Wisconsin Badgers beat writer Jesse Temple will be analyzing the 30 most important players to the Badgers’ success in the 2015 season. Check back each weekday to see the latest player on the list.
Note: This is not a list of the team’s 30 best players or a series about past success, but rather which of them means the most to how Wisconsin will fare this year. Criteria such as depth at that player’s position, general expectations and overall importance of that player having a good season are all highly considered. The list does not include incoming freshmen because their potential impact is unknown at this time.
No. 19 — Taiwan Deal, running back
Why he’s No. 19
Deal hasn’t recorded a carry in a college football game yet, but he proved during spring practice why he could be such a valuable commodity next season. He is a punishing downhill running back who can grind in short-yardage situations or generally wear down a defense in combination with Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale.
Ogunbowale will enter fall camp as the No. 2 tailback on the depth chart behind Clement. It’s quite possible, however, that Deal could eclipse Ogunbowale — a converted defensive back who served as the third-string tailback last season.
Expectations for 2015
There was no question Deal closed the gap on Ogunbowale for the backup tailback spot as spring progressed. Deal had a lot to learn last season in his first year with the program. And an injury, which forced him to take a redshirt season, may have been the best thing for him. Now, he’s become a more consistent force.
During the team’s spring game, Deal carried 15 times for 76 yards.
"I thought Taiwan to me had a couple runs where he showed really good patience and his vision," Badgers head coach Paul Chryst said afterward. "As he gets more comfortable with the offense and maybe with himself, too, that’ll help. I thought overall he had a really good spring from where he started to how he finished."
Deal said he had improved significantly as a running back, particularly when it came to lowering his pad level, squaring up on defenders and running through tackles. He also has added muscle and said he weighed roughly 225 pounds — up from the 216 pounds he was listed at last season. His increased patience and understanding of the game could make him quite a weapon next season.
"My vision has gotten a lot better because I sit in the film room, I watch film and I learn where the offensive line is going to block," Deal said. "I’ve got a feel for the offense."
Clement said he noticed the ways in which Deal had shown a better ability to grasp concepts, as well, especially because Deal has grown comfortable enough to ask running backs coach John Settle for help — something Deal did not necessarily do consistently with former tailbacks coach Thomas Brown during his redshirt season.
"He’s not really the silent mouse that we all knew Taiwan for," Clement said. "Coach Brown would actually pick on Taiwan just to actually get him to talk because coach would always ask, ‘Is there any questions?’ And then he’d go on the field, mess something up. He asked you if there were any questions, but now he’s actually taking more of a consideration as to value a resource of who coach Settle is to us."
Deal noted his newfound comfort level was a result of confidence in himself and the coaches.
"This new coaching staff, they’re just so personal with the players," Deal said. "I feel I can walk up to any of the offensive coaches and ask them, ‘Hey, what did I do wrong on this play? How do I do this in certain situations?’ I just feel a lot more comfortable with this coaching staff. I appreciate that."
What would they do without him?
Deal looks as though he’ll be a vital asset to Wisconsin’s running game, as the Badgers try to find players to fill the void left behind by Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon. Gordon carried the ball twice as much as any other running back last season, and the carries should be distributed more evenly this year. Clement averaged 10.5 carries per game in a backup role a year ago, so it stands to reason UW’s backup tailback this year could earn around the same. Whether that’s Deal or Ogunbowale remains to be seen.
There is also the possibility incoming freshman Jordan Stevenson could grasp the college game quicker than some expect, which would add to the crowded backfield. Still, it seems difficult to think a healthy Deal won’t be involved plenty in 2015.