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Wisconsin Badgers spring football giving hope that running back tradition is back

For over a decade the Wisconsin Badgers knew nothing but 1,000-yard running backs. It seemed like that tradition wasn’t ever going to stop. 

Enter the 2015 season and the reality of a depleted running back group smacked UW football in the face. Corey Clement was set to be the breakout star, but what turned out to be a sports hernia and a suspension kept him away from the team for most of the season.

An inexperienced Dare Ogunbowale and freshman Taiwan Deal were left to do most of the carrying in Wisconsin’s backfield. It didn’t end well, as Ogunbowale rushed for just 819 yards and seven touchdowns and Deal could muster up only 503 yards.

In comparison, Clement managed 221 yards on just 48 carries and five touchdowns. It wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of UW’s backfield depth.

Last season saw the return of a healthy Corey Clement for the majority of the season. He finished his Badgers career off by getting another 1,000-yard stretch started, racking up 1,375 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Ogunbowale, who had a good season in a secondary role in 2015, also graduated and is off to pursue an NFL dream as well. Meanwhile, Deal continued to struggle with nagging injuries this past season and an offseason surgery has kept him out of spring football.

That was the relatively recent past though, and one of the breakout players behind Clement (Bradrick Shaw) last season, along with a transfer player from Pitt (Chris James), appear to have UW’s running game ready to be lethal and deep.

Reports out of spring camp indicate that running backs coach John Settle is enjoying watching a competitive group of running backs battle it out.

“Right now, it’s wide open,” Settle said, via Badger247. “We have a group of guys who are competing. This will go all the way through fall camp.”

That group isn’t just two deep either, as a player who was a late addition to the 2016 class, Same Brodner, is also garnering the attention of his position coach.

“Shaw definitely has a leg up on the competition,” said Settle in that same Badger247 report. “But Chris James, Sam Brodner, those guys are flashing in practice. We’ll see how it plays out.”

Shaw came in to spring ball as the presumptive favorite to win the starting running back job. A redshirt freshman season that saw him rush for 457 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and five touchdowns on just 88 carries last season.

But, when spring camp opened up without the pads on, it was Chris James doing most of the work with the No. 1 offense. The year off from game action and his ability to transform his body caught the eye of the coaching staff.

Reports from camp indicate that hasn’t changed much, and after four practices so far in camp the competition is certainly far from over.

But, unlike spring ball in the past, this competition isn’t just about who will complement a known starter. Instead, this competition is happening because there is more than one player capable of taking on the starting role.

Settle sees things to like in each of his running backs so far this spring, but they also add different strengths to the offense.

James gives the Badgers a more complete package at times. He’s more polished than others and that comes from two years of experience on the field. James appears to be the more natural of the running backs in the pass-catching game, while showing he can be dangerous between the tackles as well.

This group appears to have the potential to be deep and good, but it is far from a finished project this spring.

It appears that Shaw may have the leg up, but Settle is quick to push him to be even better than he has shown early on in his career.

“I want to see him make progress,” said Settle to Badger247. “He’s a good job in the run game, but I want to see take ownership of the pass game. Also knowing the down and distances and learning the first and second packages.

“He needs to continue to work on his run reads and become an every down back.”

Settle still is searching for a back that can play well in pass protection. According to reports, he may actually be turning towards fullbacks Austin Ramesh and Alec Ingold. Unless Shaw, James or Brodner make a big jump, it will be interesting to see how UW’s offense unfolds on third-down situations this fall.

Still, it appears Wisconsin is back to having a running back group that can be more than just serviceable.

[Badger247]

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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