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Wisconsin football spring position preview: running backs and fullbacks

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What are the trending topics in the running back room as spring practice draws near.

Michigan State v Wisconsin Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Returning players:

Running backs

  • (No. 37) Garrett Groshek: Senior (RS), 5-foot-11, 220 pounds
  • (No. 36) Hunter Johnson: Junior (RS), 6-foot, 220 pounds
  • (No. 14) Nakia Watson: Sophomore (RS), 5-foot-11, 229 pounds
  • (No. 20) Isaac Guerendo: Sophomore (RS), 6-foot, 213 pounds
  • (No. 29) Brady Schipper: Sophomore (RS), 5-foot-11, 206 pounds
  • (No. 32) Julius Davis: Freshman (RS), 5-foot-10, 189 pounds

Fullbacks

  • (No. 34) Mason Stokke: Senior (RS), 6-foot-2, 239 pounds
  • (No. 44) John Chenal: Junior, 6-foot-2, 252 pounds
  • (No. 28) Quan Easterling: Freshman (RS), 6-foot-3, 238 pounds

Departing players:

Arriving players:

  • Jalen Berger: Four-star recruit, 6-foot, 205 pounds (summer enrollee)

Position overview

Jonathan Taylor was the model for consistency over his three seasons on campus. The junior tailback amassed over 6,000 yards rushing and 50 touchdowns before blowing up the NFL Combine this past week in Indianapolis. But he is gone.

Behind him, Nakia Watson and Garrett Groshek have the most in-game experience on the roster, but each in a reserve or niche capacity. Watson was the second on the team last season in carries (74) and rushing yards (331), while Groshek has accumulated over 1,400 total yards from scrimmage as a third down back.

Neither Watson, nor Groshek, will fully replicate the success that Jonathan Taylor had over the course of his career, but the duo are the most likely candidates to attempt to fill the gaping hole Taylor left in the backfield.

Watson is a hard downhill runner who is still mastering the finer nuances of reading the flow of a defense and making his cuts. He is very strong and is always falling forward through contact, he could be in store for a big jump with an extended workload. His running mate Groshek has been a steadying presence in his three seasons in the backfield. A no nonsense pass blocker, Groshek is very talented in the screen game as well, and is quick when given running opportunities. Behind them though there are some very talented, but unproven candidates to push for carries as well, but we will touch on them later.

Big Ten Football Championship - Ohio State v Wisconsin Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

At fullback, the trio of Mason Stokke, John Chenal, and Quan Easterling all return in 2020. Stokke is the elder statesman of the bunch, and he is a very talented path clearer. His run blocking acumen grew over the course of last season, as he went on to handle the bulk of the fullback opportunities as the season wore on.

Behind him, Chenal is a physical specimen at over 250 pounds, and he has surprised folks since joining the team as a walk-on two seasons ago. Between Stokke, and Chenal, the fullback position is in good hands this spring and into fall camp. Redshirt freshman Easterling could see additional time as a blocker next season as well given his natural run-blocking abilities and strength.

Who needs a big spring to crack the two-deep/who are you most excited to see in spring?

Watson and Groshek have received most of the anticipated attention for spring, and rightfully so given their experience level, but they aren’t the players I am most excited to see come spring practices which begin March 10.

Isaac Guerendo and Julius Davis are the two players to keep an eye on to potentially have a big spring as they hope to shake up the depth chart.

Guerendo is a speed demon. A track star out of Indiana, he has toyed around at a couple of positions, but settled in at running back over the past year. One of the most explosive athletes on the roster, he has added some nice strength and weight, and flashed his potential down at the tail end of last season with an increased role in the final three games. Guerendo is a player that Jonathan Taylor has specifically mentioned in multiple occasions as a guy to watch, and now healthy, he could make a nice jump.

The other player to watch is redshirt freshman Julius Davis. After a stellar prep career, Davis opted to stay home to play at Wisconsin over other offers from the likes of LSU and USC. Still working his way back from a sports hernia injury, he redshirted last year, but he is a very talented runner who could make things interesting if he is back to 100% healthy. Davis is extremely tough to tackle, and does not shy away from contact. He will have some learning to do this spring, but he should not be counted out.

(True freshman Jalen Berger will not be on campus for spring practice, but he will also be a name to monitor come fall camp).

Who has the potential to be an all-conference performer (no players who have already made an all-conference team)?

Lets be honest, whichever player grabs the reins of RB1 will instantly have a chance to earn all-conference recognition. The Badgers have had a player recognized on the first or second team in the running back position nine times in the past 10 seasons according to Big Ten Network, with 2015 being the only exclusion as starter Corey Clement battled injuries.

With that being said, this group doesn’t have the same firepower as Jonathan Taylor, Melvin Gordon, or Montee Ball brought to the position during that span.

P.J. Hill was able to obtain honorable mention honors in 2008 with over 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns. I think that kind of output for one of the Badger backs is doable, and I would not be surprised if Nakia Watson or Isaac Guerendo are able to muster up something more. If the carries are more spread out, it’s anyone's guess though.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 07 Central Michigan at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Where will this position group improve from last season?

Another year of development will only help the fullback position in 2020. After a good year in 2019, all three primary options as lead blockers are back, and the group should only improve as long as they stay healthy.

Without the services of Jonathan Taylor, the fullback position could see an expanded role in short yardage as well. The Badgers have been extremely successful in short yardage situations with both the fullback dive and belly, and I doubt that will stop next year.

It is highly unlikely that the backfield — running backs and fullbacks — is stronger next season as a cohesive unit, but the talent at fullback, and the competition at play should only allow that group to elevate their games.

Where will this position group be worse than last season?

Yeah...Jonathan Taylor is special. A player doesn’t win consecutive Doak Walker awards for no reason.

The Badgers will likely have more of a “by committee” approach to carries next season unless someone takes spring and fall camp by storm. Wisconsin will have a bevy of different backs to turn to, but at this juncture the candidates are relatively young, and will have to cut their teeth rather quickly.

The running back position is expected to take a step back in terms of production, but this is Wisconsin, and it tends to work itself out.