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Wisconsin football 2020 review/2021 preview: fullbacks

Mason Stokke is off to test the NFL waters, but the Badgers return multiple options at fullback.

David Stluka, UW Communications

2020 starter

  • Mason Stokke (RS senior)
NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

2020 statistics

  • Mason Stokke ran for 45 yards and a touchdown, while also hauling in eight catches for 58 yards and three touchdowns.
  • John Chenal ran for 80 yards (6.7 yards per carry) and two touchdowns.

2020 season review

In an offense that struggled mightily at times in 2020, the fullback position was once again a strength for the Badgers.

Both Mason Stokke and John Chenal had solid seasons rotating in, with Stokke earning the bulk of the first team work in all seven games and earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.

Stokke showed an ability to not only be a strong lead blocker, but he was also an asset as a runner in short-yardage situations and as a reliable pass catcher out of the backfield. In fact, Stokke caught just as many passes as Kendric Pryor (eight) and more than Danny Davis (three), albeit it many more games played.

Behind him, former walk-on John Chenal was also a consistent player for the Badgers. A bigger, blocking fullback, the highlight of the season for him was a long 43-yard run against Michigan that ended up being the longest run for the entire team in 2020.

Chenal was used primarily as a runner in short-yardage spots and near the goal-line, including a touchdown run in the bowl game.

Behind the duo of Stokke and Chenal, we did not see too much of third-string fullback Quan Easterling in his redshirt freshman season.

2021 season preview

With Stokke off to play professionally, the Badgers will likely turn to John Chenal to carry on the fullback tradition in 2021.

Chenal has been an active contributor the past three season for Wisconsin, participating as not only a fullback but also in special teams. At 6-foot-2 and 252 pounds, Chenal is a big bruising back that should hold up well as a lead blocker in front of Jalen Berger, and is a capable of moving the change in short-yardage situations.

The biggest drop off from Stokke to Chenal will probably be in the passing game. Stokke was a decent route runner and had sure hands, something that Chenal has not shown yet on tape. Expect him to have more opportunities to catch passes out of the backfield next season, but he is best as a runner and blocker.

Right now on the roster the only other player on the roster listed as a fullback is Quan Easterling. A 2019 signee, Easterling is a little taller at 6-foot-3 and also thinner at 229 pounds according to the official 2020 roster. I expect him to continue to add weight, but he should also factor in at fullback next season as a blocker.

The major question at the position though is who else emerges?

Traditionally, Wisconsin has three to four fullbacks on the roster at a time, so there is a need next season with only two heading into the off-season. There are a couple of different ways that this could play out:

  1. Stand pat with only two fullbacks (doubtful)
  2. Bring in a walk-on to groom at the position (it’s worked in the past)
  3. A walk-on linebacker shifts over to fullback. For example Riley Nowakowski is a smart freshman linebacker that has experience playing offense as a runner and pass catching threat, and he earned early playing time in special teams in 2020. Other possibilities are Marty Strey or Tatum Grass if they look to move an older player with playing experience, or Ross Gengler for similar reasons to Nowakowski. This route seems plausible when considering the large number of scholarship linebackers that have been brought it over the past two cycles, and the success that walk-ons have had when making this jump to the other side of the ball.
  4. A scholarship player switches to fullback. This position change has worked well for many players such as Bradie Ewing, Derek Watt and Alec Ingold. Fullback could represent a quicker way to the field for a couple of different scholarship players such as tight ends Clay Cundiff and Cam Large, or linebacker Maema Njongmeta.

Cundiff would probably make the most sense of the three with Hayden Rucci ahead of him on the depth chart already from the same 2019 class and he would also give the Badgers a pass catcher out of the backfield as well. I don’t know how keen the Wisconsin staff would be on moving him, but it could make sense. Large is unlikely after being a highly recruited tight end from the 2020 class, but it could be a way to get him on the field early before shifting him back to tight end later in his career when the depth chart opens up a bit. Both Cundiff and Large are shorter tight ends and are at a weight in which they could easily play there next season.

The last scholarship option might be Maema Njongmeta. Wisconsin has brought in a ton of scholarship inside linebackers the past two classes, and he is already at a weight where he could give the Badgers something at fullback. It’s not entirely clear where he sits in the pecking order at inside linebacker, and it’s not out of the question for him to compete for playing time as a linebacker or fullback next season. A move for him is not likely, but it’s another possibility.

5. The last option, and this would probably make the most sense in terms of class distribution and talent, is Jackson Acker. A three-star running back recruit from the 2021 class, Acker is a bigger back from Verona that does not have a predetermined position in college. He has the size to grow into the role, and he is also very athletic, potentially adding some versatility to the group. Mason Stokke and Austin Ramesh were each really good high school running backs that made the switch recently, he could be next.