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“Way-too-early” expectations for Wisconsin’s running backs in 2019

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More production from this position group, that’s for sure.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Wisconsin vs Miami Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Taylor powered, stiff-armed and sprinted his way through any inkling of a sophomore slump in 2018 on way to leading the nation in rushing and winning the Doak Walker Award.

In 2019, big expectations (see: Heisman Trophy anyone?) will continue to emerge for the New Jersey native. There will very likely be speculation on if next season well be the final act of his illustrious Wisconsin career depending upon his production, injuries or other potential circumstances.

The position group as a whole last season played well, with Taiwan Deal stepping up to become a fine complement to Taylor, and Garrett Groshek becoming the third down back.

Running backs coach John Settle will lose Deal and Chris James at tailback, Alec Ingold at fullback, as they exhaust all of their eligibility, so there will be opportunities for others to emerge into reps this upcoming season.

2018 statistical leaders

  • Sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor: 2,194 yards (led nation), 16 touchdowns, 7.1 yards per carry, 168.8 yards per game (led nation)
  • Redshirt senior Taiwan Deal: 545 yards, 6.6 yards per carry, six touchdowns
  • Senior fullback Alec Ingold: 143 yards, 5.5 yards per carry, six rushing touchdowns; five receptions, 93 yards, one receiving touchdown
  • Redshirt sophomore Garrett Groshek: 428 yards, 6.5 yards per carry, one rushing touchdown; 24 receptions, 163 yards, one touchdown

Expectation No. 1: Jonathan Taylor should continue to be one of the nation’s top backs

Again, it’s early. Injuries or underwhelming stats could alter the would-be junior’s chances. We will also see how Wisconsin’s offensive line reloads with Michael Deiter, Beau Benzschawel and David Edwards leaving school—though there are more-than-capable replacements at both guard positions (looking at Jason Erdmann and Jon Dietzen) and right tackle (Logan Bruss).

That being said, Taylor should be set for a campaign where he could once again show the nation what he is made of. Does that include a trip to New York City at the end of the season with the Heisman Trophy ceremony?

Now, Wisconsin faces Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State in cross divisional contests next season. If he can overcome those stingy defenses—along with the rest of the opponents’ respective units—and stay healthy, he could potentially end his career as the FBS leader in rushing yards.*** Honestly, that is in the picture—albeit him needing to have an even greater season than 2018. He needs 2,234 yards to surpass San Diego State’s Donnel Pumprhey’s mark set in 2016.

***YES I KNOW RON DAYNE IS THE TRUE FBS RUSHING YARDS LEADER

Expectation No. 2: Taylor improves his play in the passing game

We called this out at the beginning of the season. In the early periods of seemingly each 2018 spring and fall camp practice open to the media, there was Taylor, working on his passing routes with head coach Paul Chryst looking on and providing guidance.

Eight catches and 60 yards later, he did not make the impact I thought he could. His presence in that phase of the offense could have helped, but then again, when you run for nearly 2,200 yards—how much more can you depend upon or expect from a single player?

If he is able to stay on the field more for passing situations—whether to block or be a threat in the receiving game, which I predict he will in his third season—that will greatly help the offense’s productivity.

Expectation No. 3: Wisconsin will find its complement to Taylor after replacing Deal

Deal spelled Taylor and still kept production high from the tailback spot last season. For Wisconsin to continue its dominance in the rushing game (sixth in the nation at 273.4 yards per contest), they will have to find a secondary back to distribute the carries—and there are contenders.

Returning from a leg injury, Bradrick Shaw could have a Deal-esque senior season. If he can return to his 2016 form that helped him gain 457 yards on 5.2 yards per carry and five touchdowns, that would given the Wisconsin offense another potent potion in the backfield.

There is also rising redshirt freshman Nakia Watson, who at 231 pounds, fits the mold of a Deal or Shaw. How Groshek continues to evolve as a back will be something to watch. He filled in that third down role admirably last year and became a threat out of the backfield in 11 personnel. Can true freshman Julius Davis break through for any carries?

Expectation No. 4: Wisconsin will lock in the next generation of “Fullback City”

Gone is Ingold, off to make an impact in the NFL. Mason Stokke will be the heir apparent to the fullback throne for Wisconsin, and he received ample opportunities at the position this season in playing nine games.

Ingold praised Stokke in the beginning of Mike Lucas’ article on UWBadgers.com recently:

“Seeing his play in the last quarter,” he said, “it was a pass-the-torch moment.”

Ingold, a senior fullback, was talking about his understudy, Mason Stokke, a sophomore.

Without prodding, Ingold insisted, “He’s so ready — he’s so ready for everything.”

Stokke, who had dealt with injuries and played sparingly in eight regular-season games, took some offensive snaps in the fourth quarter of Wisconsin’s convincing 35-3 win over Miami. On an off-tackle run, Stokke decleated one defender and sealed another to create a crease for the tailback.

”You get to see a guy grow up right in front of your eyes,” Ingold said of Stokke. “I feel a little bit choked up and stuff. He’s a great guy and this team is going to build off this — winter, spring ball, all the way to fall camp — they’re going to have this taste in their mouth. And that’s big for everybody.

That’s high praise from the senior that was the living embodiment of “Fullback City.”

Behind Stokke, you can look at guys like Coy Wanner, Jake Collinsworth and John Chenal. I’m particularly intrigued by Chenal, who burned his redshirt as a true freshman and played in eight games on special teams.

There is also true freshman Quan Easterling, who flipped from an Akron commitment to Wisconsin. He is a projected fullback who de-cleated opponents on the prep level in Ohio. How he picks up the offense will be something to watch during fall camp and beyond.