INDIANAPOLIS — The future is now at the running back position for the Indianapolis Colts.
With veteran Marlon Mack now officially out for the year with an Achilles injury, which he suffered in Sunday's Week 1 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, head coach Frank Reich confirmed today that the Colts are turning to talented rookie Jonathan Taylor to "step into the starting role" moving forward.
Taylor is set to get his first-career start this Sunday, when the Colts (0-1) play host to the Minnesota Vikings (0-1) in their 2020 home opener at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"Jonathan is ready," Reich told reporters Monday. "He'll step up and do a great job."
Expectations were high for the Colts' run game heading into the 2020 season, largely because of all the returners at the running back position, as well as the return of all five starting offensive linemen. Together, that group finished seventh in the league in rushing last season — and just 1.5 yards per game out of the top five.
The addition of the dynamic Taylor in the second round of this year's NFL Draft, then, almost felt like an embarrassment of riches in the run game, and produced what Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni considered to be a "1-1" punch at the running back position with both Mack, who earned his first 1,000-yard rushing season last year, and Taylor, who in just three seasons at Wisconsin collected the sixth-most rushing yards in NCAA history.
Mack got the start in Sunday's season opener against the Jaguars, and was really rolling by about midway through the second quarter, with four rushing attempts for 26 yards (6.5 avg.) and three receptions for 30 yards to that point. But on that third reception — a short pass over the middle from quarterback Philip Rivers — Mack, in a non-contact sequence of events, would go down to the grass clutching his right foot. He was helped off the field by team trainers and initially labeled as questionable with an ankle injury.
A short time later, Mack was downgraded to out for the rest of the ballgame. Today, Reich confirmed that tests showed Mack had ruptured his Achilles, and that he would not return for the remainder of the season.
"That's really unfortunate," Reich said of Mack, who was entering a contract year this season. "I mean, Marlon is beloved in our locker room – has such immense amount of respect and love for this guy. He is a true Colt. He was just looking so good in training camp and even in his few snaps yesterday, he just looks like lightning, man. He just looked like lightning out there. It's very unfortunate and very bad timing for him and his family.
"I really believe the best football is still ahead for Marlon Mack," Reich continued. "That guy is a class act in every way and a great player."
The Colts continued on in Sunday's game with third-year veteran Nyheim Hines — who has primarily been the team's third-down back and main pass-catching threat out of the backfield — and the rookie Taylor. Indy — which fell to Jacksonville, 27-20 — finished the game with 22 total rushing attempts for 88 yards (4.0 avg), while Hines had a 12-yard rushing touchdown on the game's opening drive.
Now the Colts turn to Taylor — who had nine carries for 22 yards and six receptions for 67 yards Sunday in his NFL debut — to pick up the slack in Mack's place.
The 5-foot-10, 226-pound Salem, N.J., native comes to the Colts after putting together one of the greatest careers by a running back in NCAA history. He appeared in 41 games (with 40 starts) at Wisconsin and totaled 926 carries for 6,174 yards and 50 touchdowns, while also adding 42 receptions for 407 yards and five scores through the air.
Taylor was the seventh player in FBS history to rush for 6,000 yards and the first ever to do so in just three seasons. His 6,174 career rushing yards rank No. 6 all-time among FBS players and is No. 2 all-time in Big Ten Conference history. He was the third player in FBS history with multiple 2,000-yard rushing seasons and the only player in FBS history to rush for at least 1,900 yards in three consecutive seasons.
Taylor was named the Doak Walker Award winner, an unanimous All-America choice, First Team All-Big Ten and Big Ten Running Back of the Year in both 2018 and 2019.
Taylor then put on a show at this year's NFL Scouting Combine, running the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds, the fastest time among all players at his position.
The Colts, looking to add more explosiveness to their offense, moved up three spots in the second round of April's NFL Draft to select Taylor at No. 41 overall.
Taylor will be doing quite a bit of learning on the go from this point forward. The COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of all on-field work this offseason across the league, as well as the entire slate of preseason games, creating quite a bit of a learning curve for rookies across the NFL.
But Taylor on Sunday credited running backs coach Tom Rathman, as well as his veteran teammates — Mack, Hines and third-year veteran Jordan Wilkins — with putting in the time to make sure he was good to go for the start of the season.
"I think I definitely have grown and I think it did go well," Taylor said of his NFL debut. "I'm sure there's going to be a lot more looks, but this is my first time so I'm sure there's going to be some looks that I haven't seen before, some new looks, and it's just going to be about staying in the books, staying in our protections and making sure that I'm 100 percent. As long as everyone's on the same page with the same call, we should be good to go."
Reich said he's looking forward to seeing how Taylor takes "ownership of the position."
"We're still going to rotate guys through, but Jonathan has to be the lead dog and have that mindset and have that confidence," Reich said. "I know he'll do that."