MADISON, Wis. — Running back Rachid Ibrahim had only one more crack at playing a college football season when he left Pittsburgh as a fifth-year graduate transfer. And with such a small window to play, Ibrahim knew he needed to make his decision count.
That Ibrahim ultimately picked Wisconsin, a program loaded with four other running backs capable of playing ahead of him, might seem like an unusual choice. But Ibrahim was motivated to become a Badger for two reasons: relationships and a promise that he’d be given an opportunity.
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and running backs coach John Settle all had worked with Ibrahim in their previous stop at Pitt. That shared history led Chryst to call Ibrahim this offseason with the Badgers in need of another quality tailback.
“He said, ‘We could use a back like you,’ ” Ibrahim recalled. ” ‘We obviously love what you did for us at Pitt. You’ll have an opportunity to come here and compete.’ I took that as a challenge and felt good about it. I decided to come here. Nothing was promised. He said he’d find me an opportunity to get here, and he did. I appreciate that, and I can’t thank him enough.”
It took five games into the season, but Ibrahim finally earned the opportunity he craved. On Saturday, he carried 7 times for 51 yards during Wisconsin’s 38-17 victory against Nebraska because teammate Chris James suffered a left leg injury. Before the game, Ibrahim had carried 14 times for 51 yards in four games total.
Ibrahim could play an important role in the running game again this Saturday, when No. 7 Wisconsin (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) plays host to Purdue (3-2, 1-1) at 2:30 p.m. CT at Camp Randall Stadium. James is listed as questionable with his injury, and Ibrahim is the next man up to fulfill the Badgers’ third-down running back spot.
“If somebody asks me what position I play, I don’t say I’m a third-down back,” Ibrahim said. “I say I’m a running back. Obviously, I love running the ball, but I take pride in protecting, some of the stuff that people don’t see. They don’t see if you get a chip block on third down and help the tackle secure the protection. They don’t see when you run through the B gap and you run a check down to consume the middle backer and open up a big route behind you. They don’t see stuff like that.
“Yeah, I take pride in that a lot because the outside people don’t notice those little things. But in our room and this building, everybody notices, ‘Oh, somebody helped make that play happen.’ That’s really a big thing.”
When Ibrahim arrived on campus in June, there were no guarantees he would have much of a role at all. James and Bradrick Shaw had competed for the starting spot during spring camp. Taiwan Deal was returning from offseason ankle surgery, and coaches were eager to see what talented freshman Jonathan Taylor could do in fall camp.
But Ibrahim quietly went to work and established himself as a contributor on special teams and a potential third-down running back. Badgers left tackle Michael Deiter said he noticed Ibrahim during the first few practices of fall camp because he was constantly in the right place on protections or moving out on his route for a check-down.
“For him to come here knowing, ‘I’m really going to have to work for this and this backfield isn’t a no-brainer,’ I think he’s been steady,” Rudolph said. “And you know what he’s done? He’s gotten better.”
When Deal sustained a right leg injury in fall camp, Ibrahim opened the season as the team’s No. 4 tailback. With James out for the second half against Nebraska, Ibrahim sprung into action.
“We kind of call him the human joystick a little bit,” said Taylor, who has moved up the depth chart and established himself as the starter ahead of Shaw and James. “He makes some crazy cuts, and he does it at practice. It’s just that much more exciting when he does it in a game. He’s just a real exciting player to watch.”
Ibrahim didn’t get his first carry until the third quarter Saturday, with the scored tied at 17-17. Six of his seven carries occurred in the fourth quarter. With Wisconsin leading just 24-17, Ibrahim took a carry 24 yards on second-and-7 from the Nebraska 39-yard line. The run helped set the stage for a Wisconsin touchdown that gave the Badgers a much-needed cushion. Later in the quarter, Ibrahim carried on four consecutive plays, converting two first downs in the red zone.
“He didn’t get a ton of work, but when he was in, he made it count,” Deiter said. “He made us right on some stuff. With the four guys we have, I think that’s special. We’ve got a lot of guys who run differently, but they run well. It’s just really fun to have those guys back there.”
Ibrahim began his career at Pittsburgh in 2013 and spent two seasons playing for Chryst. He appeared in 26 games during that span and served as a solid backup behind standout tailback James Conner, who was an All-American in 2014. Ibrahim carried 60 times for 399 yards and averaged 6.65 yards per carry. He also recorded 20 catches for 161 yards with 1 touchdown.
But Ibrahim suffered a torn Achilles tendon in fall camp before the 2015 season, missed the year and then did not see action in 2016 under second-year coach Pat Narduzzi. Ibrahim sought a fresh start but didn’t rush his next college destination after leaving Pitt in December. He visited Albany and said he also spoke to coaches at UConn, Virginia and Bowling Green.
He took a leap of faith on Wisconsin to reunite with familiar faces. And that decision has paid off for Ibrahim, who has impressed teammates and coaches in a short time.
“Rachid brings something to the running back room and to this team, whether he’s got the ball in his hands or not, whether he’s on the field or not,” Rudolph said. “I think he’s a great leader and a great communicator and a great worker and a great studier. Just a guy that truly understands how to handle his business and be a leader. He’s not a captain, but he leads because he leads by example, and he leads the guys around him.”
As Ibrahim approaches the back half of his final college season, he’ll continue to work without any guarantees about playing time from coaches. But, as he’s already shown this season, he’ll be ready for whatever opportunity arises.
“I’m always confident in myself,” Ibrahim said. “I feel good about any time Coach calls my name that I can go in there and help them out immediately and there won’t be any let-off. That’s really how we feel in our room that whoever’s number is called, there’s not going to be a let-off. There’s going to be plays made.”
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