The announcement was made, and Taiwan Deal tried to keep a straight face.
It wasn’t easy. The University of Wisconsin football team was huddling at the end of Tuesday’s practice when Badgers coach Gary Andersen grabbed Deal’s helmet and removed the narrow black stripe from it.
The message was clear: After two-plus weeks of camp, Deal had finally done enough to show the coaching staff and team leaders he belonged.
“I was kind of surprised,” said Deal, a freshman tailback from Capitol Heights, Maryland. “I didn’t want to smile. I didn’t want to show emotion. I just wanted to go up there and say thank you.”
Deal admitted it wasn’t easy to watch several other first-year players get their stripes removed before him. However, he’s also the first to admit he hadn’t done enough to earn that rite of passage during a grueling opening two weeks that left his eyes wide open at times.
“I knew it was going to be a challenge, I just didn’t think it was going to be this challenging,” said Deal, who was the Maryland Gatorade Player of the Year last season after rushing for 1,200 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior at DeMatha High School. “It’s a big step up. It’s college football.”
A lot has been thrown at Deal since camp opened on Aug. 4. In addition to learning a new system, he’s had to change his approach to the game. Reading blocks are more important at this level, as is footwork.
“In high school, it’s kind of a one-hole thing where you’re going to run to that one side and it’s going to be open,” Deal said. “You’ve just got to stay positive and keep going. Some plays are busted. You miss some holes, you make wrong reads, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to take what you can get and keep running forward. Don’t try to get 10 yards every play, to get two to five yards, anything positive.”
Getting Deal up to speed in a hurry was crucial because the Badgers may need him. He’s one of four scholarship tailbacks on the roster, and fellow freshman Caleb Kinlaw has been slowed by an injury.
A year ago, UW had a dynamic 1-2 punch in James White and Melvin Gordon, who combined for 3,053 yards on 427 carries. The Badgers rarely needed to call upon third-stringer Corey Clement, but the true freshman finished with 555 yards, seven touchdowns and an eye-popping average of 8.2 yards per carry.
UW likely wouldn’t have missed a beat if White or Gordon had gotten hurt because Clement was ready to step into an expanded role. The coaching staff would like the same luxury this season with Deal should anything happen to Gordon or Clement, the new two-headed monster in the backfield.
“He’s a big back with small-guy feet,” Gordon said of the 6-foot, 216-pound Deal. “He’s got fast feet, and I don’t think he knows how good he really is.
“He’s just got to learn how to push himself. Obviously, the coaches are asking a lot more of him because it’s just me and Corey right now and we need another guy. We need three running backs.
“So (running backs coach Thomas Brown) is asking a lot of him, and as a freshman it’s rough, especially as a running back. I think once he gets that, the sky’s the limit.”
Gordon is serving as Deal’s “Big Brother,” and, in that role, had a say of when the time was right to remove the stripe from Deal’s helmet. He was asked what Deal was struggling with more — the mental aspect of the game or the physical part.
“It’s just pushing past being tired. That’s what it is,” Gordon said. “We’ve all had excess reps. We had to push through it. Mentally, it was tough, but it had to be done.
“Once he realizes that and pushes past that wall that he’s hit, he’ll be great.”
Gordon also wondered whether the lack of competition for the No. 3 tailback spot affected Deal. Kinlaw is a promising prospect, but he had offseason surgery and was limited in practice the first two weeks. Kinlaw played in Monday’s scrimmage and looked good in the portion of it open to the media, but he left Tuesday’s practice with an unspecified injury.
Does Gordon think Deal took his place for granted a bit with Kinlaw being out? “Probably,” Gordon said, “just knowing that the third spot is automatically given to you.”
The good news for the Badgers is Deal has shown signs of late that he’s earned the spot rather than it being handed to him by default.
“I think Taiwan is just getting used to Division I football and being a running back,” Andersen said following Monday’s scrimmage. “It’s a hard position. It’s a physical offense. There’s a lot that goes into it, from learning it to the physicality to running the power play and the stretch and the zones, pass protections. He seems to me (like) he’s gained momentum.”
Deal admitted this entire process has been humbling. He’s also smart enough to understand that while the black stripe is gone, his sense of urgency can’t disappear with it.
“I’m proud of myself,” Deal said, “but I feel like I still have to work hard and accomplish things.”