A lot can happen in a year, especially in the world of recruiting. When Paul Chryst and his staff took over at Wisconsin, seemingly the only position the Badgers didn’t have to worry about was running back. Committing in December 2014, New London (NC) four-star tailback Antonio Williams maintained his commitment to the program, even after running back coach Thomas Brown left for Georgia.
Not only was he the No.17 tailback in the county by Scout.com, there were few recruits more excited to play at Wisconsin than Williams, who consistently showed his infinite love for Wisconsin and everything about the state.
Fast forward to 2016 to see Williams signing with Ohio State and the Badgers coaches touting Glen Ellyn (Ill.) Glenbard West tailback Sam Brodner, another four-star prospect who committed to the Badgers in January.
“I like the group that we got,” said Chryst, referring to the tailbacks on UW’s 2016 roster. “I like who we added with Sam. The next thing we get to do is go work with those guys on the field and looking forward to that.”
Although rated the top tailback in Illinois, Brodner was initially on Wisconsin’s radar as an inside linebacker, the position he camped at during Wisconsin’s high school football camp over the summer.
Knowing that background, Brodner screams power back but his film shows he has the ability to get outside the tackles with his timed 4.49 40-yard dash speed. Even so, his most successful runs will likely come when he’s running downhill with his ability to break through arm tackles, as his 210 pounds make him a tough target to bring down as he fights for the extra yards.
“He has some natural ability at running back but what I like about him is his size,” said running back coach John Settle. “He’s 5-10, you like the mixture of the size and power, he can get his pads down and run behind his pads and he has the ability to put his foot down, make the one cut and accelerate. The biggest thing was watching him get to the edge. Having him in camp, we had the opportunity to time him ourselves, so we knew he had decent speed, and to watch him play, he played fast. I was impressed with everything about him.”
Named the Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year after he rushed for 1,956 yards and 40 touchdowns, Brodner displays more than just a capable runner, finishing the season with 31 receptions for 402 yards and seven touchdowns. On Brodner’s receptions, he shows that he catches the ball with his hands and does a good job of making the first defender miss. When he isn’t going out for pass routes, he shows a willingness to block, which makes sense given his defensive background. Brodner’s willingness to pass block will help him get on the field quicker.
The only negatives on Brodner is that he sometimes exposes the football to the point where a talented defender could knock it loose. Of course, it’s something Settle can easily correct.
At the time Williams de-committed from Wisconsin on October 14, Brodner was committed to Vanderbilt and didn’t reopen his recruitment up until December 16.
Prior to Brodner receiving his UW offer January 17, the Wisconsin coaches identified five players before they started to pursue Brodner. They were able to get George Hill and C.J. Freeman on official visits for the Northwestern game but Hill ended up choosing Pittsburgh and Freeman stayed committed to South Carolina. The Badgers were also interested in Brandon Stephens (UCLA), Kyle Porter (Texas) and Khaleke Hudson (Michigan) but none of the three visited Madison. All these were four-star athletes with the exception of the three-star Freeman.
“Coach Chryst doesn’t get too rattled,” Settle responded when asked if there was ever distress at the inability to fill the scholarship. “We fed off of him. His thing was we’re not going to panic, and we are not just going to sign a guy just to sign a guy. Everybody went out and looked in our areas to see if someone was available. Towards the last month or so, everybody who came back had names, and by that time we listed Sam as our benchmark, so everybody who was brought back was compared to him. In the end he was still the last man standing. In the end we got the right guy.”
None of the coaches on signing day talked about Williams, ending a bizarre chapter for someone once considered a great ambassador for Wisconsin in recruiting. In reality, things started to fall apart when Williams tweeted shortly after the loss to Iowa, “Wisconsin will never be elite until (Joel) Stave leaves the program.”
After he hit send on that tweet, despite it being deleted short thereafter, the relationship between Williams and the Wisconsin coaches, his recruiting classmates and some of the current Wisconsin players were strained. Tailback Corey Clement, who was recovering from sports hernia surgery, allegedly gave Williams a tongue lashing. And while the Wisconsin coaching staff assured Williams they still wanted him in the recruiting class, the staff wasn’t exactly fighting to keep him once he made it known he was going to check out Ohio State.
After Brodner committed to Wisconsin, one thing he said is that there is a chance for him to play right away. Despite UW having seniors Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale, there is the question who the third tailback will be next season. Settle likes to rotate three backs and will have his options between redshirt sophomore Taiwan Deal, redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw and Brodner. Sophomore Alec Ingold could remain at running back for next year but will likely switch to his more permanent position of fullback with the graduation of Derek Watt and Derek Straus.
With only junior Austin Ramesh (and possibly Ingold) listed as fullbacks on the roster, the Badgers added a preferred walk-on in Slinger (WI) High’s Aaron Maternowski, who might see an opportunity this season if Wisconsin employs the same two-fullback scheme they used last year. Maternowski could also be used on special teams, too, as he played along the defensive line for Slinger.
Although Wisconsin toyed with the idea of taking two tailbacks in 2016, using them as a speed-and-power combo, the Badgers only managed to land Brodner. While he wasn’t the top target right away, Wisconsin is still getting a good running back who could be able to contribute when he steps foot on campus, including take on a major role in 2017.
Signing Day Grade: B+