By Genaro C. Armas
AP Sports Writer
MADISON, Wis. — Seven weeks into the season and Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor seems to be adapting just fine to college football.
At Illinois, a bumper crop of first-year players are getting on-the-job training about the rigors of the Big Ten.
The process of learning those lessons for true freshmen seems to be much more fun when the team is winning.
“Sometimes it takes a while to see some of that progress. But we saw some last week,” said Illinois coach Lovie Smith. His team has started 13 true freshmen this season, more than any school in the country.
The rebuilding Illini (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) lost 45-16 at Iowa last week after falling 28-6 to Nebraska in their conference opener.
“After five games, you should stop thinking about how many young players that you have and just kind of getting your team better, and that’s what we’re doing,” Smith said.
It’s all about small steps in Champaign, unlike the huge strides that Taylor has made at Wisconsin.
Taylor is fourth in the country in rushing at 153.4 yards per game, exhibiting balance, speed and tackle-breaking talent. He embarrassed Nebraska with a career-high 249 yards last week in Lincoln.
Taylor wasn’t even in the conversation to start for the Badgers when training camp opened a few months ago. Injuries to Taiwan Deal in preseason and Bradrick Shaw in Week 2 helped pave the way for Taylor to move up the depth chart.
Even Taylor is a little taken aback by his gaudy statistics.
“Definitely surprising, but the guys give me so much confidence,” Taylor said after the 21-point win over the Cornhuskers. “The O-line, the receivers, they always give me so much confidence knowing that they have my back.”
At Wisconsin, winning has bred confidence. The Badgers are a perennial contender in the Big Ten West division. Older players pass on the program’s blue-collar mentality down to the new guys.
Taylor has fit right in despite going through the kinds of first-time experiences that any freshman goes through on campus.
“Last year he wasn’t having to deal with the number of media requests, and he wasn’t having to deal with this type of schedule. He’s new to college,” coach Paul Chryst said. “You’re pleased to see the way he’s handling it and you’ve got to help guide him, and he’s going to continue to grow.”
Taylor was a relative unknown when the season started compared to Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins, a highly decorated recruit out of high school. He paces a talented backfield with 111.5 yards per game.
At Iowa, defensive lineman freshman A.J. Epenesa is already living up to the hype that comes with the rare five-star recruit who signs with the Hawkeyes. A beast on passing downs, Epenesa already has 2½ sacks, four quarterback hurries and a forced fumble.
His father, Eppy, also played at Iowa in the 1990s. There’s a familiarity with Iowa that has helped ease the transition to college.
“He’s very comfortable around here. I think he could run for mayor, he seems to know everybody,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He’s just a kid that gets along with everybody and kind of has a very positive attitude and a very high energy level.”
Nebraska coach Mike Riley has high praise for right tackle Brenden Jaimes, who is just the fifth true freshman to start in program history since 1972, and the first since 2011. Listed at 6-foot-5, 280 pounds, Jaimes hasn’t given up the right tackle job after taking over when two others players got hurt.
“It has been rare in our life, in college football for an offensive lineman to play as a true freshman,” Riley said. “We recognize this kid’s ability and kind of his unfazed mentality of playing with our team when we started camp.”
At least Jaimes has three juniors and a sophomore among the other Nebraska starters up front from whom to seek advice. For the Illini, youth dominates the offensive line.
The starting five last week in last week’s loss to Iowa included true freshmen Larry Boyd, Vederian Lowe and Alex Palczewski. Illinois had 446 yards of total offense, including 200 yards on the ground, and allowed just one sack.
Smith said the decisions to go with so many freshmen at so many positions were “just about getting the best players on the football field.”
“We started coaching guys hard right away, knew that with all young guys there would be some freshmen mistakes that they would make,” Smith said. “We just wanted to limit them as much as possible, and just make sure we kept leading them in the right direction to get better each week.”