MADISON, Wis. — If you want to know how revered Wisconsin’s running backs are nationally, look at the 2017 preseason Doak Walker Award watch list, which includes two Badgers tailbacks who combined to carry the ball 88 times last season.
While the inclusion may serve as an indictment on preseason watch lists as a whole, it also speaks to how high expectations are for Bradrick Shaw and Chris James. Only six FBS programs landed teammates on the list for nation’s best tailback, and perhaps no duo has more to prove this season than Shaw and James. After all, Shaw was a third-string tailback at Wisconsin last season. James played on the Badgers’ scout team while sitting out after transferring from Pittsburgh.
Now, those two players will be among the most important on a team with Big Ten title and College Football Playoff aspirations. They also happen to be locked in one of the most intriguing position battles remaining, with no clear front-runner as Wisconsin’s preseason practices churn into its second week.
While Shaw and James continue to compete for the starting spot, both are ready to finally showcase their talent on the biggest stage and demonstrate why many believe the Badgers backfield will be dominant.
As a redshirt freshman last season, Shaw was behind Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale. He earned only limited opportunities, but he took advantage when coaches inserted him into the game. Shaw carried 19 times for a career-high 80 yards with a touchdown in a victory against Illinois. He followed that performance with 2 touchdowns on only 8 carries against Purdue. By the time the season ended, Shaw had rushed for 457 yards on 88 carries with 5 touchdowns and averaged a solid 5.2 yards per attempt to position himself for a potential featured tailback role in 2017.
“I think I’m well prepared for it,” Shaw said this week. “I’ve been waiting on the moment. Last year I knew I always had a chance. I always thought of myself as the underdog, so I knew I had to work. I think in the fourth quarter or early in the game, I can do well getting those carries. In high school, I prepared for getting those carries. So I feel like I’m ready.”
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Shaw has put the offseason time into becoming a more complete tailback — someone Badgers running backs coach John Settle can rely on for third down as a pass protector and route runner, if necessary. Thus far, Settle has been impressed with the improvements Shaw has made.
“If you’re going to play a Big Ten schedule, physically he’d better be ready to take a pounding,” Settle said. “He’s worked hard in the offseason to build his body up. The thing I like about him is he runs behind his pads. We’re trying to do some things with him in the pass game. He took it upon himself to learn all the protections so he could play all three downs if he wanted to. I don’t know if we’ll use him in all three phases, but the fact that he’s able to do that increases his chances of being on the field.”
James, too, has waited for his turn in the spotlight. As a freshman at Pitt in 2014, he was the Panthers’ top reserve running back and played in 13 games with 437 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns. But James Connor was Pitt’s star tailback and earned Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year honors that season. In 2015, Qadree Ollison supplanted James on the depth chart. Ollison rose from third-string tailback to an All-ACC performer, while James ranked fourth on his own team in rushing yards.
The 5-10, 219-pound James transferred to Wisconsin and reunited with Paul Chryst, who coached him in his freshman season at Pitt. This fall, James isn’t spending much time fretting about how the starting job shakes out, even though he has been angling for it since he arrived on campus.
“One thing I’ve learned is that sometimes you’ve just got to buy in and really try to focus on being more of a team player,” James said. “I know how fast things change throughout the season. I’ve seen guys be the starter in the first game. Come towards the middle of the season, they’re second, third, barely playing at all. I’m just trying to trust the coaches and see where it is. I don’t know too much. I know just as much as you guys do. There’s some days when I start. Some days he starts. So you really don’t know.”
James said the first couple weeks of practice are not always a good indicator of the way a competition is headed because it doesn’t factor in how a running back would perform at full speed. Players aren’t generally tackled, and the holes that would develop in real-time during a game aren’t the same.
“As far as skill and talent, I would say we’re both about equal,” James said. “The only thing that makes a difference I guess is more of instincts or experience. I’ve played in more college games than Bradrick has played in. Me and him have different instincts. Sometimes I can see something happening before it happens, I put my foot in the ground and make a play. There’s some things he sees sometimes, too.”
Shaw and James have rotated plays and series with the first-team offense early in fall camp. Last Thursday, for example, Shaw played the first snap in a “move the ball” drill. James took the next two reps before Shaw entered the drill again. On Saturday, Shaw routinely ran on first and second down, while James was Wisconsin’s third-down tailback. Reserves Taiwan Deal and Rachid Ibrahim also have factored into the equation in smaller roles thus far.
Asked whether Shaw would be Wisconsin’s starting running back if the season began next week, Settle replied, “not necessarily.”
“I think right now [James] probably gives you the best chance of going out and starting a game and being effective,” Settle said. “Right now those guys are going in as we alternate series.”
Settle said Shaw’s early-down reps were not indicative of how the season will play out. Instead, Settle wanted to provide Shaw with more opportunities because he already knows what James is capable of.
“Physically, he’s put together,” Settle said of James. “I think with his running style, he’s able to avoid taking a direct hit. That’s one thing he’s shown in the spring. As we go forward, I think he’ll continue to play behind his pads, use his quickness to his advantage. He’ll be able to get out of a lot of things.”
Given the value each player brings to the offense, the possibility remains that Shaw and James could demand an equal number of carries as the season progresses. The most recent approximation to that scenario at Wisconsin came in 2013, when Badgers running backs James White and Melvin Gordon shared carries. White finished the season with 221 rushing attempts, while Gordon had 206, as the pair combined for 3,053 yards on the ground and 25 rushing touchdowns.
That season also marked the last time Wisconsin placed two candidates on the preseason Doak Walker Award watch list. Anything close to that level of production this season will be deemed a success for Shaw and James, both of whom await their breakout moments.
“If you have two good guys, you’d like to be able to do that,” Settle said of splitting reps. “Keep them both fresh throughout the Big Ten schedule. But you guys know me. I’m going to ride the guy that’s hot. So if one guy ends up carrying the bulk of the load, then that’s the way it’ll shake out. Once the season starts, we’re going to play to win.
“Right now, it’s 50-50 for evaluation. But as the season starts and we get closer to the season, to game time, we’ll start preparing and practicing that way.”
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