Last season was certainly a let down at one of the premier positions for the Wisconsin Badgers – running back.
Between the lost season of expected star Corey Clement, an offensive line trying to find its identity and a very inexperienced group behind Clement, the Badgers struggled mightily to find a consistent run game all season long.
It led to UW ranking just 10th in the Big Ten in rushing offense (150.3 yards per game), a far cry from the powerful rushing attacks the Badgers have been known for over the past 25 years or so.
Heading in to 2016, finding the run game beyond Corey Clement was a huge priority for the coaching staff. Could redshirt sophomore Taiwan Deal step up his game? Would anyone else emerge to give the Badgers hope for the future at the position?
As the Badgers head in to the final week of spring camp, it appears those answers are yes, and yes.
With Clement seeing few carries to help protect his health, Deal has begun to emerge as a dangerous weapon in the Badgers backfield after a season that showed promise but was also full of inconsistencies.
He flashed moments of brilliance, like the 147-yard night against Hawaii and scoring multiple touchdowns in three games. There were also injury issues that plagued the later half of his season and Deal just simply wasn’t the same because of it. He also struggled with blitz pick ups at times and with going down too quickly upon any contact.
Deal ended last season rushing for 503 yards on 117 carries and had six touchdowns. Not bad numbers, but the potential for more production was certainly there for the taking.
If this spring is any indication, things are different for the DeMatha Catholic product though. He’s learned to pick his feet up more in the open field, avoiding the potential for easy ankle injuries and it has allowed him to be more explosive against arm tackles.
He’s also become a sponge, soaking up the offense and the coaching given him.
“Last year, I just only knew the basics of a lot of things we did,” Deal said, via Madison.com. “I think I’ve been maturing more, understanding the offense. Just basically growing up.
“Me coming out and showing them that I can play at a high level, compete, make minimum mistakes — that will ultimately give them more and more confidence in me as we progress forward.”
Most didn’t get a glimpse of Shaw last season, who was a late edition to the 2015 class and a bit of mystery outside of the locked-in recruiting person. However, he showed some raw potential and that has continued on to this spring.
He’s shown off some great strength, including perhaps the play of the spring so far. Shaw stiff-armed a cornerback, made another defender miss him and busted off a 25-yard touchdown run while tight-roping the sideline.
That explosiveness and individual ability in the open field was something badly missing from last season’s offense. It is also that kind of potential that may make it hard for the coaching staff to not make this a four-man rotation at times this fall.
Shaw has become somewhat of a “gamer” if you will, showing up the most when the drills end and the plays go live. That is something running backs coach John Settle notices and likes in the youngster.
“I like what Bradrick’s done to this point,” Settle said. “I always say he’s in that developmental stage coming out of last season, but he’s given himself a chance. Every time we’ve scrimmaged, every time we set the ball down and make it live, he makes plays. He’s certainly putting himself in position to be able to contribute something to us in the fall.”
What is perhaps most likely is that Shaw continues to develop on the bench and in spot duty during the non-conference games. Given the fact that the coaches are trusting all four members of the Badgers running back group, the present and future of this program appear to be trending up.
It’s a welcome thought after a season of inconsistency in the run game, and a huge help to what is one of the most difficult schedules in the country.
Let’s just see if we see that development extend to on the field in the annual spring game on Saturday.