Quintez Cephus photo

Quintez Cephus scores on a 27-yard pass from Jack Coan in the third quarter of UW's 24-22 win against Iowa on Nov. 9 at Camp Randall Stadium. On the season, Cephus has 45 receptions for 720 yards and six touchdowns.

Quintez Cephus mug

Cephus

INDIANAPOLIS — The highlight plays are what everyone marvels at.

What Quintez Cephus can do making contested catches, toe-taps along the sideline and deep down the field is thoroughly impressive to the outside world and his University of Wisconsin football teammates.

But the plays outsiders miss are what makes Cephus, a junior receiver, embody the “ultimate teammate,” as Badgers coach Paul Chryst calls him. One such example was on Garrett Groshek’s 70-yard reception in the fourth quarter against Minnesota last week. Groshek had already gained about 40 yards on the screen pass that caught the Gophers in a blitz, but Cephus’ blocking down the field added nearly another 25 as he shielded off Jordan Howden to let Groshek continue down UW’s sideline.

That’s the kind of play UW has come to expect from Cephus along with what he can do when he’s thrown the ball. And it’s one that matches his personality.

“He’s selfless. I think he’s an unbelievable teammate because one, he truly cares about the guys, each individual,” Chryst said.

“He’ll do anything for them, he’s open to them, he’s got enough awareness that he kind of sees when someone’s working through something. He’s got a spirit about him. He’s got an infectious personality. He will find the good in people. When you get on the field, he loves playing the game and appreciates that opportunity to play the game and I think that’s infectious.”

Cephus’ accomplishments on the field this season stand out. He’s the team’s leader in catches (45), receiving yards (720), receiving touchdowns (six) and yards per catch (16.0), and he’s been junior quarterback Jack Coan’s top target on third downs.

But teammates speak more about what Cephus brings to the team as a person. The passion, the drive, the spirit he has — all of which have been thoroughly tested in a tumultuous three-year stretch — draw in his teammates.

“His energy, just the vibe that he brings, you want to be around Quintez,” junior running back Jonathan Taylor said. “That’s something he brings, and when he’s in the huddle, you’re excited because you understand, you know he’s going to give it all.”

‘Resiliency at its finest’

Experiencing all that Cephus has in the past three years would break many people.

After he played in 14 games as a freshman, Cephus’ father, Andre Taylor, was shot and killed in Cephus’ hometown of Macon, Georgia. Cephus was close to his father, and despite Taylor’s gang involvement, he pushed Cephus to pursue a better life.

His breakout sophomore season in 2017 was cut short when he broke his leg against Indiana. He watched as the Badgers came up just short against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game and were denied a bid into the College Football Playoff.

After getting healthy and appearing ready to be one of the best receivers in the Big Ten after a strong training camp last year, Cephus was accused of multiple counts of sexual assault. The charges — stemming from a night in April 2018 in which Cephus engaged in sexual activity with two women, who later claimed to be too drunk to consent — got him dismissed from the football team and expelled from school.

Cephus was acquitted after the jury deliberated for less than 45 minutes.

Even as he dealt with personal tragedy and fought for his freedom, Cephus had his teammates in his mind.

“The whole world knows what I’ve been through. I think through all of that, I’ve had to walk around with my head high and be the same person even when I was around campus and still able to see my teammates. I still had to be the person I was to try to help our team in that way,” Cephus said.

It took about three weeks for Cephus to be reinstated by the university and then cleared to play by the NCAA after his acquittal. During that time, players were open in their support of bringing Cephus back into the fold, sharing posts on social media with the hashtag #LetQTPlay.

Seeing what Cephus has persevered through stuns senior linebacker Zack Baun.

“Crazy. To come back to this team, that’s resiliency at its finest, at its greatest moments,” Baun said. “I’m so proud of that dude and what he’s overcome, fighting for his life. He’s balling now. It’s so cool to see him, so happy for that guy.”

Staying himself

Just one of the difficult circumstances Cephus has experienced could derail a person’s path, or change him or her for the worse.

His teammates say that, remarkably, Cephus has stayed the same person he was before — happy, expressive, smiling all the time.

“He’s such a resilient person. Throughout everything he’s gone through, he’s always been the same guy, same great teammate, same great person. Not a lot of people can deal with what he’s dealt with. He’s just truly a special person,” Coan said.

Cephus said at times, when the world felt against him, it was difficult to maintain his positivity.

He knows even after being acquitted, there are people who will never believe him. He knows there are people who will never treat him the same.

But throughout the process, he leaned on his faith and the people closest to him. That group includes teammates and UW receivers coach Ted Gilmore, who went to Georgia with Cephus after his father was killed and supported him through the trial.

“You get a lot of different emotions,” Cephus said. “I think just keeping those people around you that kind of bring that good spirit in you, keeping yourself around good people. I thank God because he placed a group around me that I could rely on during times where I needed people. Really not shutting yourself down and relying on the people that he’s put around you.”

Appreciating, capitalizing on the moment

When Cephus returned to the field for UW, it was fair to wonder how ready he’d be to play.

It’d been nearly two years since he’d played in a game, but while he was away from the program Cephus was still able to train. He went to Arizona for workouts with former college players and it helped him stay physically ready to rejoin the program.

He was immediately a help to the offense; he had six catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 2 game against Central Michigan. He’s been even better in the past month, and his five catches for 114 yards and a score helped No. 10 UW (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten) beat Minnesota to earn a spot in Saturday night’s Big Ten Championship Game against No. 2 Ohio State (12-0, 9-0).

“He’s always a happy guy, always smiling, laughing, just blessed to be back out on the field. You can see that in the way he plays. Just everything that’s happened with him and just him having the opportunity to be out there again and just not taking anything for granted,” receiver Kendric Pryor said.

The Buckeyes feature one of the nation’s best secondaries, and Cephus will likely draw the attention of cornerback Jeff Okudah, a first-team All-Big Ten player who NFL draft scouts see as a top pick in the spring. Safety Jordan Fuller said the Buckeyes’ defensive backs view Cephus as one of, if not the, best receiver in the Big Ten not on Ohio State’s roster.

Cephus had three catches for 57 yards against Ohio State when the teams played earlier this season, a game UW lost 38-7.

“They have a great group of DBs. You can’t do anything but accept the challenge,” Cephus said. “You go out there and look forward to competing against some top-level guys. It’s not all the time that you get to go against a team that beat you earlier in the season, so you get to face them again and go back and study film and see what you can do to be better in this next opportunity.”

If Cephus were to have a big night Saturday and help the Badgers improbably win the Big Ten title, don’t expect him to pound his chest.

That’s just not his style.

“He’s actually one of the funniest, happiest guys ever, but when it comes to football, he’s one of the most humble. That just makes you appreciate him even more,” left tackle Cole Van Lanen said. “That’s just ‘Q,’ and I hope the whole world gets to understand who he is, because he’s an awesome person.”

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