What the future holds: 2018 RB preview

Jonathan Taylor put up video game-like numbers as a freshman. The New Jersey product ran for the most yards by a true freshman in NCAA history on his way to finishing sixth in the Heisman Trophy vote and being a finalist for the Doak Walker Award. He did it all while helping his team to a 13-1 record and an Orange Bowl championship. How exactly do you improve on that?

“You’ve always got to expect to get better. You never expect anything less. You don’t want to stay the same. You don’t want to be any less,” Taylor said this spring. “You definitely have to expect to be better than last year.”

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Improving on last year isn’t simply a numbers game. Getting to or surpassing his freshman total of 1,977 yards would be a remarkable achievement. With Taylor last year, there have now been five running backs in Wisconsin history to hit 1,000 yards as a true or redshirt freshman. Only one, Anthony Davis in 2002, ran for more yards in his second season.

But that doesn’t mean Taylor won’t be better. For one, he’s now more familiar with the offense. If you remember, he went from fifth on the depth chart in the first 10 days of last August to the top of the depth chart by the time the season-opener rolled around. He didn’t get there based on his knowledge of Wisconsin’s scheme. Now, after a year under his belt, the speed in deciphering everyone’s role and how it impacts him is catching up to his obvious physical talents.

“This past season, [I] was out there taking a coaching point, playing, having fun. Now it’s about having more knowledge. Knowing what’s going on, being more aware,” Taylor said. “Showing that, doing that, will make me a better overall football player. That’s one thing that [running backs coach John] Settle [and] Coach [Paul] Chryst talk about. How can you become a better overall football player.”

Chryst took it upon himself this spring to help Taylor in becoming that better overall football player. During every practice, while most of the other players were going through special teams drills, Chryst was working with Taylor on his route running out of the slot and from the backfield.

“Part of being a better overall football player,” Taylor said, pointing back to a previous answer. “You want to be a complete back as much as you can.”

Wisconsin running backs combined for just 28 of the Badgers’ 204 completions in 2017, including 13 from the since graduated Austin Ramesh and Rachid Ibrahim. But Chryst has shown at different times in his career that he’s willing to get the running backs involved more. Dare Ogunbowale had 50 catches over his final two seasons in Madison, while Montee Ball and James White combined for 39 receptions, 456 yards and six touchdowns in 2011.

“I think it makes us all better because obviously they have to defend every guy, defend the entire field,” wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore said of getting the Taylor involved in the pass game. “I think it makes it that much easier for everybody. It’s just him adding another tool to his toolbox.”

The area where Taylor knows he needs to be better is ball security. He fumbled eight times last season and lost six of them. No running back in the country lost more.

“You can run for as many yards as you want, but if you’re fumbling [once every 36 carries], you’re not going to win any championship games,” Ball said during an appearance this week on “The Camp” podcast. “You won’t. Period.”

If Taylor does get his fumbling under control, he’s going to be the star of a Wisconsin offense poised for big things. It’s why he’s among the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy in 2018, something only two other Badgers have ever done. Taylor’s focus, though, remains fixated on the team itself.

“It definitely is still pretty cool being [a favorite]. But that’s one thing you have to not worry about,” Taylor said in the spring. “You have to worry about being a favorite to [your] team. [And be] worried about knowing that you’re guys know you’re going to go out and do your job every single play.”

Biggest question: Who’s the No. 2?

Taylor is clearly the No. 1 option for the Badgers, but who will earn the second-most carries for Wisconsin this fall? That’s something that will likely play itself out during camp and the first few weeks of the season.

Most would put their money on senior Chris James. The star of spring practice in 2017, injuries limited him for much of his junior year. After rushing for 101 yards against Florida Atlantic in Week 2, James would gain just 117 yards the rest of the season. But he also scored a vital touchdown in the Big Ten title game against Ohio State and wants to build on that success.

“I think I’ve shown a couple glimpses of what I can do, but I think I’m only scratching the surface,” James said in the spring.

The senior earned the third-down role before getting hurt last year, and that may be again where he can most help.

Past him, it’s a bit up in the air. Junior Bradrick Shaw, who had 365 yards last season, is coming off a torn ACL suffered in the regular season finale, and it’s unclear when he’ll be cleared to go. Sophomore Garrett Groshek, the biggest surprise contributor for Wisconsin in his first year, is also returning from offseason surgery. Senior Taiwan Deal is expected to be healthy when camp starts and could help if he’s able to stay on the field. Sophomore Sam Brodner flashed in the spring, his first live action since tearing the ACL in his left knee the previous April.

But the guy that has some buzz around him is Nakia Watson. A true freshman, the 6-foot, 226-pound Watson ran for 1,938 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior at Westlake (Austin, Texas) High School, which is in Class 6A, the highest division in Texas. Chryst brought Watson up without prompting on Signing Day, while Settle told Jesse Temple of The Athletic that the incoming freshman had been in constant contact with Taylor and believes he’s physically ready to play early.

They said it

“He took advantage of the opportunity, and you could say, ‘well, that could’ve been me,’ but the kid took advantage of opportunities. The kid is a baller. I’m glad he took advantage of the opportunity. If those guys went down, I would take advantage of the opportunity. That’s how you’ve got to look at it. And he’s earned it. There’s nothing against him. He’s definitely earned it, and it’s exciting to see that kid grow.”

— Chris James on Jonathan Taylor capitalizing when other running backs went down last fall

Our take

By the end of last season, everyone in the country knew who Jonathan Taylor was and it led to a big bullseye on his back. After an offseason full of recognition, that bullseye is just getting bigger. But that’s not a bad thing and it’s certainly not something that will rattle Taylor. His maturity is off the charts for a kid so young and he handles nearly everything that comes at him in a way most 19-year-olds don’t.

That said, Taylor would be better off not carrying the ball 299 times or more for a second straight season, especially if he’s going to be more involved in the passing game. So, Wisconsin needs someone step up in an effort to give the Badgers a 1-2 punch. Whether that’s James, Watson, Groshek, Deal or Shaw, it needs to happen.

Eye-opening stat

Fullback Alec Ingold is averaging a touchdown every 6.1 times he touches the ball. The senior, who will move into the starting lineup this fall, has 14 career touchdowns. That’s currently the most of any player on the roster.

Projected depth chart

Tailback
1) Jonathan Taylor (SO)
2) Chris James (SR)
3) Nakia Watson (FR)
4) Garrett Groshek (RS SO)
5) Taiwan Deal (SR)

Fullback
1) Alec Ingold (SR)

“The Camp” previews the RBs

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