MADISON, Wis. — A.J. Taylor primarily played running back in high school. Quintez Cephus originally planned to play basketball at Furman. So when the duo arrived at Wisconsin before last season, they were considered projects at wide receiver with tremendous potential.
The fact both players cracked the Badgers playing rotation as freshmen demonstrated just how high their ceilings could be. But each had a long way to go in order to begin mastering their craft.
One game into their sophomore seasons, it appears they have progressed in a hurry.
During Wisconsin’s 59-10 victory against Utah State on Friday night, Taylor and Cephus combined for 6 receptions for 71 yards and 1 touchdown. Compare those numbers to their collective output all of last season, when they caught 7 passes for 147 yards with no touchdowns.
“It’s huge to have those guys that can make plays,” Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook said. “I’ve said it before, but mentally they’ve grown so much. They understand coverage and they understand how their routes change versus different coverages, so that helps out a lot.”
Taylor and Cehpus have quickly emerged as two vital wide receiver options for Wisconsin behind No. 1 wideout Jazz Peavy. Their presence, along with freshman Danny Davis, adds a depth of talent that has been lacking in previous seasons at the position. It also should help to open up the Badgers offense when opposing teams stack the box to stop the run game.
“The biggest area of improvement that Q and A.J. have is confidence in themselves,” Badgers coach Paul Chryst said. “I think part of that comes from knowledge of what they’re doing. I think they know better what to expect.
“Last year, how does a game go? How will I feel? I think they’ve experienced a little. But I think they both have kind of earned that confidence by working. So I think they’re more relaxed because they have a more genuine confidence in themselves.”
Last season, Taylor was still adjusting to the speed and complexity of Wisconsin’s offense while learning a position he had not played full-time in high school. He recorded 338 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns as a high school senior at Rockhurst (Mo.). But he was a first-team all-state running back who rushed for 1,721 yards and 16 touchdowns.
“As a freshman, I was really antsy and jittery and just my head was spinning,” Taylor said. “And this year I just felt so much more comfortable out there, more like I belonged out there, and I can compete with them and I can do well. That was probably the biggest thing from freshman year to now is that comfort and that poise I had.”
Taylor caught 3 passes for 38 yards Friday, including a nice 15-yard grab on third-and-5 from Wisconsin’s 26 that kept an early drive alive. Wisconsin went on to a 15-play, 76-yard drive capped by tailback Bradrick Shaw’s 3-yard touchdown run, which trimmed the Badgers’ deficit to 10-7.
However, Taylor showed he still has growing to do at the position. He dropped two passes, including one throw from Hornibrook that would have gone for a gain of about 45 yards.
“I was upset,” Taylor said. “It was a ball that I’ve made in practice. I lost focus a little bit. Yeah, I was running and I had to come a little sharper towards the ball than I thought I would need. I just lost track of it in my arms. I don’t know. Shake it off. I was definitely a little angry, but I’ll get better. It’ll get better.”
Despite the drops, Chryst said he was impressed with Taylor’s patience early in his route-running once he encountered contact from defensive backs.
“Sometimes guys will let the defense dictate the depth and kind of get pushed into that, like if it’s an outbreaking or an inbreaking route,” Chryst said. “Where I think because he’s got the confidence now, he did a nice job on a couple of straightening back up and then coming out.”
Cephus, meanwhile, was committed to Furman’s basketball program before he visited Wisconsin in October 2015 and opted for a different sport. He was such a basketball talent that he once scored a school-record 53 points in a high school tournament game for Stratford Academy in Macon, Ga. He caught 4 passes for 94 yards last season at Wisconsin but showed flashes of potential during spring practice to position himself as the team’s No. 2 receiver this season.
On Friday, Cephus caught 3 passes for 33 yards, including a 21-yard touchdown in the third quarter to give Wisconsin a 38-10 lead. It marked the first touchdown catch of Cephus’ college career.
“That play, it gave me a lot more confidence in myself,” Cephus said. “It made me feel that I finally got one. So I know my goal that I set before the season, I know that it’s in front of me and I can go get it. I just look forward to going and getting my goals, going and doing everything that I set for myself.”
Cephus politely declined to elaborate on his individual goals. But he said he was in position to succeed because of how much attention Peavy and tight end Troy Fumagalli draw, which leaves him in 1-on-1 situations. Fumagalli led the team with 5 receptions for 105 yards with 1 touchdown Friday. Peavy caught 1 pass for 19 yards.
“That’s where my ability and my confidence comes, believing in myself that I can make a play even when Jazz is not there,” Cephus said. “Being the second or third option is sometimes better because they’re keying in on all the other guys. If they want to leave me 1-on-1, I think I’ll win that.”
The increased comfort level for Taylor and Cephus was apparent. What they have in store for the rest of the season remains to be seen. But the more opportunities they earn, the greater the impact they’re likely to have as they create a more dynamic Badgers offense.
“It’s really exciting,” Cephus said. “I think we still help each other every day just to keep making progress and keep going forward.”
The post Wisconsin receivers A.J. Taylor, Quintez Cephus providing Badgers with dynamic offense appeared first on Land of 10.
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