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Grading the 2017 Wisconsin Badgers: Running Back

Wisconsin thought it had a stable of capable backs heading in to 2017, only to see a superstar take over unexpectedly.

Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin Badgers, Indiana Hoosiers

Yes, there’s still this little thing called the Orange Bowl to be played down in Miami, Fla. and all. But, the 2017 season is in the books and it was arguably one of the greatest seasons in Wisconsin Badgers football history.

A 12-0 regular season and nearly making the College Football Playoff cemented that fact.

Previous Grades:Defensive Line |

But, how did the Badgers become 12-0 and what did each position contribute to the amazing season? It’s time to rewind and unpack the 2017 season…this time with a look at the position everyone wants to talk about — running back.



When you have the best freshman running back in the country, it is hard not to smile. Such was the case for the Wisconsin Badgers, who many believed weren’t going to feature Jonathan Taylor at all this season. Instead, he came on campus in fall camp and pushed his way on to the field. Once the games started it was all over, as Taylor put up 82 yards as the “third” running back in the season opener against Utah State.

The rest, as they say, is history…or is about to be history. He needs under 100 yards in the Orange Bowl against Miami (FL) to break the single season freshman rushing record that is currently held by Adrian Peterson of Oklahoma.

Taylor led a powerful Badgers running game that finished second in the Big Ten, averaging 229.1 yards per game. He alone averaged a Big Ten best 142.1 yards per game and has already put up 1,847 yards and 13 touchdowns. Only Saquon Barkley’s 16 rushing touchdowns top what Taylor was able to accomplish in the Big Ten this year.

It certainly was fun to watch his combination of size, speed and vision — all rarities for a true freshman. He also proved to be a durable option for the Badgers when they needed him the most.


What three-headed monster? There was talk this offseason of the Badgers have a three-headed monster at running back in Bradrick Shaw, Chris James and Taiwan Deal. None of that materialized at all. Part of it was due to the emergence of Taylor, but injuries derailed all or large parts of the seasons for Deal, James and Shaw.

Things got so thin that little-known redshirt freshman running back Garrett Groshek became the Badgers second-best running back at times. While the Badgers have rushed for nearly 3,000 yards as a team, the three-headed monster never really reared its head at all. Shaw was second on the team in rushing, but put up just 365 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.

Meanwhile, James saw action in just eight games and had just 223 yards and Deal never saw the field thanks to a re-occurring ankle injury that required surgery again.

Injuries forced a big workload on Taylor, who has carried the ball 273 times already this season. It would’ve been nice to see some balance out of the run game, but that wasn’t in the cards thanks to injuries and ineffective play from the backups.

Grade: B +

If this were strictly about Jonathan Taylor, who received some Heisman Trophy love this past weekend, the grade would be a solid A. Taylor was dynamic and a game-changer for an offense that would’ve really been lost without him. However, even Taylor had some issues, mainly on the fumbling side of things, and that lowers his individual grade.

As a group, there just wasn’t enough from the second or third option at times. Shaw never really got going, James showed flashes but couldn’t stay healthy and Groshek was a good look for the future. However, all three of them added up to just 882 yards backing up Taylor. There’s a lot of potential for the future for this group, but outside of Taylor, it is hard to say anyone lived up to preseason hype (aside from Groshek).

Outlook for 2018

Wisconsin fans went in to the 2017 offseason believing the running back position was deep, talented and going to burst on to the scene. One could hold that same hope for the 2018 Badgers offense. All-Big Ten running back Jonathan Taylor will be back for his second go round, Chris James will have a final crack at a quality season and Bradrick Shaw will be a junior.

Add in Groshek and you have a deep backfield, one that if it can stay healthy should scare opposing Big Ten teams to death.

One sad note will be the departure of the underrated fullback, Austin Ramesh, who will have no eligibility left after the Orange Bowl. The silver lining is that Alec Ingold has proven to be a solid understudy and maybe even an athletic upgrade over Ramesh.

It will be interesting to see how teams adjust to Taylor after a full year of film, or even if they can. Let’s just say the future at this position looks pretty bright and pretty versatile. That’s exactly what needs to be there for a still developing pass game.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball


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