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2018 Wisconsin running backs preview: Jonathan Taylor, Heisman candidate?

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Wisconsin’s backfield is loaded (yet again) and its leader is primed to be one of the nation’s best.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Wisconsin vs Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

What a start to a college career for Jonathan Taylor.

As a freshman in 2017, Taylor came within 23 yards of 2,000 while earning all-conference honors and becoming a Doak Walker Award finalist. Emerging at the end of fall camp, Taylor’s performances ignited the Wisconsin offense with an explosive rushing attack. Now a sophomore, Taylor combined his physical attributes (strength, speed) with patience and maturity to become a consistent threat.

Taylor may be the focus, but on paper, there is depth within the Wisconsin running back room that should help keep this position a strength on the team heading into what should be the most dynamic offense the Badgers have seen in recent years.

Wisconsin’s 2018 Running Backs

2018 Spring RBs 2018 Eligibility
2018 Spring RBs 2018 Eligibility
Jonathan Taylor SO
Chris James R-SR
Bradrick Shaw R-JR
Garrett Groshek R-SO
Taiwan Deal R-SR
Sam Brodner R-SO
Hunter Johnson R-FR
Mark Saari R-SR

Note: Wisconsin’s 2018 spring roster was released on March 12. Also, Hunter Johnson is a redshirt freshman, not a redshirt sophomore. We’ve updated the table above to reflect the correction. Our apologies for the error.

Both Shaw and Groshek, as announced by UW, will not participate in spring practices due to left and right leg injuries, respectively.

2017 Leaders

Jonathan Taylor: 1,977 yards, 6.6 yards per carry, 13 TDs
Bradrick Shaw: 365 yards, 3.8 yards per carry, 4 TDs
Garrett Groshek: 314 yards, 4.9 yards per carry, 2 TDs
Chris James: 238 yards, 4.6 yards per carry, 1 TD

Who’s Leaving

Rachid Ibrahim: 133 yards, 4.6 yards per carry; 7 catches, 63 yards

Early Enrollees

None

Key Additions

Nakia Watson

Bucky’s 5th Podcast, Ep. 7: The Wisconsin State Journal’s Jason Galloway helps us preview the 2018 RBs

Position Overview

A lot to digest here, but let’s start with Taylor, the second-team All-American and consensus first-team All-Big Ten honoree. After a great 2017 season, there are areas where the Salem, N.J., native can improve—notably his ball security after the handful of fumbles he lost as a freshman. It should also bear watching how he evolves in the passing game, both as a blocker and a receiving threat (eight receptions, 95 yards, long of 24).

Taylor emerged as the big-name Badgers back with Shaw and James fighting through injuries. Shaw missed three games and James missed five, hampering their production after many thought the duo would be the one-two punch heading into 2017. Both provide complements to Taylor, though in my opinion, James may have more unique characteristics to be a greater back-up to the younger back (nothing against Shaw at all, especially if he can stay healthy and combine downhill speed with his physicality).

In all likelihood, who replaces Ibrahim in that third-down role will probably be decided in fall camp.

Groshek stepped up in an unexpected role (like many walk-ons do) after converting from quarterback last spring. He shined in both spring and fall camps before injuries forced the former in-state prep standout to step up in a huge fashion during the season in key situations, including laying out some highlight-worthy stiff arms. He even called back to his quarterbacking days in the Big Ten Championship Game, completing a nine-yard pass to Alex Hornibrook.

Two other backs are also coming off injuries that deprived them of any playing time last season. Taiwan Deal and Sam Brodner both did not play, with the former suffering a right leg injury that stunted a promising start to fall camp. Brodner suffered a left knee injury during the 2017 spring game.

Deal appears to be taking part in winter conditioning based on a couple of videos by UWBadgers.com, and when he has been healthy, he has shown the potential to be a contributor in John Settle’s backfield.

Note: We will cover the fullbacks when we preview the tight ends.