Wisconsin Position Analysis: Badger Tailbacks

Wisconsin Position Analysis: Badger Tailbacks

Football

Wisconsin Position Analysis: Badger Tailbacks

Main Story – Taylor’s Encore

The unofficial depth chart at the beginning of last fall camp was appealing to Wisconsin fans, with junior power back Chris James and speedy sophomore Bradrick Shaw ready to bring a one-two punch at opposing defenses.

Before the calendar turned to October, Jonathan Taylor threw that plan out the window.

The true freshman went from a little-known New Jersey workaholic to Wisconsin’s main offense weapon during the 2017 season and one of the top freshmen nationally. A first-team All-Big Ten selection, the conference’s freshman of the year and a sixth-place finish in the Heisman voting, Taylor recorded 299 carries for 1,977 rushing yards (6.6 average) and 13 touchdowns.

After leading UW with 87 rushing yards in the season opener, Taylor got the start in week two, rushed for 223 yards and three touchdowns against Florida Atlantic and didn’t look back. When the season ended in Miami, Taylor topped 100-yard mark in 10 of 14 games as a freshman and eclipsed 150 yards five times and the 200-yard mark thrice.

Taylor was so dominant that he averaged 6.3 yards per carry on first down, a spot where everyone in the stadium and watching at home knew Wisconsin was likely to run the ball. He also averaged 9.2 yards per carry on third down, 4.53 yards after contact and forced 65 missed tackles, a sign of his aggressiveness.

And considering he’ll be running behind an offensive line that returns all five starters, not to mention senior fullback Alec Ingold, it’s no surprise that Taylor is being whispered as an early Heisman favorite entering 2018.

Naturally, there’s a lot of room for improvement Taylor can make from year one to year two. The main focal point will be ball security. Taylor lost six fumbles last season, third most in the country and most for a non-quarterback. Don’t be surprised if teams will test his ability to hold on to the football early and often, especially after the season opener.

Taylor was his usual self, finishing with 145 yards and two first-half touchdowns that set the tone for UW’s 34-3 win over Western Kentucky, but coughed up the football on his own 28-yard line in the third quarter.

“It’s disappointing, but you can’t expect for it never to happen,” Taylor said. “Now that’s what you work for and hope for it never to happen, but you look at the film, that’s what I’m doing to do, and you got to learn from it. That’s the only thing you really can do.”

The other area Taylor has been working on in the offseason has been catching passes, an area where he only caught eight passes a season ago and none in the first five games. Last year, Wisconsin used Garrett Groshek, Rachid Ibrahim and Chris James in pass-catching, pass-protecting third-down situations. UW also got a lot of mileage out of fullback Alec Ingold, who will assume to the full-time job entering his senior year after the graduation of Austin Ramesh.

Even so, entering his second year, Taylor will be asked to do more.

“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,” Wisconsin running back coach John Settle told reporters in the spring. “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.”

Subplot – Who is the No.2 Back?

It’s hard to remember, but Wisconsin opened fall camp last season thinking that Bradrick Shaw and Chris James would be the two prime candidates in the backfield. When the season was over, Taylor had 203 more carries than Shaw and 248 more carries than James.

After banging up his ankle in the season opener against Utah State, a game in which he finished with 84 yards on 18 carries, Shaw was never the same the back and only had four games where he had at least 10 carries. After having 457 yards as a freshman, Shaw finished with 365 yards. A clean bill of health would have helped Shaw immensely but a leg injury in fall camp will have him knocked out until late September.

The injury to Shaw opens up an opportunity for senior tailback Taiwan Deal, who didn’t appear in any games last season and hasn’t had a carry since the 2017 Cotton Bowl. Having logged 149 carries for 667 yards and six touchdowns in three injury-plagued seasons, Deal has worked his way up the depth chart and worked consistently as the No. 2 running back in the base package (normal down and distance) toward the end of camp.

Deal earned the backup spot Friday and responded with eight carries for 53 yards in his first action in over 22 months.

“I know it meant a lot to him,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said of Deal’s night. “These guys, they like playing, and when you miss out … they got an opportunity tonight to get back out on the field and play.

“I thought Taiwan ran hard. I thought he was patient. A lot of times, when you’re back at it and you’re excited to go, sometimes for a back, or really most players, you lose your patience and I thought he had good patience.”

James battled injuries of his own in his new role as third-down back and finished with only 56 tackles (51 runs, five catches). The senior has attacked the offseason – he posted a video of him benching a personal-record 405 pounds on the bench press – and will likely have a better footing on his role this fall as the No.3 back.

The injuries to Deal, James and Shaw opened up an opportunity for Garrett Groshek, as the then-redshirt freshman filled in amicably with 297 yards on 61 carries. He showed the need for more playing time Friday, weaving his way through traffic for a 43-yard touchdown off a short dump-off pass.

Stat to Know

Taylor forced 68 missed tackles on 307 run plays last season, the most among returning Big Ten tailbacks (Minnesota’s Rodney Smith is second with 43). Taylor also had 851 total yards on breakaway runs over 15 yards, the third-highest among returning FBS running backs. In the opener, 82 of Taylor’s yards came after contact.

More BadgersInsider
Home