Wisconsin’s template for success on the field has always been to play strong defense and run the ball effectively. The 2017 season may have been the height of that due to a number of different things, especially the group of running backs.
At the beginning of the season, many thought that running backs Chris James and Bradrick Shaw would shoulder the load of Wisconsin’s rushing attack. James followed coach Paul Chryst to Wisconsin from Pittsburgh and sat out the 2016 season due to NCAA rules. Shaw saw action in 11 games as a redshirt freshman and was productive. He rushed for 457 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Wisconsin looked to be in a good place at the running back position.
Then, Jonathan Taylor emerged onto the scene.
Taylor saw action in the season opening game against Utah State in a reserve role. He had 9 carries for a team-high 87 yards and a touchdown. He never looked back, starting the remaining 12 games and becoming one of the country’s most explosive running backs.
Taylor finished the season with 1,847 yards and 13 touchdowns as a freshman. He was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the country’s top running back. Taylor also finished in sixth-place in the voting for the Heisman Trophy.
Taylor was able to set the record for the most times that a player was awarded the Big Ten Freshman of the Week. He was an 8-time recipient, eclipsing Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett’s previous record that was set in 2014. Taylor also won the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week twice.
While the backfield primarily belonged to Taylor, both James and Shaw were able to contribute during the season, although both missed time due to injuries.
Shaw was the opening day starter, and he finished the year with 96 carries for 365 yards and scored three touchdowns. He missed two games due to a leg injury that ruled him out for the season.
James played in 7 games, racking up 217 yards on 39 carries on the season. He didn’t start, but did cross the 100-yard mark against Florida Atlantic early in the season.
Another back to step up to the plate was walk-on Garrett Groshek. The former high school quarterback transitioned to running back during his redshirt season in 2016. He then saw action in all 13 games during the 2017 season. While much of his time was spent on special teams, he did contribute in the backfield with 57 carries for 294 yards and reached the end zone twice.
Wisconsin also utilized senior Rachid Ibrahim in obvious passing situations. He, like James, transferred to Wisconsin from Pittsburgh where he played under Chryst in 2013-14. For Wisconsin, he did a terrific job of protecting quarterback Alex Hornibrook in passing situations. He played in 12 games, totaling 31 touches for 183 yards on the year.
Taylor was the star of the backfield and rightfully so. He was one of the best backs in the country all year long. It will certainly be interesting to see how he improves as he grows older and matures at Wisconsin. A full offseason in the strength and conditioning program at Wisconsin could elevate him to an even higher level.
GRADE: A – Taylor was historically good as a freshman. His only issue was putting the ball on the ground from time to time. With all the other good he did that’s something that can be looked past for the time being. The rest of the group did a good job when Taylor wasn’t in the game, but there’s no doubt who the star is.