MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin doesn’t go out of its way to label one receiver as the team’s top target, but that doesn’t mean individual players don’t have that goal.
A.J. Taylor had that goal entering the 2018 season and nobody would blame him, especially after he caught 16 passes for 239 yards and a pair of scores in the final four games last season.
He likely thought he achieved that recognition early in the nonconference schedule when Taylor was bracketed in coverage with a corner lined up in front of him and a safety over the top.
“Guys told me they had been preparing for me all week,” Taylor said. “I’ve seen a lot of teams take routes that I was good at last year and taken those away. I’ve just got to win on other stuff and get more creative.”
It’s an honor to take up a portion of the opposing defensive back’s scouting report but also a challenge to find new things that work. Unfortunately for Taylor and Wisconsin, few things have offensively with the passing game.
Entering Thursday’s Pinstripe Bowl against Miami (7-5), Wisconsin (7-5) ranks 41st in total offense, 62nd in scoring offense and an ugly 116th nationally in passing offense, generating only 164.8 yards per game.
A big problem with the passing game has been the much-publicized struggles at quarterback between Alex Hornibrook and Jack Coan, but the Badgers’ receivers have struggled to create consistent opportunities that would have alleviated some of the burdens.
Taylor is a prime example of that. His numbers are strikingly similar to his 31-475-5 line from last season, as the junior will head into the bowl game with 30 catches for 508 yards and three touchdowns. A good chunk of that production, however, came in the first two weeks of the season, when Taylor caught a combined 10 passes for 219 yards and a score in easy wins over Western Kentucky and New Mexico.
Remove his five catches for 89 yards in the triple-overtime win over Purdue, Taylor has been held to three catches or less and no more than 60 yards in every Big Ten game this season. He also had some crucial drops, like the third-down one against Minnesota that resulted in a punt being returned for a touchdown on the next play.
“It’s about competing every day, letting the cards sort out how they may and just playing hard,” Taylor said. “Also, kind of help bringing guys up. When you’re helping somebody else out, you kind know it more and you learn it more. It makes you more accountable when you’re doing the same kind of plays. You have to have the mindset of I’m coming to work every day.”
The weekly struggles for Wisconsin’s offense have been unable to be explained all season, why an offense with so many returning contributors never got off the ground. Taylor has moved on from trying to fix the last three months to focus on rebuilding the confidence of UW’s receiving corps.
Those around him have vouched for that, with offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph praising Taylor’s consistently, competitiveness and contribution in run plays while sophomore Kendric Pryor signaling Taylor as being more vocal than a year ago.
“You watch him how he does things, talking to the younger guys about how he does things that can help them out,” Pryor said. “He puts in the extra work to put in his craft to be that No.1 guy.”
When his season is complete Thursday night, Taylor will avoid looking at his stats to evaluate himself. Reflecting on his third year, Taylor instead will look at where he is as a route runner, pass catcher and run blocker.
“When the ball was thrown to someone else, was I open on that play if the ball had come to me? That’s the big thing I look at,” Taylor said. “Then I look at how my catching has improved in the past year, how am I doing blocking. There’s a lot more than I look at than the stat sheet.”
It’s those reflections that will set the tone for his offseason, a grueling nine months that he hopes will put his group trending back in the right direction.