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Spring Football 2021: backfield preview

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Familiar faces are gone, who will carry the load in 2021?

NCAA Football: Indiana at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

If it seems like there have been more sports than ever this March it is because, well, there have been! What’s one more to add to the pile? The Wisconsin Badgers football team starts their spring practice on Tuesday, March 30 and we are going to start previewing each position group. UW will have 15 practices after having zero last year due to COVID-19.

Instead of the traditional position previews we’ve done in the past, these ones are going to be a little more focused on just a couple of players. We will feature one or two players who we think a full spring practice will really help and focus on one position battle that we think will be important.

Next up, the backfield!

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

Players who will benefit from a full spring practice schedule

  • Wisconsin will be without some key pieces from the backfield in 2021. At running back, the seasoned veteran Garrett Groshek has decided to move on and Nakia Watson has decided to transfer. At the fullback position, Mason Stokke has also entered into the NFL draft pool. That leaves a young group headlined by Jalen Berger to take on a big role in 2021.

There’s no doubt that all of the running back room will benefit from spring practice, but Jalen Berger probably has the most to gain. In 2021 Berger was the Badgers best offensive weapon but his touches were limited. In each of the four games, he played Berger only got 15 carries in each contest. Odd coincidence or keeping him on a pitch count? I’d assume the latter.

As a true freshman with no spring practice and an odd fall season, it makes some sense why the training wheels were kept on for a while. When you add a couple of weeks off due to COVID it's clear to see why Spring ball will benefit Berger in a big way. He’ll have the ability to get a stronger grasp of the offense, bulk up in the weight room, and really get to know his offensive line and how they work. We’ve seen what Berger has in terms of talent but I think it’s fair to assume he can be even better when not thrown to the wolves.

At fullback Mason Stokke is gone but the Badgers have a reliable starter in John Chenal who has played a lot and been through Spring practice. Quan Easterling, the presumed backup, could benefit as he looks to take over that number two role at fullback. Wisconsin has liked to use multiple for years now, so having Easterling ready to take snaps will be important.

Key position battle

  • With Groshek and Watson gone it’s clear that carries are available to more than just Berger. A key position battle to watch will be who takes on the secondary role in a possible 1-2 punch for Wisconsin football.

In 2019 the Wisconsin Badgers had 463 carries from players at either the running back or fullback position. 320 of those were from Jonathan Taylor, 74 from Nakia Watson, 42 from Garrett Groshek, and 18 from Bradrick Shaw. None of them are on the team any longer.

Who takes those is still somewhat up in the air. I think the coaching staff would love for Berger to get 280-300 carries but he’s still young and not quite the player Jonathan Taylor was at that time. If Berger gets in that range it’s fair to assume another 150 plus carries are open to the rest of the room, and I think that is where the battle really begins.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Rose Bowl - Oregon v Wisconsin Photo by Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Right now the names to watch are Isaac Guerendo and Julius Davis. Guerendo got 11 carries in 2020 but was hurt most of the season while Davis got just one carry late in the year. Safe to say they’ll need a lot more from that duo in 2021 or they’ll have to find it from younger players.

After those two there are guys like Brady Schipper who seems to be developing into a Groshek-type role, and then the incoming freshman of Loyal Crawford, Antwan Roberts, and Jackson Acker. It’s unclear where Acker is going to be lining up so really it looks like Crawford and Roberts could contend for some snaps. Crawford has a lot of the same skills as Berger, and Roberts I think is a diamond in the rough. He’s the lowest rated player in the class of 2021 according to 247, but his tape shows some special talents.

At fullback, the Badgers have a strong starter in John Chenal and Quan Easterling behind him. Easterling looks like the next guy in line as a scholarship player, but who develops after him will be interesting to watch. Right now those two are the only two fullbacks on the roster. I would imagine Wisconsin will be looking to move a player to that position for the future. Maybe a guy like Acker moves to fullback or they take a player from a deep tight end room. Cam Large certainly fits that profile. The future of the fullback may not be something we look deeply at, but it’s very important to the success of Wisconsin football.