After being spoiled year after year with NFL-caliber running back talent in the Badger backfield, Wisconsin fans should expect a change in pace this season. Instead of featuring a primary “Bell-Cow” backfield where teams rely on one running back to carry the load, like Jonathan Taylor over the past three seasons, Wisconsin could shift toward running by committee next season.
This year’s backfield features a deep running back class with no true standout. Though familiar faces in Nakia Watson and Garrett Groshek are no Jonathan Taylor, those two backs, along with others, bring something unique to the table and can complement each other on the field, which will help fill the mammoth void of replacing the two-time Doak Walker Award winner.
Projected Starter — Nakia Watson (Redshirt Sophomore)
With 74 touches in the 2019 season, Watson showed glimpses of his potential. But, Watson could improve his vision and his ability to read blocks. Though he received the second-highest amount of touches last season, 34 of those were in non-conference play.
Watson saw the most action during the Sept. 7 showdown against Michigan and struggled, only tallying 13 carries for 31 yards — 2.4 yards per carry. The 5-foot-11-inch, 225-pound back proved his patience and second-level speed in his game against Central Michigan. With about 8:40 left in the second quarter, Watson took a handoff from quarterback Jack Coan and ran an off-tackle zone run that was quickly snuffed out by the Central Michigan linebackers. Instead of fighting for one or two extra yards, Watson waited inside, found a hole to run, and exploded to the outside for a 23-yard gain.
As the leading returning rusher, expect Watson to get the majority of carries this season.
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Projected No. 2 Back — Garrett Groshek (Redshirt Senior)
Through three full seasons with the Badgers, Groshek has proved he can do it all. Whether it be rushing, receiving, blocking or even throwing the ball, Groshek is a guy on the Badgers that will get it done.
With 42 carries for 194 rushing yards last season, Groshek was primarily used as the third-down back and pass-catcher. Groshek is a great pass blocker and was used often for passing plays, where he caught 29 passes for 289 receiving yards. Wisconsin also used Groshek in the screen game, fooling defenses into thinking he was picking up pressure and then slipping out of the backfield into daylight.
Groshek’s receiving abilities were displayed in the Nov. 30 game against Minnesota. With a ticket to the Big Ten Championship game on the line, Groshek fooled the defense and followed his blockers downfield for a 70-yard screen pass early in the fourth quarter. As the veteran of the Wisconsin backfield, Groshek’s role will likely be similar next season, with increased touches in-between the tackles on earlier downs.
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No. 3 — Isaac Guerendo (Redshirt Sophomore)
Though Guerendo is not familiar to the common fan, he may turn some heads next season. After originally coming to Madison as a wide receiver, Guerendo has battled through position changes and multiple injuries that rattled the earlier parts of his career.
During the final few games of the season, Guerendo was given more chances on the field. Guerendo displayed his speed and size — his two best features — against Minnesota. On a reverse kick return, Guerendo got loose for a 49-yard return in a crucial game. Next season, expect his role in the backfield and on special teams to get expanded even further, as the Badgers will want to maximize his potential.
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No. 4 — Julius Davis (Redshirt Freshman)
Davis should see playing time in some form next season, but what that will look like is up in the air at this point.
While touches are basically up for grabs, Davis could work his way up during the summer and fall camps, but it is hard to see how Davis will get an extended role given how cluttered the backfield already is.
A powerful runner known for his ability to shake tackles, an injury suffered in high school derailed his freshman year in which he saw no playing time. His HUDL highlight tape shows his limitless potential as Davis consistently runs through multiple defenders, brushes off a few others then bursts downfield for a score, game in and game out.
While next year won’t be a breakout year for Davis, that does not mean his time will never come in Madison. His future is far too bright.
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No. 5 — Jalen Berger (Freshman)
The 6-foot-0-inch, 190-pound four-star recruit who committed to Madison this year is still undeclared on whether or not he will be receiving a redshirt to gain another year of eligibility.
The pro to Berger receiving the redshirt is that this season, he can still fully practice with the team and get minimal playing time, while still gaining a year of eligibility.
Berger’s commitment to Wisconsin adds another strong running back to Wisconsin’s New Jersey pipeline, following Taylor’s lead. Expect to see Berger during the final drives of games, getting touches and learning the college speed.