Setting the Stage: Wisconsin lost two gifted tailbacks in graduation – a workhorse in Corey Clement and a change-of-pace back in Dare Ogunbowale, who was a threat off the draw and catching passes in the flat. The Badgers’ cupboard is far from bare, as UW has an emerging talent in redshirt sophomore Bradrick Shaw and junior Chris James, coming off a redshirt season following a transfer from Pittsburgh. The Badgers’ third tailback – Taiwan Deal – will miss the spring recovering from ankle surgery, opening up an opportunity for Sam Brodner coming off his redshirt year to get some work.
Player to Watch: Shaw
There weren’t many extra carries to be had with Clement and Ogunbowale playing in every conference game, but the redshirt freshman still found a way to make a sizable impact. Running for 136 yards on 24 carries (5.7 ypc) and a touchdown in nonconference play is one thing, but Shaw averaged 4.9 yards on 11 carries at Northwestern and 4.2 yards per carry on 19 carries against Illinois. In the conference title game, Shaw had 62 yards on 15 carries and appeared confident in playing the biggest game of his career. In his final six games Shaw averaged 5.1 yards and scored four touchdowns.
How will Shaw handle the main role? Since 2008, Wisconsin has been led in rushing by a sophomore-or-younger tailback only twice. It’s a sign that UW has had a lot of talented upperclassmen but also that it’s a demanding position for a younger player to grasp. He showed good ball security during his first season (fumbling only once) and good speed in the open field to break away from defenders. Shaw will get a heavy workload this spring and how he performs will determine where he sits on the depth chart at the beginning of fall.
Story Line to Watch: How multi-dimensional can James be?
James averaged 4.83 yards per carry in limited playing time during his two years at Pitt, but his most successful season was in 2014 (437 yards, four touchdowns) when head coach Paul Chryst, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and running back coach John Settle were his coaches. James only caught eight passes for the Panthers, but he has a skill set that could make him a passing target out of the backfield and open up playing time for him filling the role Ogunbowale had last season.
“We did some throwing this offseason and last year, too,” quarterback Alex Hornibrook said of James. “I like him in the pass game coming out of the backfield, and he’s got some speed and some hands to match it.”
At 5-10 and 216 pounds, James has the potential to be a bruiser between the tackles and a physical-imposing object to bring down in the open field.
“I think Chris has got a lot of physical skills that you like to have in a back,” Chryst said. “He’s got toughness and his ability to be a good inside runner, and he’s also got really good feet. This year, he’s progressed in some of the pass protection stuff, so the bowl prep, especially that early time, was really good for him — that group, he’s one of the group. I’m glad that he’s here.”
End-of-Spring Goal: Confidence in the Depth
Hornibrook said he feels really confident in Wisconsin’s backfield, throwing Deal into that conversation, too.
“We have guys, especially Taiwan and Bradrick, who have played, and Chris has played before also,” Hornibrook said. “There shouldn’t be that much of a turnover. I think we’ll be good.”
While it’s one thing to feel confident in players during winter conditioning and practice, it’s another to see it in magnified roles in large games. While the Badgers have every right to be excited by the Shaw-James duo, the fact of the matter is both are inexperienced in star roles in the UW offense. Good performances in scrimmages and the spring game – where they will receive a lot of carries - should ease some concerns heading to the fall, where the prime focus will be on how healthy and productive Deal will be.
Ingold and Ramesh will take the large majority of the reps at fullback and headline a number of packages, including UW’s goal line “jumbo package,” so it’ll be interesting to see where fifth-year senior Leon Jacobs will fit. Jacobs played more inside linebacker than originally planned because of the injuries that piled up at the position, but the plan was for him to return to fullback. How much did the constant switching last year hurt him? This spring will be important for him to carve out a niche.