How 'Running Back U' prepped Jonathan Taylor for run to stardom with Indianapolis Colts

Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor shined at Wisconsin and is now in the mix for MVP and Offensive Player of the Year at Thursday's NFL Honors. AP Photo/Justin Rex

INDIANAPOLIS – Jonathan Taylor couldn’t help but to hear it.

The Indianapolis Colts running back often heard it as he’d make his way through the tunnel to the locker room after another 125-yard rushing performance.

Taylor read the comments on social media and listened when approached in public.

“MVP, MVP,” people would often shout to the second-year player.

“It’s hard not to think about it, especially when fans are cheering because we won the game and you hear the MVP chants,” Taylor said. “That’s something I would have never thought of in my wildest dreams.”

By midseason, Taylor was a legitimate MVP candidate as he further distanced himself from other running backs in the rushing title race. But as the Colts faded down the stretch, so did his production on the ground, increasing the odds of quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady being named MVP on Thursday at the NFL Honors (9 p.m. ET, ABC).

The drought of a running back being named MVP will likely continue -- the last was Adrian Peterson in 2012 after he rushed for 2,097 yards -- but producing on the field won’t stop anytime soon for Taylor.

“If a running back doesn’t win it, it means you have to do a little bit more,” Taylor said. “It’ll push you more in the offseason. It’s a blessing and honor to even have people voice that opinion that I should be the one.”

Winning a postseason award -- even if it’s not MVP -- is not out of the question for Taylor. He has a chance at Offensive Player of the Year.

Taylor led the NFL with 1,811 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns (both are Colts records, topping the likes of Edgerrin James, Marshall Faulk and Eric Dickerson). He was the best running back in the NFL after the Tennessee Titans' Derrick Henry went out with a foot injury on Halloween.

“Sometimes in meetings, [offensive coordinator] Marcus [Brady] will be up there going over the offense, and he starts reading off stats of what Jonathan’s doing and you’re like, really? That’s what he’s doing? He’s with LaDainian Tomlinson? He’s setting franchise records when we’ve had Edgerrin James here and Marshall Faulk,” tight end Jack Doyle said. “It’s crazy. Then you see the way Jonathan carries himself and you’re just like, man, this guy’s incredible. He’s the ultimate teammate, he’s the ultimate team player.”

Choosing Wisconsin over Harvard, Rutgers

Longtime Wisconsin football coach and athletic director Barry Alvarez was on the sideline standing next to current coach Paul Chryst during Taylor’s first scrimmage as a freshman at Wisconsin in 2017.

Taylor, who was on the scout team on that humid summer day, snagged a one-handed screen pass and took it the distance for a touchdown -- against the team’s No. 1 defense.

Alvarez looked over at Chryst at the same time that starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook asked his coach: “Why isn’t [Taylor] in there more?”

Chryst’s response?

“Oh, he’ll be starting tomorrow.”

“From that point on, I knew we had somebody special,” Alvarez said.

Taylor almost didn't end up at Wisconsin, though.

The Salem, New Jersey, native originally committed to Rutgers because he wanted to be a "hometown hero" and help get the program back on track.

What caused Taylor to change his mind is that he wanted a bigger challenge on and off the football field. His 4.1 GPA had Ivy League schools such as Harvard wanting him in the classroom and on the football field.

Taylor knew a lucrative job would be waiting if he graduated from Harvard. But that wasn’t enough.

“That was one of the toughest choices I had to make,” Taylor said. “I took rigorous courses in high school. I wanted to challenge myself in the classroom, so the Ivy League was a great opportunity. Finally after doing a ton of research and finding out Wisconsin was a top-10 academic institution, that sealed the deal for me. I was playing against some of the best athletes in the country and also competing with some of the best off the field academically.”

'Running Back U'

Alvarez, who was the coach at Wisconsin from 1990 to 2005, knew they would be able to recruit offensive linemen in their backyard.

His coaching philosophy was simple: Establish the run behind the big offensive line with the best running backs they could find from across the nation.

“I always told recruits that if they’re a good running back, and they like to carry the ball, Wisconsin was a good place for them to go to,” Alvarez said.

Taylor moved to the front of the line to become the next Badgers running back whose success would likely take him to the NFL during the summer practice in 2017. His three-year total at Wisconsin: 6,174 yards (6.7 yards per carry) and 50 touchdowns.

He topped 2,000 yards rushing in each of his final two seasons.

Wisconsin has had 22 running backs selected in the NFL draft, and when the Colts selected Taylor in the second round in 2020, he joined the likes of Ron Dayne, Michael Bennett, Melvin Gordon III, Montee Ball and James White in reaching the NFL.

“That’s why we call it Running Back U,” Dayne said. “Coach Alvarez is the only coach to have five Doak Walker winners [given to the top college running back each season]. That’s wild to have that at Wisconsin. We produce backs at Wisconsin who are good enough to play in the league.”

Alvarez said: “After a while, you start taking it for granted. All the running backs to come out of here. We’ve been fortunate to have them. I appreciate them. They’ve been all special, all been unique and have their own styles.”

Breaking down the rookie wall

Dayne, a Heisman Trophy winner and the No. 11 overall pick in the 2000 draft, likes that his conversations with Taylor about being discouraged about his role with the Colts are few and far between now. Those basically stopped after Taylor hit a rookie wall and started losing snaps to Nyheim Hines during the 2020 season.

“We text every game,” Dayne said. “I’d always tell him to keep his head up, especially during his first season when he had that rough stretch. Once he got his chance to show he could play the whole game, play almost every down, he was going to take off.”

That rookie wall is a distant memory, because Taylor ran right through it.

Going back to the final six games of his rookie season in 2020, Taylor has rushed for fewer than 70 yards five times in 25 games. He’s topped 100 yards rushing 12 times in that same stretch because the game started to slow down for him.

Taylor’s dominance made the Colts a run-first offensive team because his talent takes the load off their quarterbacks. Colts coach Frank Reich said halfway through this season that his running back deserved to have at least 20 carries a game. Colts general manager Chris Ballard referred to Taylor as an “absolute game-changer” during an episode of "Hard Knocks."

Taylor not only led the NFL in rushing yards and touchdowns, he also led the league in runs of at least 20 yards (14), 40 yards (5), and he had the two longest runs of the season (83 and 78 yards).

And remember the screen pass Taylor had in his first scrimmage at Wisconsin in 2017?

He took a screen pass 76 yards untouched for a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens this season.

Taylor humble despite success

There’s not much Taylor can’t do.

“I’ve coached some good ones,” Colts running backs coach Scottie Montgomery said. “They all had the work ethic and they were obviously really good. JT takes it to another level because he is in the upper echelon in physical ability. The mental ability in what we put on him on a week-to-week basis in run and pass game and protection. When you get a player like that, sometimes you forget how hard it is to get there.

“He is very competitive. He does think he’s the best, but that’s not what he’s focused on. He’s in the grind and he’s measuring himself every week. It’s great when you can stay in the grind and measure yourself.”

Humble is the word that’s often used when talking about Taylor. There are times you wonder if Taylor realizes he was the most important player on the Colts' roster this season.

Not quarterback Carson Wentz. Not linebacker Darius Leonard. Not guard Quenton Nelson.

It was Jonathan Taylor.

He talks like he has to prove himself, not like he’s already made it. And that’s how he wants to continue every day when he’s working out, watching film, in the ice tub or having a healthy meal.

“He’s by far one of the most humblest guys on this team,” Leonard said. “He doesn’t like attention. Even when like -- say we’re in a team meeting, and they are reading out all of his stats, and you know he’s getting a game ball, he has that same little shy look on his face.

"It just shows he doesn’t care about any of the stats. He cares about wins and losses. The way that he works, he’s different man and it just shows.”