UW football: Taylor's return has been key for the Badgers' defense

2010-12-23T04:00:00Z 2010-12-29T20:52:36Z UW football: Taylor's return has been key for the Badgers' defenseTOM MULHERN | tmulhern@madison.com | 608-252-6169 madison.com

It was difficult for University of Wisconsin sophomore linebacker Mike Taylor to watch himself on video early in the season.

Taylor didn't recognize the player he had become. The suddenness and athleticism that marked his career as a football player were gone. His confidence was in tatters, too.

He spent 10 months rehabilitating the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, which curtailed a promising redshirt freshman season in 2009.

"Before he got hurt last year, I thought he was the best linebacker on our team," said defensive coordinator Dave Doeren, who coaches the linebackers.

Taylor suffered the injury in the seventh game against Iowa, but he made it back in time for the start of preseason camp. He lasted less than three full practices, aggravating the injury and needing more surgery.

He missed the opener against UNLV, then started the second game against San Jose State, only because linebacker Chris Borland was out with a shoulder injury. After the game, Taylor went to the training staff and said he thought he was done.

"Watching film, I wasn't too sure," Taylor said. "I didn't want to be out there if I couldn't do what I wanted to do or help the team win. I talked to the trainers and I actually told them, ‘I don't know if I should play this year.' ''

The trainers urged patience, telling Taylor to give it another week. The rest is history.

Taylor, from Ashwaubenon, still can't fully explain what happened against Arizona State the next week. All he knows is it turned around his season.

"I gave it one more week, against Arizona State," Taylor said. "That's when things really started clicking. I got more confident in my knee. I began to trust it more."

Taylor's return to form as the season progressed is one of the prominent story lines on defense going into the Rose Bowl.

"Mike Taylor, since he came back, has gotten healthier every week," UW coach Bret Bielema said. "You realize how special he is."

Taylor's recovery was not unlike most players returning from a torn ACL.

"There was a lot of coaching Mike mentally in the beginning of the year," Doeren said. "He was doubting (the knee). You just had to keep coaching him through it. I was trying to be as smart as I could with Mike's reps early in the year. ... We built him back into what he was."

When Borland was redshirted after re-injuring his shoulder against Arizona State, it put even more of a burden on Taylor's playmaking abilities.

In addition to speed and athleticism, Taylor has the best instincts of any of the linebackers. Not being 100 percent physically forced him to rely even more on that part of his game.

"I think a lot of what you learn as a player is experience, being on the field during a play, over and over, under the lights, heat of the moment," Doeren said. "The game just slows down. When you're out there playing all the time, all of the stuff that makes some people nervous is second nature to you."

The defense's late-season surge in forced turnovers is at least partly attributable to Taylor's improved play. The Badgers forced four turnovers, leading to 24 points, in a 34-13 win at Purdue.

Taylor had a 26-yard interception return that led to a touchdown. Earlier, he combined with free safety Aaron Henry on a tackle that caused a fumble. It touched off a stretch of 16 takeaways in the last four games.

A healthy Taylor is a nice complement to defensive end J.J. Watt and emerging playmakers in the secondary such as Henry and cornerback Antonio Fenelus.

"It's a lot of fun to play with (Taylor) when he's healthy," Watt said.

On top of dealing with the injury, Taylor is losing his position coach. Doeren was named the head coach at Northern Illinois and will take over after the bowl game.

"Whenever you have a good coach on a good team and a good season, the defense plays well, those things are bound to happen," Taylor said.

Doeren's attention to details has helped Taylor become the player he is today.

"This year, there have been a lot of plays where I've been getting cut or coming downhill too much," Taylor said. "Him telling me over and over what to do, I think I might have fixed that. He's just been a good coach overall. He lets you know what you're doing wrong and what you're doing right and he doesn't let you think you're a god, he keeps you in check."

Taylor believes everything he has endured since the injury will make him an even better player in the future.

"Just believing in yourself," he said of lessons learned. "Overcoming adversity. If there's doubt, don't even think about the doubt. Know what you can do and trust yourself."

A season that started amidst doubt is ending like a dream for a state product who vividly recalls watching UW tailback Ron Dayne play in two Rose Bowls.

"You're practicing like it's another game, but you've got all these people saying, ‘It's the Rose Bowl, it's a big deal,' '' Taylor said. "When I get there it'll probably sink in."

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