With the 2016 college football season now in the books, B5Q looks ahead to 2017 and a Wisconsin Badgers program building off its 11-win campaign. In the coming days, we’ll profile certain players who could be in line to play a significant role in what will be head coach Paul Chryst’s third year guiding UW.
Whether it’s a position group weakened by key departures, a player who transferred into Madison or just possibly needed an extra year of seasoning before contributing, these are our picks for Badgers that’ll “pop” in 2017.
Chris James, RB
Wisconsin loses outgoing seniors Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale, who combined for 1,881 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2016 for a rebuilt rushing attack.
Clement was the workhorse, carrying 314 times at 4.4 yards per attempt and rushing for over 100 yards in seven of the last nine games. Ogunbowale contributed 506 yards at 5.6 yards per carry and also caught 24 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown.
Despite the significant loss at running back, the Badgers appear to be in good hands for next season. Redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw emerged as one of the leading candidates to receive a bulk of carries, rushing for 457 yards and five touchdowns in as the third back in the trio of contributors. Redshirt sophomore Taiwan Deal could be in line for more carries but will reportedly undergo ankle surgery and miss spring ball.
Another name to look out for is one that didn’t see the playing field on Saturdays in 2016: Pitt transfer Chris James. The 5’10, 208-pound junior sat out 2016 due to NCAA transfer rules but should be a key cog in a Wisconsin offense next season that will likely return four of its five starting offensive linemen.
“He’s a good running back. He really is,” head coach Paul Chryst told reporters on Dec. 23. “I think this year, I think he, [Hawaii transfer and cornerback Nick Nelson], [Alabama transfer and outside linebacker Christian Bell] have done a good job improving and working.
“I think Chris has got a lot of physical skills that you like to have in a back. He’s got toughness and his ability to be a good inside runner, and he’s also got really good feet. This year, he’s progressed in some of the pass protection stuff, so the bowl prep, especially that early time, was really good for him.”
James left Pitt for Wisconsin after seeing his carries dwindle during the 2015 season. After rushing for 437 yards (five yards per carry) and four touchdowns for Chryst in 2014, he only recorded 253 yards on the ground on 56 carries for Pat Narduzzi’s team during his sophomore campaign.
The would-be redshirt junior will have two years left of eligibility and will immediately jump into the competition for carries with Shaw in the spring, and Wisconsin has seen the benefits of multiple contributors at the position.
“The big thing is he’ll be able to jump into a group of running backs and provide a better depth situation than would be otherwise,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said on Dec. 30, according to CollegePressBox.com. “I think he’ll be competing in there for the lead spot as the other guys will, and competition makes that better.
“As you’ve seen this year, running backs, they can be used—it’s hard to know that whole offense. It’s to get really good at knowing. There’s been games we’ve rode Dare to help us win—Nebraska. There’s been games where Bradrick and Taiwan gets us through—Minnesota—and you need that competition and that depth there, and that will help in that respect.”
Clement praised James’s skills to reporters on Dec. 21.
“He’s definitely shifty,” Clement said. “He can definitely replace Dare within the pass game, very shifty and quick on his feet.
“I don’t necessarily see him being your first and second-down back. I think he’s definitely going to get in on a lot of pass blocking and routes.”
When asked during Cotton Bowl media days, Clement again acknowledged the physical attributes of one of his successors, but then noted he could be an every-down running back.
“Chris is definitely right-off-the-bat fast,” Clement said on Dec. 30, according to CollegePressBox.com. “And he’s definitely one of the fastest backs I’ve seen since, as far as quickness, James White was here, and he can catch out the backfield. He has a passion for learning, and that’s what you want out of a guy who’s definitely transferring. You’ve got to respect that. I’m pretty sure that’s a hard transition.
“Like I said, he’s working with coach [Chryst]. He’s had him before. He knows his tendencies. He knows what to say, what not to say, and how to come out to practice. He’s not looking to put this team in a bad position at all. So if he can could kick return, punt return, I can see him as a one-through-third-down back if he wants to be.”
The speed and agility are there, and with the comments of both Chryst and Clement, 2017 could be a breakout year for James alongside Shaw in the backfield. The motivation is there, especially seen in BadgerNation.com’s article on the soon-to-be contributing running back.
“Every single day we workout at 7 o’clock in the morning,” James said. “That’s definitely been my fuel every single day. Seeing the opportunity I’m going to be able to have next year, why not work? Why not stay here Friday when the team is gone and get extra work in? It’s going to help in the end.”
2016 was probably one of the most challenging and extremely Humbling year of my life.I know that God has a plan.Thankful to see another 365.— ☚ Chris James Trick (@5ive2Live) January 2, 2017