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20 on '20: Wisconsin's Running Backs

The series continues with getting back into Wisconsin position groups, particularly one that will need to replace a recent living legend.

As Wisconsin football student-athletes started "voluntary athletics activities" on June 15 -- wanted to begin a series dedicated to the program entering a 2020 season that is supposed to start on Sept. 4 against Indiana.

I had some questions here, however. Do we highlight breakout or "most important" players according to a specific set of standards?

Perhaps we look at the biggest concerns with a team returning many starters and contributors but has specific questions needing to be answered at key positions?

In that light, presents its "20 on '20" series where we dissect (you guessed it) 20 topics pertaining to the football program. For those needing to catch up, here is the series so far:

Topic No. 6: Wisconsin's Running Back Room Post-Jonathan Taylor Era

... and I am personally high on this group of returning tailbacks. Just getting this out of the way right off the bat. 

Will I expect one person to replace the 2,003 yards on 6.3 yards per carry and 21 rushing touchdowns that Taylor accumulated last season? Not exactly, and it should not be anticipated with one of the best players in Wisconsin history moving on to the NFL. 

Do I think the backfield as a whole can find ways to contribute via complementary pieces to continue a potent ground game? I believe so. 

There is experience at the position group, as both Nakia Watson and Garrett Groshek complemented Taylor last season. 

Watson ran for 331 yards on 4.5 yards per carry with two touchdowns in his first real action as a Badger. He flashed early with an 80-yard performance in the 2019 season-opener at South Florida. He has the speed to get out to the edge or between the tackles at 5'11, 228 pounds, and though spring ball could have helped him (like many others in the group), I think he has the skillset to become a prominent back.

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Groshek has emerged from a walk-on quarterback to key contributor in the offense. Though his rushing yards dropped from 2018 to 2019 (495 on 6.5 per attempt to 194 on 4.6), he caught 29 passes for 289 yards last season. That included a 70-yard screen pass that essentially closed the door on any potential Minnesota comeback in a 38-17 win in November.

The question with Groshek will be what roles will change now that Taylor is gone, and if one sees him more on earlier downs or different personnel groupings.

Behind them are talented players that do not have as much experience. Spring ball could have given three of the four players more reps heading into the summer while also showing more of their development. 

Fans saw Isaac Guerendo pop out more towards the end of the year after fighting a hamstring injury for the first half of the 2019 season. He is likely known by many for his third-quarter, 49-yard kickoff return off of a reverse against the Gophers last November, but he also received a carry and caught a pass in the 2020 Rose Bowl. 

Though sample sizes in meaningful games are small, Guerendo has explosiveness and speed. I highlighted what offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said in December as I wrote an article for about the Indiana native:

“The guy’s got a bright future and obviously’s got big-play ability, so he’s fun,” Rudolph said on Tuesday. “Just trying to keep finding opportunities for him, keep working him in. Got excited that he’s back.

“He was out there contributing -- that’s freaking cool. When you see a young guy spark like that, sometimes that’s kind of the echo of, ‘OK, I’m kind of ready,’ which is good.”

UW listed Julius Davis as having a core injury during fall camp last year, and he eventually redshirted in his first year at Wisconsin. The program listed him at 5'10 and 188 pounds on its 2020 spring roster, and as one can see below, he published some videos on social media detailing his workouts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Groshek complimented Brady Schipper last spring as well. Like Guerendo, the walk-on from Stoughton played in six games in 2019.

Of course, one of the biggest names to sign with Wisconsin's 2020 class was four-star running back Jalen Berger. Announcing during the All-American Bowl in early January, he is yet another New Jersey back to find his way to Madison. Look at his senior Hudl film, and one can see his abilities in the run game but also with his hands in hauling in passes. 

The biggest question with any true freshman is if he will be physically ready to contribute but also can digest the playbook to find reps and have it all click. We saw it happen with Taylor in 2017 and how he ascended the depth chart after fall camp practices were closed to the media.