No position has a bigger spotlight at the University of Wisconsin than that of running back. It’s been the case for the better part of 30 years now. Arguably, nothing will change in 2018, even with the deepest talent pool at wide receiver the Badgers have had in over a decade at least.
The 2018 Wisconsin Badgers backfield should be very familiar to even the casual fan. That’s because every significant member of the running back group is back for another year. But, does that mean more leaning on just Jonathan Taylor or can UW lessen his load and get more out of the rest of the group?
While there’s a lot of familiar faces, fall camp will be a chance for those stuck behind Taylor to show they can handle taking on more carries and become reliable second options for the run game.
State of the Position: Potentially Strong
On paper, this group could be the deepest and scariest we’ve seen since the Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon backfield. There’s a Heisman Trophy candidate in sophomore Jonathan Taylor, a pair of bruising backs in Bradrick Shaw and Taiwan Deal and a veteran do-everything back by the name of Chris James.
Taylor burst on the scene as a true freshman, rushing for nearly 2,000 yards in his debut. He did it with an uncanny ability to rush over, around and speed by defenders. But, some are quick to forget that without Taylor bursting on to the scene, this group would’ve been in big trouble in 2018.
James and Shaw all went down for significant time during the season with various injuries and Deal never saw the field while trying to get his ankles right.
Shaw was second on the team with 365 yards and four touchdowns while playing parts of 11 games on the year. Just how banged up was this group? True freshman walk-on Garrett Groshek was leaned on for 61 carries, 297 yards and two touchdowns. He showed he has value, but ideally they wouldn’t be leaning on that type of youth in 2018.
That said, UW recruited another potential sleeper at running back in Texas native Nakia Watson. His skill set and college-ready body may give him a shot to play this upcoming year, but ideally this would be a redshirt situation.
Wisconsin also returns senior fullback Alec Ingold, who has been a huge part of the success of the running back group behind him. But, just like the running back position, as long as Ingold stays healthy all season, things should run smoothly for this backfield. If not, UW will rely on a trio of freshmen who will battle it out for the backup spot in fall camp.
Biggest Question: Can Shaw or Deal Live Up to Potential?
Heading in to the 2017 season, many believed that Bradrick Shaw was going to be the breakout player. It was easy to see why, as he put up 457 yards on just 88 carries in his freshman season. That was good for third on the team behind the senior duo of Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale.
Instead of taking over, Shaw couldn’t shake the injury bug and seemed slowed all season long despite playing in 11 of 14 games. He took on more carries (96), but had fewer yards (365) and touchdowns (4) than his redshirt freshman campaign.
Deal has been a long-term question mark, showcasing bruising ability and deceptive speed. He’s also seen more ankle injuries than anyone should ever have to go through. Can a full season and another offseason to deal with those issues transform him from a question mark to a productive player?
Ideally, Shaw or Deal returns to form and along with senior Chris James makes the Badgers backfield a powerful trio to deal with. But, we just don’t know which version of either player will show up or if either will be able to stay on the field enough to be a factor.
RB: Jonathan Taylor, Chris James, Bradrick Shaw
FB: Alec Ingold, John Chenal