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Wisconsin football 2020 review/2021 preview: running back

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Garrett Groshek and Nakia Watson are gone, and Jalen Berger is the running back of the future in Madison now.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

2020 starters

  • Nakia Watson (four games started, redshirt sophomore)
  • Jalen Berger (two games started, freshman)
  • Garrett Groshek (one game started, redshirt senior)
Duke’s Mayo Bowl - Wake Forest v Wisconsin Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

2020 statistics

  • Jalen Berger led the team with 301 rushing yards in only four games played, and averaged five yards per carry with two touchdowns on the season.
  • Garrett Groshek recorded 300 rushing yards, 22 receptions for 119 receiving yards, while adding two touchdowns on the ground in six games.
  • Nakia Watson recorded 191 rushing yards (3.6 ypc average) and three touchdowns in six games played.
  • Isaac Guerendo tallied 36 yards on 11 carries in the first game of the season before going down with an injury for the remainder of year.
  • Brady Schipper ran the ball four times for a total of five yards in three games.
  • Julius Davis had one carry on the season as well, resulting in one yard from scrimmage in his only game played in 2020.

2020 season review

Entering the 2020 season, the trio of Nakia Watson, Isaac Guerendo and Garrett Groshek were expected share the backfield after fall camp. After only combining for 168 yards rushing on 43 carries (3.9 yards per carry) in the season opener against Illinois, and an injury to Isaac Guerendo, true freshman Jalen Berger earned snaps against Michigan.

Berger played well in all four of the games he saw time, earning exactly 15 carries in each game and averaging over 75 yards per contest. Berger flashed promise, and was the most dynamic runner in the backfield.

However, the emergence of Berger resulted in fewer opportunities for Nakia Watson as the season progressed. In fact, towards the end of the season when Berger missed the Minnesota game due to COVID-19, it was Garrett Groshek who saw the bulk of the carries. The former walk-on from Amherst put together the best performance of his career with 154 yards and touchdown on 24 carries to help retain Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

The Wisconsin offense in general struggled last season, and a big part of that was the inability to generate big plays. The loss of Jonathan Taylor was destined to hurt production in 2020, but as a team the Badgers only averaged 3.9 yards per carry. In an offense that is predicated on running the ball, that is not good enough.

The struggles in 2020 should not be solely directed at the running back position, but it was glaringly apparent that the Wisconsin rushing attack was not nearly as successful as it has been in the past. After a solid freshman season it appears that the Badgers may have found their tailback of the future in Berger though, as he accounted for more 10+ yard rushes than the rest of the running backs combined, despite only playing in four games.

Duke’s Mayo Bowl - Wake Forest v Wisconsin Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

2021 season preview

The departure of Garrett Groshek to the NFL, and the announced transfer of Nakia Watson leave Wisconsin with far less experience heading into 2021.

Jalen Berger should enter the spring as the starter after being the best back on the roster last season. With a full off-season of development and time to better understand the playbook, Berger is a prime candidate to breakout in 2021. He was able to show flashes despite a weird fall camp amid the pandemic after enrolling in the summer, expect more production next season from him with far fewer established options surrounding him.

Behind Berger is where things get interesting though. The Badgers have plenty of young players with the talent to contribute:

  • Isaac Guerendo was set to be one of the top backs last season before once again dealing with injury issues, something that has hampered him his entire career. If he can finally stay healthy, he is a player that could help out as a third down back given his previous experience as a wide receiver and combination of speed.
  • Julius Davis was one of the more highly sought after running backs based on recruiting status coming out of high school, can he get into the mix and spell Berger?
  • Brady Schipper has a lot of the same attributes that made Garrett Groshek a high grade pass blocker and receiver out of the backfield. A walk-on from Stoughton who has also played wide receiver and safety, Schipper is another player to monitor.
  • Wisconsin also welcomes three running backs from the 2021 recruiting class that could shake up the depth chart as well. All three players bring something different to the room, and are viable options as well. Jackson Acker could potentially wind up at a different position, but he is a bigger back that can run with power if he indeed stays at running back. Antwan Roberts is a taller, physical player, that glides a bit more as a runner. Lastly, Loyal Crawford is a shifty back in space that also has the ability to help out as a pass catcher. It will be interesting to see if any of the true freshman are able to crack the rotation next season.