Fall camp for the Wisconsin Badgers has gotten underway so it is time for us to speculate wildly as to what the divvying up of reps during practice means for the depth chart come August 30th. Over the next two weeks we will be previewing each position group so that you’ll have an idea of what to expect once the season actually kicks off.
After looking at the defense last week, it’s time to switch over to the other side of the ball and check in with the running backs and fullbacks.
Wisconsin has a reputation for stockpiling stars at the running back position, and running the ball with them as much as humanly possible behind a massive offensive line. The blueprint was laid out by Barry Alvarez in the early 1990’s, and head coach Paul Chryst hasn’t veered too far from that plan over his four years as Wisconsin’s head man.
2018 by the numbers
- Jonathan Taylor - 307 carries, 2194 yards rushing, 16 touchdowns (yes, this is very good)
- Taiwan Deal - 82 carries, 545 yards rushing, 6 touchdowns
- Garrett Groshek - 65 carries, 425 yards rushing, 1 touchdown
- Chris James - 23 carries, 108 yards rushing
The projected starters
Heading in to the 2019 season the Badgers lose two reserve ball carriers in Taiwan Deal and Chris James who exhausted their eligibility, but return a lot of talent headlined by Jonathan Taylor.
Last one before I write up what I saw this afternoon, but Jonathan Taylor caught multiple passes in team situations both out of the backfield and split out. John Settle doesn’t seem to be bluffing about wanting to get the balk in his hands in the passing game pic.twitter.com/irFmBcxtun— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 5, 2019
Taylor put together arguably the best year ever for a sophomore at the position last year, and was awarded the Doak Walker Trophy which is given to the best running back in the country. Over his two seasons in Madison he has accumulated 4,171 yards rushing and 29 touchdowns. He enters this season as a consensus first team All-American, and he could become the 7th player in FBS history to reach the 6000-yard plateau, and the only player to do it in three years on campus. He will be called upon heavily in Wisconsin’s run first offense, and he has shown no reason to question if he will succeed this year.
Another holdover from last year’s running back rotation is junior Garrett Groshek. Primarily used in a third down role, Groshek was able to average 6.5 yards per carry in limited work, and demonstrated the skills necessary to be a great pass protector in the backfield. Groshek appears in line for a greater workload this season both in the running game, and also in the passing game where he had 24 receptions for 163 yards and a touchdown in 2018.
Lots of Groshek and Taylor both in the backfield together today at practice. The defensive players we had the chance to speak with all highlighted how they present match up problems individually, and when they are on the field together. pic.twitter.com/BDH0kisCi6— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 8, 2019
A new wrinkle that has been seen in practice this fall has been Taylor and Groshek being used on the field together. It will be compelling to see how much traction this gains for the season, and how Chryst can use this to help keep defenses off balance. Both players have also been active in the passing game early in fall camp, catching multiple passes in each practice open to the media.
While Wisconsin knows what is has in Taylor and Groshek, behind them is where things get more interesting.
- Bradrick Shaw - a 6-foot-1, 216 pound redshirt senior who has amassed 822 yards and 9 touchdowns over his career, but is coming off missing the entire 2018 season with a knee injury.
- Nakia Watson - a 5-foot-11, 229 pound redshirt freshman out of Austin, Texas who was a former four-star recruit according to 247sports.
- Isaac Guerendo - a 6-foot, 200 pound redshirt freshman who has bounced between wide receiver and running back, but was the 100 meter state champion as a senior in Indiana.
- Brady Schipper - 5-foot-11, 206 pound redshirt freshman walk-on who impressed coaches in the spring, but has been limited so far in fall camp with injuries.
- Julius Davis - a 5-foot-10, 189 pound freshman from in-state who is recovering from sports hernia surgery, but committed to Wisconsin over other offers from USC, LSU and Notre Dame.
- Hunter Johnson - a 6-foot, 200 pound redshirt sophomore walk-on who was the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Offensive Player of the Year as a high school senior in 2016.
Running backs coach John Settle has a lot of good options to deploy in the coming season, but the best bet to receive carries behind Taylor and Groshek will likely be a combination of Shaw and Watson. The two backs have shown flashes in camp so far, and they both have the respect and trust of their teammates. Last year, Taiwan Deal carried the load as the backup, but Groshek, Shaw, and Watson each have skill sets that should lend themselves to helping this season.
Nakia Watson (#25) seemed to get the most first team running back reps outside of Jonathan Taylor and Garrett Groshek. Chris Orr noted after practice that Watson is now running, not having to think as much. pic.twitter.com/A6wmnlAqNT— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 8, 2019
The two other young players to watch are Guerendo and Davis. Guerendo drew praise from Taylor at BIG Ten Media Days for his speed, and Davis was a big-time recruit from inside the state that the staff is very high on. Both players have been nicked up so far in fall camp, but once they are healthy they should also push to get carries in mop up duty this year.
One of the key cogs in Wisconsin’s run heavy attack is the fullback position. The role of a fullback at Wisconsin is not limited to blocking, however. Paul Chryst values versatility at the position, utilizing fullbacks in the pass game, and in short yardage down and distance situations with a quick fullback dive or belly.
This year the Badgers have three scholarship fullbacks on the roster as UW attempts to replace the work of outgoing senior Alec Ingold who is now an Oakland Raider. Replicating Ingold’s numbers will be a tough task, as he accounted for 21 total touchdowns over this four years in Madison, and was also a strong lead blocker.
The two most likely candidates to replace Ingold at this juncture are junior Mason Stokke and sophomore John Chenal. Both players were high school running backs from within the state, but Stokke was originally brought in as a linebacker, and Chenal is a former walk-on who earned a scholarship last season.
Mason Stokke (#34) got some more reps at fullback today with the first team. The 240 pound junior and sophomore John Chenal should be a nice combo at the position. #fullbackcity pic.twitter.com/QYNSic0SHZ— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 9, 2019
Stokke is a bit lighter at 6-foot-2 and 239 pounds, but he drew praise from Ingold, and showed a willingness to block in limited work last season. Late in the 2018 Pinstripe Bowl against Miami, Stokke pancaked a defender and then proceeded to block a second Hurricane player leading the way for a Jonathan Taylor touchdown. He played in nine games last season, and carried the ball four times for 13 yards.
Wherein, Menomonie grad Mason Stokke blocks not one, but two Miami defenders on a big run play. https://t.co/OMnGMO4CVw— Stephen Kelley (@stephen_wqow) December 29, 2018
Chenal is a big bodied blocker at 6-foot-2 and 252 pounds. He earned most of the reps in spring ball with Stokke out with an injury, and capitalized on that work. Chenal has earned the trust of the coaching staff after playing in every game last season, primarily on special teams. While speaking with the media after Friday’s practice Chryst acknowledged “John’s still learning it, but he’s done a nice job. With his skill set he can give you some things that we ask out of our tight ends and so I like that out of him.” Chryst continued to highlight while he likes Chenal’s blocking ability, he also has asked him to focus on improving in the passing game, something that he has been doing in fall camp.
Stokke and Chenal will likely be used by committee, as they both have strengths and have demonstrated the ability to be on the field at the same time in fall camp. Both players have been catching passes out of the backfield, with neither player really separating in terms of receiving more reps that the other. Given his added size though, Chenal could also carve out a niche as a blocking tight end in addition to his role as a fullback.
The third fullback on the roster is freshman Quan Easterling. We have yet to see him practice so far due to a leg injury, but he has been at practice with a walking boot on. There is no timetable for his recovery, but when he does return to practice he will add to an already talented, but young, fullback position.
Here is some video, filmed by Matt Belz, from Monday morning’s practice showing the tailbacks and fullbacks getting some work in.