For four seasons, Derek Watt opened holes for James White, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement. Working within three different types of offenses, he could act as the lead blocking fullback, and as a variation of a tight end off the line of scrimmage.
Watt played in 47 games with 24 starts as a fullback. He was part of an offense that set a school record for total offense at 480.8 yards per game in 2013, and was also useful in the passing game with 30 career receptions for 309 yards and a touchdown.
"Derek was a guy that had it all in one package," running backs coach John Settle said last month during fall camp.
Now, with Watt currently blocking for fellow former Badger Melvin Gordon with the San Diego Chargers, Wisconsin heads into its season opener against No. 5 LSU with three fullbacks— two of them converted from different positions—that will have to carry the torch of Watt and those before them. Each brings some different characteristics that can complement the offense in 2016.
The Green Bay, Wis. (Bay Port) native won the starting job over redshirt junior Austin Ramesh after fall camp and is listed as the No. 1 fullback. He transitioned from tailback, where he played in 10 games and scored six touchdowns last season in short-yardage situations.
The former prep state player of the year didn’t have much problem adding weight, as he is currently listed at 6’2, 238 pounds. Ingold worked at inside linebacker before his switch to offense last season, and Settle defined him as "tough" and having the ability to play both positions backfield.
"Ingold is more of a physical guy that can get his pads down, be physical blocking the linebackers," Settle said.
Ingold is making a similar transition to the one by former walk-on and team captain Bradie Ewing, who moved to fullback from tailback between the 2008 and 2009 seasons. It’s not just taking the ball and following your blockers, but rather knowing other players’ assignments.
It’s been an adjustment both physically and mentally for the true sophomore, whose locker is right next to Ramesh’s. Ingold mentioned both are good friends, and both admitted the position group pushed each other in fall camp to better themselves and, as a result, the offense.
"There’s a lot of verbiage you have to listen for in the huddle. You gotta know what everyone’s doing on a play," Ingold said. "You gotta work on your hands—pad level is a big thing. Blocking is definitely very new [to me], so just sustaining those blocks and being a lot more physical and being able to endure the physical play is the biggest difference."
Along with asking advice from Settle and the current stable of fullbacks, Ingold said Watt still gives feedback to his successors—even though the sixth-round draft pick is busy earning a roster spot with the Chargers.
"Whether it’s where my first step is, or who I should be reading on certain plays, he’s definitely an ear to listen to whenever I’m struggling or if I’m doing well," Ingold said. "He likes to give me feedback, and it’s cool to keep in contact with him."
Watt’s journey is similar to Ingold and Jacobs’s, as he transitioned from inside linebacker for the 2012 season.
Building a relationship with the players last season and in the spring, the NFL rookie noted he tried to lead by example, and also tried to stress technique.
"It’s a position where you really gotta commit to it and be physical and be versatile and try to do a different things with those guys" Watt told B5Q after a Chargers’ practice last week. "They’re all very talented. They bring some different things to the table."
Now, Ingold has the chance to start Saturday in his hometown of Green Bay, in a stadium packed with 80,000-plus fans against a top-five team in the nation.
The Land O' Lakes native, now an elder statesman of the position group, is listed at No. 2 behind Ingold, but there are aspects to his skill set that Settle likes.
"Ramesh has kind of been the leader of the group because he does have the most experience," Settle said two weeks ago, when both Ingold and Ramesh were out of practice due to right leg injuries. "I like what he brings. I like his athletic ability, his size, his combination."
Ramesh is the most experienced out of the three at the position, playing in 16 games with four starts as Watt’s reserve the past two seasons. He has also shown the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield (four career catches, one touchdown reception).
"We’re all pushing each other to be better and learn from each other’s mistake," Ramesh said. "I think there’s a lot of talent at the position right now, and I think we’re all getting better as we go along."
With the use of multiple backs and "jumbo" looks that head coach Paul Chryst’s offense involves, Ramesh’s name should still be called upon this season in some fashion.
Both Ingold and Ramesh were slowed by injuries at times during fall camp. That opened the door for Jacobs, who moved to fullback from inside linebacker in the spring.
Jacobs is an intriguing prospect and also now has two seasons to learn the position after being granted a medical hardship. The 6’2, 238-pound back provides some intangibles that could pay dividends before his time ends in Madison.
"He continues to improve. You understand that he’s still learning the position," Settle said. "In the spring, he did some good things so I think that carried over to camp. I think he came in with a lot of confidence. He felt good and was healthy for the first time in a long time.
"His biggest focus is continuing to learn how to play low, play behind his pads, so he understands it’s a different game on that side of the ball," Settle continued, describing Jacobs as more of a finesse fullback that will utilize body position and move his feet. "It requires a different technique. With the ball in his hands, he’s a big-time threat. We’ve been giving it to him from the fullback position, and he runs better than a lot of tailbacks across the country."
He may still be a project and learning the ropes, but there is a drive shown by the redshirt junior. Watt said he provided feedback to the California native during Wisconsin’s spring game.
It will take time, as more experience during practices and games will continue to forge his identity as one of the lead backs who could help spring Wisconsin’s tailbacks to daylight.
"He’s putting in a lot of work," Ingold said of Jacobs, "watching a lot of film, so it’s pretty cool seeing him definitely commit himself to this offense and see where he can go from there."
[Update Feb. 23 Noon CT: Updated Austin Ramesh's hometown to correctly state Land O' Lakes. We apologize for the discrepancy]