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Jonathan Taylor’s the man, but who complements him at running back in 2019?

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Our spring previews look ahead to the running backs

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NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Wisconsin vs Miami Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

With the help of the blockers in front of him and his intriguing combination of speed, strength and vision, Wisconsin Badgers running back Jonathan Taylor removed any doubt about a sophomore slump in 2018. He rushed for nearly 2,200 yards, led the nation in that category and also yards per game on way to claiming the Doak Walker Award and unanimous first-team All-American honors.

Despite a revamped offensive line returning to Wisconsin that will miss four of its five “regular” starters from a year ago, Taylor will position himself again to be “the man” in the backfield and have an opportunity to cement his legacy among Badger backs in 2019.

The question now will be, with two departing seniors, who will step up to spell Taylor and continue the production in the running game?

Presumed 2019 spring roster for Wisconsin’s running backs

  • Jonathan Taylor, junior; 2,194 yards (led nation), 7.1 yards per carry, 168.8 yards per game (led nation), 16 touchdowns; unanimous first-team All-American; 2018 Doak Walker Award winner
  • Bradrick Shaw, redshirt senior; did not play in 2018
  • Garrett Groshek, redshirt junior; 425 yards, 6.5 yards per carry, one rushing touchdown; 24 receptions, 163 yards, one receiving touchdown
  • Nakia Watson, redshirt freshman; did not play in 2018
  • Hunter Johnson, redshirt sophomore; did not play in 2018

What to watch for this spring: Who puts themselves in position for fall camp reps to be the main complements to Taylor?

Gone are Taiwan Deal and Chris James, two redshirt seniors who contributed last year. Deal himself illustrated an impressive resurgence for his final season in rushing for 545 yards and six touchdowns on 6.6 yards per carry. He will likely find interest from NFL teams as an undrafted free agent. James gained 108 yards on 4.7 yards per carry in 2018.

With all the accolades and actually having a fairly significant shot at the FBS career rushing record*, Taylor will undoubtedly be the guy for Wisconsin in 2019 barring injury or other unforeseen circumstances. If he develops more in the passing game will be something to watch, as he caught eight receptions for 60 yards with a long of 30 in 2018. Note as well, we will save the discussion of whether this will be his final year as a Badger for another time.

Check out our discussion about the running backs with The Athletic’s Jesse Temple on a recent edition of Bucky’s 5th Podcast. Be sure to follow on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and pretty much everywhere where you listen to your favorite podcasts!

The most significant question for this group coming into the 2019 season is who will step up to be the main complements to Wisconsin’s Heisman-caliber back.

As Jesse Temple noted on Bucky’s 5th Podcast last week and in his recent article on The Athletic ($), it appears Watson and Groshek should receive a bulk of the reps at running back in spring ball. In theory, they can be thought of as the main contenders for now in gaining that key experience and snaps.

A former walk-on, Groshek became that third down back during the 2018 season and became a solid rushing threat in a lot of 11 personnel looks for the Badgers. His reliable experience and skillset lends himself to renew those responsibilities for 2019, though it will be interesting to see if the coaching staff expands that role further.

Watson, who ran for nearly 2,000 yards and 27 touchdowns as a high school senior in 2017, redshirted his first year in Madison behind four capable running backs. UW listed the Texas native at 231 pounds last season, and he potentially could be physically envisioned as how Deal—listed at 221 pounds last year—complemented Taylor. This will be a huge spring for him to continue developing in hopes of spelling the Doak Walker Award winner, and we will see just what type of running style he develops in his collegiate career.

Maybe the wild card out of this group for the spring is Shaw, and based on our conversation with Temple on B5Q’s podcast and his recent article, that includes his health. He did not play in 2018 due to injury and suffered a torn ACL in the 2017 regular season finale at Minnesota.

It may seem like an eternity ago, but Shaw showcased his talents three years prior in 2016 as a redshirt freshman. Emerging as a third option to the NFL-bound Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale, he rushed for 457 yards and five touchdowns. If the Hoover product from Birmingham, Ala., can regain his health and the form that allowed him to rush for 5.2 yards per carry, it would be a boost for this position group with his game time experience and skillset.