It’s a “reload” type of year for the Wisconsin Badgers’ rushing attack. Definitely not a rebuild. Heck, Paul Chryst’s 2017 offense could even surpass the production on the ground that was seen in 2016.
And that’s with losing two seniors, 1,881 rushing yards, and 20 touchdowns.
With an offensive line losing only one starter and experience growing for the rest of Joe Rudolph’s behemoths, a Pitt transfer with home-run ability when the football’s tucked in his arm, and an emerging redshirt sophomore from Alabama, Wisconsin’s run game should be a force in the fall.
Wisconsin’s 2017 Tailbacks
|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.|
|Garrett Groshek||R-FR||5'11||209||Amherst Junction, Wis.|
|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.|
|Jonathan Taylor||FR||5'11||215||Salem, N.J.|
|Hunter Johnson||FR||6'1||205||Darlington, Wis.|
Wisconsin should boast at least a two-headed monster at running back with redshirt junior Chris James and redshirt sophomore Bradrick Shaw, both of whom shined during the 15 spring practices earlier this year.
Shaw emerged as a third running back last year to Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale, rushing for 457 yards and five touchdowns while displaying a penchant for running hard between the tackles and showcasing the speed to outrun defenders in the middle of the field (see the Nebraska and Purdue games) and turning the corner towards the sideline (Akron).
The Hoover High product may need to further hone his pass-blocking skills—something he told B5Q in mid-April was one of his main focuses—and catching the ball out of the backfield, though during the spring he made some nice receptions.
From what was seen in March and April, James appears to be a complete back. He can run between the tackles, catch the ball out of the backfield and block—everything you want from a Wisconsin tailback. He’s fought the “third-down back” mantra that’s seemingly accompanied him since the winter prior to UW’s 24-16 win over Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl.
When out in the open field, he possesses a home run-like agility and quickness that makes defenders look silly when attempting to corral him.
“For me, I’m really just trying to be a playmaker,” James said of his playing and running style in April. “That’s one thing I’ve always told myself. ‘Hey you can catch the ball and score one play, that makes the team and everybody look better,’ so just do whatever you can do just to be in that position and just being in the right place at the wrong time in making that last guy miss.”
It’s really a “1a” and “1b” scenario for Chryst’s offense, with both backs providing just enough different traits for opponents to prepare for. James added at the end of spring practices how this isn’t necessarily a battle between the two.
“I just try to get downhill and run with power,” Shaw said in April. “Chris is quick and shifty. I feel like we’re both kind of shifty—I’m pretty quick too. I feel like I’m more downhill, I think that’s the biggest difference probably.”
“The weird part is Bradrick runs just as hard as I can, and Brad is almost as fast as I am, so I don’t want to think about it as a smash-and-dash sense,” James said. “But if we had as a group, I I just think we’re a great group as far as a one-two punch—not that it’s too much as being opposites—it’s rather just us doing something a little bit different. He may be better at the outside zone tracks than me, and I may be better than him at downhill runs, and stuff like that.
“I think we complement each other really well.”
Chryst believes that as well.
“I think they do complement each other,” Chryst said after the spring game on April 21, “and yeah, I think they're both -- they're very different styles, but they both have the ability to run inside and be physical, and I think they're capable of big runs. I'm anxious to see how Taiwan [Deal] comes off of the off-season surgery. So we've got some depth there. They've just got to keep growing and keep working, but I think we've got guys that have played.
“Their role is going to be different than any role they've had to this point, but I like the group. I like the way they approach it, and yet they're -- I feel like they're still young. They've got to keep progressing.”
Behind James and Shaw, redshirt junior Taiwan Deal could lock down the third-down back spot if he returns healthy from the ankle issues that kept him out this spring. At 6’1, 224 pounds, the Maryland native is a bruiser but just hasn’t found a lot of carries due to injuries, which also led to the emergence of Shaw last season.
Redshirt freshmen Sam Brodner and Garrett Groshek received a good chunk of carries during the spring and flashed at times. Brodner, a four-star back according to Scout, did suffer an injury during the spring game but the severity of it remains to be seen.
Groshek may have been the surprise of the position group. A walk-on quarterback who was named the state’s offensive player of the year by the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association in 2015, he converted to tailback this spring. He ran hard and made the most of his opportunities with the backups and what appeared to be some “first-team” reps.
Chryst acknowledged after the spring game that Groshek was a “really good athlete” and was trying to determine which spot would best suit him. Now, Groshek may in fact be in position to contribute as a third-down back.
“There's a guy that puts in a ton of time, and he's smart, and he's always up in coach Settle's office,” Chryst said. “He wants to be the best he can, and he's got some athleticism. He's got some size to him. So it was fun to see him this spring and see him develop and grow. There's a lot that goes into that position, particularly trying to find maybe could he be a third-down back. He did, he put himself in the mix pretty quickly.”
The progression of class of 2017 running back Jonathan Taylor, who possesses some blazing speed and even broke Clement’s New Jersey prep record last season, will be something to watch heading into fall camp.