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Buckle up for another year of stellar Wisconsin running backs

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Jonathan Taylor is back for more in his sophomore season, with a strong group behind him.

Big Ten Championship - Ohio State v Wisconsin Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

When discussing Wisconsin’s running backs, one name sticks out above the rest: sophomore Jonathan Taylor.

Taylor burst onto the scene as a true freshman in 2017, doing nothing but amazing en route to a record-breaking freshman campaign. He broke Adrian Peterson’s FBS record for rushing yards as a freshman with 1,977 on 299 carries, doing so by eclipsing 100 yards in 10 of 14 games and compiling five 150-yard performances and three 200-yard games.

Naturally, Taylor’s name was prominent among a slew of college football’s top awards:

  • Doak Walker Award finalist
  • Maxwell Award Semifinalist
  • Walter Camp Player of the Year Award semifinalist
  • Second-team All-America (AP, FWAA, Sporting News, Walter Camp)
  • Freshman All-America (FWAA, ESPN, USA Today)
  • First-team All-Big Ten
  • Thompson-Randle El Big Ten Freshman of the Year
  • Two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week
  • Eight-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week
  • Sixth place in Heisman Trophy voting

One area where Taylor could expand his game in 2018 is as a receiver. As a freshman, he caught only eight passes for 95 yards (11.9 yards per reception). Some good news: this spring, he practiced running routes under the careful watch of head coach Paul Chryst. An offense that features a more dynamic use of Taylor would be very dangerous.

Earlier this month, we previewed Taylor’s receiving potential as a key part of what makes him a “Badger to Watch” in 2018:

When asked last week where he feels Taylor needs to improve, Wisconsin running backs coach John Settle pointed to better ball security and “being able to take a hit but hold onto the football at the same time” as well as “just expanding his knowledge of the game.”

“Being able to play all three downs, so we’re going to do some things with him this fall,” Settle said. “We started in the spring with him playing in a third-down package and keeping him on the field because he is one of our better players. We want to have our best players on the field at all times, so when we take him off the field, you may lose a little something in certain areas so we’re trying to figure out ways to keep him on the field but he’s got to be able to do that. Catching the ball out of the backfield, pass protection, understanding the defense, that type of thing, being able to come up and pick up a blitz.

“Like I said, there’s no better place than here because our defense gives us several opportunities during practice to do that.”

As you can tell, the kid is good and he should be poised for an even better season in 2018. Behind him is a stable of backs more than eager to further cement Wisconsin’s reputation as one of the sport’s best rushing teams.

Behind Taylor is a set of four running backs: redshirt seniors Chris James and Taiwan Deal, redshirt junior Bradrick Shaw, and sophomore Garrett Groshek.

Wisconsin’s 2018 Running Backs

Name Height Weight Year Hometown High School
Name Height Weight Year Hometown High School
Taiwan Deal 6'1 225 Sr. Capitol Heights, Md. DeMatha
Chris James 5'10 219 Sr. Chicago, Ill. Notre Dame College Prep/Pittsburgh
Mark Saari 6'0 206 Sr. Montreal, Wis. Hurley
Bradrick Shaw 6'1 211 Jr. Birmingham, Ala. Hoover
Sam Brodner 5'10 212 So. Glen Ellyn, Ill. Glenbard West
Garrett Groshek 5'11 218 So. Amherst Junction, Wis. Amherst
Jonathan Taylor 5'11 216 So. Salem, N.J. Salem
Hunter Johnson 6'0 214 R-Fr. Darlington, Wis. Darlington
Brady Schipper 6'0 190 Fr. Stoughton, Wis. Stoughton
Nakia Watson 6'0 226 Fr. Austin, Texas Westlake
All measurables from Wisconsin’s spring roster except for Schipper and Watson, whose are taken from National Signing Day listings.

James transferred to Wisconsin from Pittsburgh and played in nine games in 2017, rushing for 233 yards on 51 carries with one touchdown. Heading into the season, he was expected to be one of the starting backs in until Taylor happened. James had a hard time getting established, having his best game in Week 2 against Florida Atlantic when he rushed for 101 yards on 16 carries. His lone score came in the Big Ten Championship Game against Ohio State.

Shaw was among the co-starters at running back to begin the season, but ended up only carrying the ball 96 times for 365 yards and three touchdowns. While a fair amount of Shaw’s touches were taken by Taylor, he also missed three games due to injuries before suffering a season-ender at Minnesota.

“He’s got a ways to go but they tell me he will be ready when we start practice in camp,” running backs coach John Settle said of Shaw in April, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Jeff Potrykus. Settle added at the time that Shaw likely wouldn’t be ready for full-contact work until close to Wisconsin’s Aug. 31 opener vs. Western Kentucky.

Deal is looking for redemption as a senior in 2018 after he missed his entire junior season due to injury. He also appeared in only seven games as a sophomore in 2016.

As a redshirt freshman in 2015, Deal was second on the team with 503 rushing yards and scored six touchdowns.

Groshek, the Amherst Junction, Wis., native who became a fan favorite last season, toted the rock 61 times for 297 yards while scoring twice. He picked up most of his yards in the fourth quarter but stepped into the spotlight when Taylor went down in Week 8 at Illinois, having his best game with 12 carries, 51 yards, and one touchdown.

Senior Mark Saari and sophomore Sam Brodner did not play in 2017. Brodner sustained a knee injury in spring practice. Saari has three career carries for zero yards.

Coming into the program are true freshmen Nakia Watson and Brady Schipper. From Austin, Texas (Westlake), Watson lit up Texas prep football on his way to first-team all-state honors last season, rushing for 1,938 rushing yards on 268 attempts with 27 touchdowns while catching 18 passes for 327 yards and another six touchdowns.

Chryst praised Watson in a late-December interview with the Big Ten Network:

“Well, he’s an exciting back and he’s fun to be around,” Chryst said. “He’s got great size. I think he’s going to be a heck of a complement to ‘JT,’ and so what he’s done and the type of year he’s had has been fun, it’s been impressive to follow.

“To get Nakia to come up here, we certainly are really excited about him. I think he’s got his own style, but he’s going to add a ton to the group. I think ‘JT’ is one of the guys who was excited about him as well. Someone that will kind of help him a little bit and not have to carry the full load, so I think he could be a great back along with ‘JT.’”

Schipper, from nearby Stoughton, rushed for nearly 4,000 yards in his prep career, 1,975 coming during his senior campaign in 2017.

There could also be another true freshman joining this group in Isaac Guerendo. In a Wisconsin football Instagram story back in late June, the Clayton, Ind., native stated he was a “running back/receiver.” The fall roster has not been released yet, so there is no official confirmation from Wisconsin.