Though the University of Wisconsin football team has only played one game so far this season, it is pretty clear replacing two-time Doak Walker Award winner and All-American running back Jonathan Taylor is a tall task.
Taylor, who left the Badgers to pursue a career in the National Football League after the 2019-20 college football season, was a second-round pick by the Indianapolis Colts after leading Wisconsin to a 31-10 record during his three seasons in Madison.
Replacing a record-setting running back is something Wisconsin has done in the past with the stars that have come and gone in the backfield for the Badgers, including Ron Dayne, Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon.
These names of the past have helped the program cement themselves at the top of a lot of RBU rankings, but they will be looking for the next star to lead the running attack going forward.
If Wisconsin’s opening game blowout win against the Illinois Fighting Illini was a sign for what is to come, the Badgers will have standout redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz handing the ball off to a trio of tailbacks looking to prove themselves as the lead back.
This trio includes sophomore Nakia Watson, redshirt sophomore Isaac Guerendo and senior Garrett Groshek. These three combined for 168 rushing yards on 43 attempts for an average of 3.9 yards per carry against Illinois. For reference, in his Wisconsin career, Taylor averaged 150 yards per game on the ground and 6.7 yards per attempt in three full seasons.
It is a small sample size, but so far none of the running backs who saw playing time for Head Coach Paul Chryst’s team in week one proved to be the one-man show that Taylor was during his spectacular college career. This may change over time in this unique, shortened season, so let’s take a look at who could emerge as an imposing figure in the backfield.
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Watson is a second-year player out of Austin, TX where he played for Westlake High School. He had a successful high school career in Texas, becoming a first-team all-state player and a three-star recruit, according to 247Sports.
Watson saw playing time last year in his true freshman season in relief of Taylor and was able to post some solid stats. He rushed for 331 yards on 74 attempts for an average of 4.5 yards per carry, adding two touchdowns.
Against Illinois this season, Watson received the most carries with 19 and totaled 62 yards, gaining 3.3 yards per carry — a mark that is over a yard below his average from last season. Based off of the allocation of carries Watson received against Illinois, he looks to be Chryst’s top choice for a reliable first- and second-down running back.
As for Groshek, a former walk-on, he totaled the most total yards out of the backfield for the Badgers in week one. Groshek carried the ball 13 times for 70 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
Groshek, a Wisconsin native, also added four catches for 29 yards against Illinois, proving his reliability in the passing game and versatility as an all-around running back. Groshek looks to be a great option for the Badgers on third down and screen plays out of the backfield, giving him an opportunity to run after the catch in the open field.
The third running back who saw action in week one was Guerendo. Guerendo is a third-year player who has not seen much game action so far in his career.
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He was originally recruited as a three-star wide receiver, according to 247Sports, but switched positions once in Madison. Last season, Guerendo rushed the ball once for a single yard and caught one pass for three yards in Wisconsin’s Rose Bowl appearance against the Oregon Ducks. He also showed his athleticism on an impressive 56-yard kick return in the regular-season finale against Minnesota.
Though Guerendo has seen limited action so far in his career for the Badgers, 2020 could serve as a great opportunity to prove his value and earn a fair share of carries from the backfield going forward.
All in all, Chryst has options when it comes to selecting his primary running back for the remainder of the season.
With redshirt freshman sensation Mertz under center and the passing attack looking as good as it has in years, the Badgers may not need to rely on the running game as much as they did during Taylor’s three record-setting years in Madison, but it is important for the offense to offer some variety in order for Wisconsin to compete with college football’s powerhouse programs.