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Wisconsin 2017 spring football preview: Badgers reloading at running back, fullback

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A trio of backs with collegiate experience could help bring UW’s running game back to storied heights.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Purdue Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

[Update, Mar. 16: Positions, heights and weights are now updated from the released 2017 spring roster from the first spring practice, and position overviews have been revised to align with information published on UWBadgers.com on Mar. 13.]

Over two months have passed since the Wisconsin Badgers closed out their 2016 season with a 24-16 win over Western Michigan in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. That means it’s time for spring football, which starts on March 14 for UW players and coaches.

Gone may be departing seniors Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale, who contributed 1,881 rushing yards with 20 touchdowns on the ground, but Wisconsin’s offensive backfield is in reload mode. Thanks to the emergence of Bradrick Shaw last season and the potential of Taiwan Deal and Pitt transfer Chris James, the Badgers’ running backs may not skip a beat from, and could actually surpass production of, their predecessors in 2017.

Note: Height and weight measurements below are from UWBadgers.com, either from the 2017 roster or National Signing Day.

Wisconsin’s 2017 Tailbacks

Tailback 2017 Year Height Weight Hometown
Tailback 2017 Year Height Weight Hometown
Bradrick Shaw R-SO 6'1 208 Birmingham, Ala.
Chris James R-JR 5'10 216 Chicago, Ill.
Taiwan Deal R-JR 6'1 224 Capitol Heights, Md.
Sam Brodner R-FR 5'10 215 Glen Ellyn, Ill.
Mark Saari R-JR 6'0 214 Montreal, Wis.
Troy Laufenberg R-SO 5'10 191 Waunakee, Wis.
Garrett Groshek R-FR 5'11 209 Amherst Junction, Wis.
Jonathan Taylor FR 5'11 215 Salem, N.J.
Hunter Johnson FR 6'1 205 Darlington, Wis.

Wisconsin’s 2017 Fullbacks

Fullback 2017 Year Height Weight Hometown
Fullback 2017 Year Height Weight Hometown
Austin Ramesh R-SR 6'1 251 Land O' Lakes, Wis.
Alec Ingold JR 6'1 241 Green Bay, Wis.
Aaron Maternowski R-FR 6'0 246 Slinger, Wis.
Jake Whalen R-SO 6'1 242 Wausau, Wis.

2016 Leaders

Corey Clement: 314 carries, 1,375 yards (4.4 yards per attempt), 15 rushing touchdowns

Dare Ogunbowale: 91 carries, 506 yards (5.6 yards per attempt), five rushing touchdowns

Bradrick Shaw: 88 carries, 452 yards (5.2 yards per attempt), five rushing touchdowns

Austin Ramesh: Three rushing touchdowns

Alec Ingold: Two rushing touchdowns; six receptions, 55 yards, two receiving touchdowns

Key Departures

Clement (eligibility)

Ogunbowale (eligibility)

Key Additions for 2017

Jonathan Taylor, Hunter Johnson (walk-on)

Tailbacks Overview

What’s intriguing among the tailbacks is the simple fact that we’ve seen glimpses of success, albeit in different times. Deal, before injuries stunted his production the past two years, ran for 147 yards on 26 carries and two touchdowns against Hawaii last year (yes, it was against Hawaii).

In 2014 and 2015, James played in blue and gold for the Pitt Panthers. His sophomore campaign only yielded 253 yards on 56 carries in Pat Narduzzi’s first season as head coach, but under Paul Chryst as a freshman, he gained 437 yards and averaged five yards per carry with four touchdowns. After transferring to Wisconsin, he sat out Chryst’s second season leading UW.

Shaw took advantage of opportunities in 2016 with injuries to Deal and Clement, emerging as the third back to form a solid trio with unique traits. The Birmingham, Ala., product gained 452 yards at a 5.2 yards-per-carry clip with five touchdowns last season. Quarterbacks Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston referred to Shaw as a “beast” and “playing out of his mind,” respectively.

The 6’1, 211-pound back continually showed patience in allowing his blockers to set up the ensuing hole, then showcased an explosiveness from the first to second levels of the defense. He seems to run with a longer stride, but on touchdown runs against Nebraska and Purdue, defenders could not catch up to him.

What should be interesting with Shaw this season is seeing him more out of the backfield as a receiving target (one reception, six yards in 2016) and how he continues to be used in third-down situations. Obviously, the spring reps will allow him to continue progressing in all areas of his game. Shaw will be a redshirt sophomore for the 2017 season and, barring injury, March could be the start of something special for the highly-offered prep prospect.

James is highly intriguing within Chryst’s scheme. Clement complimented the Chicago native’s speed and quickness back in December and even said James could be a “first-through-third down back if he wants to be.” That’s in similar breadth to former Detroit Lions back Brian Calhoun during his one season in Madison (Calhoun rushed for 1,636 yards at 4.7 yards per attempt and caught 53 passes at 10.8 yards per reception with 24 combined touchdowns in 2005). Watching James’ progression with the first-team offense during spring and fall camps, rather than the scout team of a year prior, will be intriguing.

“I think Chris has got a lot of physical skills that you like to have in a back,” Chryst said in late December before the Cotton Bowl. “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.”

Unfortunately for Deal, an ankle injury will derail his spring campaign, which was first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Jeff Potrykus on Dec. 31. When healthy, he has utilized the power from his 6’1, 224-pound frame.

Deal’s absence could open the door for more reps in these 15 practices from the likes of redshirt freshman Sam Brodner, a former four-star prospect according to Scout.com.

Fullbacks Overview

As Chryst utilizes the fullbacks quite heavily in his offensive scheme, Ramesh and Ingold’s contributions last season cannot be overlooked. They combined for seven touchdowns and were used as lead blockers, short-yardage rushers and, at least for Ingold, as an occasional receiving target.

If injuries don’t plague this unit next season, it, along with the defensive line and inside linebackers, should return the major contributors from 2016 and provide the most stability. With Eric Steffes exhausting his eligibility, it will bear watching not only who replaces him as the hand-in-the-ground, blocking tight end, but also how much more often the fullbacks are used in 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end) compared to 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends), the latter of which was used quite often last season.

Ramesh, the former prep tailback standout who rushed for 5.939 yards and 60 touchdowns at Northland Pines, has become a force in goal-line and short-yardage situations, scoring three touchdowns last year off of 17 carries (while also carrying a 3.4 yards-per-attempt average) in 11 games. He found the end zone in big games against Ohio State and Penn State, and his fullback sweep to seal the Cotton Bowl victory showed his versatility in the run game.

Last spring, Ingold converted to fullback from tailback (and from inside linebacker at the beginning of his career at Wisconsin). Playing in all 14 games, he carried the ball 18 times for 44 yards while hauling in six receptions for 55 yards.

Running backs coach John Settle noted early last season that he liked Ingold’s physicality despite being relatively new to the position. A junior in 2017, his continued development as a lead blocker could create bigger plays for the offense. Former walk-on and team captain Bradie Ewing really emerged in his third season—so could Ingold.

Fifth-year senior Leon Jacobs was listed at inside linebacker on Wisconsin’s spring roster. With injuries to Chris Orr, Ryan Connelly, T.J. Edwards and Jack Cichy limiting their reps or not in action during these 15 practices, the California native should get more time on defense. He played well on that side of the ball in 2016, including grabbing a key interception in Wisconsin’s win over Minnesota to end the regular season.

Slinger’s Aaron Maternowski, a walk-on, could see more reps heading into his redshirt freshman campaign, while redshirt sophomore Jake Whalen, a former outside linebacker, is out with a shoulder injury.

[Update Mar. 22: Walk-on Hunter Johnson was added to the list.]