Perhaps earlier than expected, Taiwan Deal emerged as a vital piece to the University of Wisconsin football team’s backfield last season.
The then-redshirt freshman was called upon to take a larger role during Corey Clement’s injury-riddled season, providing a 147-yard performance in a win over Hawaii, scoring multiple touchdowns in three games and giving UW a solid option in short-yardage situations.
It’s what Deal’s done off the field since then, though, that could give the 6-foot-1, 217-pound bruiser an opportunity for a larger role in 2016.
“Last year, I just only knew the basics of a lot of things we did,” Deal said. “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.”
The development of Deal and Dare Ogunbowale, who switched from cornerback to running back in 2014, gives UW a deep backfield that will run behind what the Badgers hope is a much-improved and more experienced offensive line than a year ago.
A healthy Clement has the talent to be one of the most productive running backs in the country, and Ogunbowale proved his value last year in third-down situations by excelling in pass protection and catching the ball out of the backfield.
Adding Deal to the regular rotation will allow UW to keep Clement’s legs fresh and give the Badgers another short-yardage option.
Deal said he had a fantastic period of winter conditioning before spring ball began in March and has built both strength and speed from last season.
“The way he’s running the ball behind his pads, he’s been physical,” UW running backs coach John Settle said. “Last year, people would swipe at his heels, he’d go down. He’s gotten stronger in the weight room, and you can see it in practice that he does a better job of running through tackles, running through arm tackles, picking his feet up in traffic.
“Right now, he’s putting himself in a position to be in that mix, and he’s just got to continue to mentally get stronger and grow.”
Along with the presumed top three backs, redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw has also looked ready to contribute over the past couple weeks.
In a full-contact scrimmage April 9, he made what was probably the most impressive play by any running back this spring when he stiff-armed a cornerback, made another defender miss and tight-roped the sideline for a 25-yard touchdown against the first-team defense.
“I’m getting a little bigger right now and a little faster,” Shaw said. “Redshirting really helped me out a lot because I got to concentrate on my footwork and my steps and my blocking has improved a little bit since I’ve been (at UW).”
Shaw may make it difficult for Settle to leave him out of the rotation, although the coach said it would be a challenge to get reps for more than three players.
It’s a good problem to have — one UW certainly didn’t heading into last season — and Settle said he believes Shaw could still earn a role in the fall.
“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.”