week with nine tackles and an interception against Purdue. He recorded a team-high 13 stops in last week's win at Minnesota.
Wisconsin's high-powered offense gets most of the publicity, as quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Montee Ball are candidates for national awards. The Badgers defense, meanwhile, quietly ranks in the top six nationally in pass yards allowed, points allowed and total yards allowed. It has been called a no-name unit. Taylor likes it that way, though his numbers suggest he deserves more recognition.
"We’re just a bunch of guys who like to have fun out there on the field and play for each other," Taylor said.
Every single snap.