MADISON - With seniors Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale sitting out Wisconsin’s first scrimmage last Saturday, running back coach John Settle had a prime opportunity to distribute the reps throughout his position group. He choose another method – push redshirt sophomore Taiwan Deal to the limit.
As he expected, Deal responded. Of the 43 unofficial carries in the scrimmage, Deal got 22 of them, turning them into 117 yards and a touchdown. On a 14-play scoring drive against the first-team defense, Deal had seven of the carries, resulting in 34 yards and a 3-yard touchdown.
“He had a heck of a day, and that’s the one thing I told him,” Settle said. “I could take you out, but I want to see what you have, how far you’re willing to push yourself. The fact that he pushed through fatigue and was able to stay in on that 14-play drive and do some things, run to the second and third level, make people miss and be physical, do those types of things, I think everybody is excited about the growth and potential he’s shown.”
So excited in fact that Deal has put himself in the conversation to take away carries from Clement and Ogunbowale with his ability to elevate the offense. Not only did Deal grind on that 98-yard touchdown drive, he executed a 30-yard outside run with vision and shiftiness and has turned senior outside linebacker Vince Biegel away in one-on-one pass protection on more than on occasion.
“Can be the same guy every day and can he take steps every day to be that same guy?” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “He’s done it so far this spring. I’m going to stay on his tail to keep doing it. I know Coach Settle will, too. We need him to be that guy.”
From a numbers standpoint, Deal’s redshirt freshman campaign could be considered successful. He rushed 117 times for 503 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 4.3 yards per carry and 50.3 yards per game.
But just when Deal started to hit his stride, including a 147-yard, two-touchdown night against Hawaii, an ankle injury suffered in the opening minutes of the Nebraska game cost him the rest of that game and the next three.
He returned for Wisconsin’s win at Maryland and even rushed for 90 yards and two scores in the road win at Minnesota in the regular season finale, but Deal saw his yards per carry average dip 0.4 per attempt after the injury.
“When I went down with my injury, I felt I was getting better each week,” Deal said. “I was hitting the top of my growth, and that was very detrimental to my building for this year.”
As a result, Deal said he pushed himself both on and off the field following the bowl victory over USC. He got into the playbook, trying to get a better grasp of the concepts and calls to expand his versatility. A year ago, Wisconsin relied on Ogunbowale to run outside the tackle and for Deal to be the bruiser between the tackles.
A year ago Deal’s longest carry was 17 yards. Working with the strength and conditioning staff, Deal focused on making strong cuts and increasing his top end speed. Add the strength he felt he added to his lower body, Deal gives the look of a player who can be more than just a situational bruiser for the offense.
“I’m just continuing to look forward to learn the offense, get comfortable and get out in the open field and show what I can do,” Deal said. “I want to be more of a forceful runner.”
A year after Wisconsin had only one tailback be healthy for all 13 games, the Badgers’ depth in the backfield could be promising in 2016 should Deal continue to elevate his game.
“He’s put himself in the conversation,” Settle said. “He’s a totally different player than he was at any time last year. He’s played for a season, he knows it and now he can just cut it loose and play. I think (that) give him an edge. He’s attacking it. He’s excited, and he’s not making those little mistakes he made last year.”