The University of Wisconsin football program is a lot of things — one of them happens to be really good at producing star running backs. For most of the past three decades the Badgers have pounded the ball on the ground and done it with style, flair and pure muscle as well.
From Brent Moss to Terrell Fletcher in the early Alvarez era, to Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne and underrated Anthony Davis in the mid-Alvarez era, to the three-headed monsters of P.J. Hill, John Clay and Montee Ball to another three-headed monster in Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon — Wisconsin has produced some of the best running backs in college football since 1990.
Those are but a few of the 1,000-yard rushers the Badgers have turned out in earning the moniker of “Running Back U.” Even in the modern era with multiple coaching changes, little has changed for the Badgers premier skill position.
Melvin Gordon, who nearly broke the unbreakable single-season rushing record, was supposed to pass the baton off to Corey Clement in 2015. Instead, injuries and an off-campus apartment fight derailed that idea. Instead, the near 1,000-yard back in 2014 will get a redo in 2016.
However, if there was anything that the 2015 season showed us, it was the value of a stable of quality running backs. Wisconsin was simply young, inexperienced and mediocre at the position in 2015.
Sure, an inexperienced and oft-changing offensive line didn’t help, but there simply was nothing special to the group we saw take the field without Corey Clement.
Dare Ogunbowale is a serviceable back, gaining 819 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015. However, it was just the third time in the past 20 years the Badgers failed to produce a 1,000-yard running back.
There was hope for the future in Tawain Deal, but his season was just getting going when he got injured and he ended up playing in just 10 games total. He gained 503 yards and had five touchdowns on the season, but that’s a far cry from what UW fans have been accustomed to in the past.
Wisconsin simply proved it was no longer plug-and-play at the biggest of spotlight positions on the team.
It also meant that recruiting in the 2016 cycle, Chryst and Co.’s first crack at a full recruiting cycle at Wisconsin, would have to revolve around upgrading the talent pool at the position.
The Badgers thought they had it all under control, locking in 4-star running back Antonio Williams over a year ago and keeping him in the fold even after Gary Andersen’s staff left. However, the one-time North Carolina commit was always enamored with the process and Wisconsin was nearly caught flat-footed by the proposition of Williams taking an official visit to Ohio State.
It all led to Williams and Wisconsin agreeing to part ways before he took the visit to the Buckeyes. Not long after he was a member of the OSU 2016 recruiting class and the Badgers, needing at least one (and as it would stand later, two) running back in the class, had none.
Since then the Badgers have thrown as wide a net as humanly possible, including names like Kyle Porter, Kareem Walker, George Hill and others. Hill and Walker, both former Ohio State commits listened and quickly went elsewhere. Hill may have been the craziest of the situation, as Wisconsin was in the mix but were out done by Pitt of all schools.
Porter, a 4-star prospect out of Katy, Texas, was giving serious consideration to the Badgers — however that isn’t happening anymore either. He was scheduled for a visit to Wisconsin for the final weekend before national signing day, but recent reports indicate he will be sticking closer to home with a visit that weekend to Arkansas.
That’s three other 4-star recruits, and just the tip of the iceberg since Williams’ decommitment.
It’s also plans B, C, D, E, F and G, indicating to many that the Badgers really were caught flat-footed in the case of Williams’ decommitment. That’s not good news and now the Badgers are left scrambling to fill not just one, but two spots in the backfield.
With Clement gone no matter what after next season and Ogunbowale also gone, that leaves just Tawain Deal and Bradrick Shaw for the future of the backfield right now.
Options are dwindling and it appears Wisconsin is continuing to slow-play the position. Perhaps part of it is waiting on one option they’ve always liked — Brandon Stephens. The 3-star running back is currently committed to Stanford, but that status depends on his latest test scores according to reports.
Who else is on the Badgers’ radar then? Try Sam Brodner (Glen Elyn, Ill.), Khalil Herbert (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), Connell Young (Greensboro, N.C.) and Kameron Pickett (Suwanee, Ga.).
Brodner is likely the next in line for an offer, and it may be a matter of when not if he gets it.
Pickett has somehow flown under the radar, but Wisconsin believes it is in good position to steal him late in the process because so few big programs are sniffing around him.
It’s fine to go after the hidden gem or the guy who has high upside if you’re loaded at running back, but that’s simply not the case with the 2016 and beyond Wisconsin Badgers.
Maybe Wisconsin finds that gem and he turns in to a diamond early in his career, but that’s asking an awful lot.
Maybe Wisconsin wins the transfer for former Pitt running back Chris James, but that doesn’t solve the immediate issue and James will only have a few seasons to produce at Wisconsin — if he even gets in.
When we look back at the Paul Chryst era and what either went right or wrong — don’t be surprised to see its recruiting efforts at running back in this class as a turning point. Either the Badgers get lucky late and become loaded at the position or they struggle and lean on a passing game like never before.
Given UW’s history at running back, no matter what happens it has simply been mind boggling that the Badgers continue to strike out at the position it is best known for churning out talent at. It is also frightening for the future of this program.