2019 Wisconsin Rewind: Running Backs, Fullbacks

Jake Kocorowski

The 2019 college football season has officially passed for the Wisconsin Badgers after falling to the No. 6 Oregon Ducks in the 2020 Rose Bowl Game on Jan. 1.

AllBadgers.com presents a new series, "2019 Wisconsin Rewind," that will break down each UW position group from last season. Positional stats, best and worst performances will be dissected, and one question will be presented for each room heading into spring ball later this year.

Previous installments: Quarterbacks

On Monday, we look at the running backs and what became the end of the Jonathan Taylor era. The junior from Salem, N.J., publicly declared for the 2020 NFL Draft on the evening of Jan. 3, finishing his college football career No. 6 all-time in FBS history with 6,174 rushing yards -- No. 2 all-time at UW behind Ron Dayne -- to go with 55 total touchdowns. 

The list of accolades extends far for Taylor: Two-time Doak Walker Award winner, given to annually to the nation's top running back; two-time unanimous first-team All-American; two-time Ameche-Dayne Big Ten running back of the year, three-time consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection.

Yet for all the honors, inside linebacker Chris Orr will remember Taylor more for who he is off the field.

"He's truly, truly the most humble person that I've ever come across," inside linebacker Chris Orr said on Dec. 19. "If you met him and didn't know him, you wouldn't think he is who he is, and I've said that since Day One.

"I will remember him more so as my little nephew, my little brother, whatever the case is, more so off the field than on the field. But definitely going to remember what he did on the field. Truly special to witness the greatest college running back ever."

That word, humble, is what quarterback Jack Coan used to describe Taylor as well.

"I'd say the one thing I'm going to remember the most about him is just he's such a great person," quarterback Jack Coan said on Dec. 19. "Extremely humble, plays extremely hard, works really hard and he's a guy I look up to and try to be like."

AllBadgers.com highlighted more of his achievements here, but in 2019, he ran for 2,000 yards for the second consecutive year. He continued showcasing his skillset in the run game -- patience, strength, speed, vision -- but he also added the intangible of being a viable receiving threat out of the backfield.

Now with Taylor off to play at the professional level, running backs coach John Settle returns several contributors next year that will need to work to fill the void left by a key departure.

Player stats

  • Jonathan Taylor: 320 caries, 2,003 yards (6.3 yards per carry), 21 touchdowns; 26 receptions, 252 yards, five touchdowns
  • Nakia Watson: 74 carries, 331 yards (4.5 yards per carry), two touchdowns
  • Garrett Groshek: 42 carries, 194 yards (4.6 yards per carry), two touchdowns; 29 receptions, 289 yards
  • Bradrick Shaw: 18 carries, 116 yards, one touchdown
  • John Chenal: 18 carries, 65 yards, one touchdown
  • Mason Stokke: 15 carries, 51 yards, two touchdowns

Best performance

Taylor achieved four 200-yard games during the season. The first came on a 203-yard effort on 23 carries with two touchdowns in the Big Ten opener against Michigan on Sept. 21. 

However, perhaps his three-game stretch in November where he ran for at least 200 yards against Iowa (250), Nebraska (204) and Purdue (222) should be clumped together as one altogether. He, along with the offensive line and ground attack, helped UW clinch huge divisional wins to right the ship offensively on way to the program clinching the West title. 

Worst performance

Like the quarterbacks, I will go with the performance against Ohio State in late October here. Wisconsin gained 83 yards rushing on the day altogether, and the Buckeyes' defense limited Taylor to just 52 yards on 20 carries on that dreary Saturday afternoon in a 38-7 loss.

Question for 2020 season: Who steps up with Jonathan Taylor gone?

Wisconsin's ground game averaged 233.1 yards per game in 2019 -- 143.1 per contest coming from Taylor. Bradrick Shaw exhausted his eligibility after the Rose Bowl, but Settle will at least have Watson, Groshek, Guerendo, Brady Schipper, Julius Davis and Hunter Johnson returning. There is talent in that room, and on top of that, the program received a verbal commitment from four-star running back Jalen Berger during the 2020 All-American Bowl on Saturday afternoon. Not one person will likely carry the load coming up, but rather a committee of talented players with skillsets that complement each other.

Watson excelled on special teams, especially on a kickoff return unit that scored two touchdowns this season. Now he will be asked to step up further on offense and help replace the production of one of the top three running backs in school history. His biggest game from the stats sheet came when he ran for 80 yards on 14 carries and one touchdown in the season-opener.

Utilized in a Wildcat look, third down situations, and also out of 11 personnel often, Groshek will enter his final year at UW as a leader not just in the room but of the team as well. He can be used out of the backfield in running and passing catching situations. How his responsibilities change with Taylor moving on will be something to watch.

Guerendo came on towards the end of the season with some special teams work, but against Oregon in the Rose Bowl, he saw time in the backfield as well (one rush, one yard; one reception, three yards). Spring practices should help continue his development and progression as a back.

Like Groshek, Schipper came to UW as a walk-on. The Stoughton native impressed in spring camp and ended up playing in six games in 2019.

Julius Davis, the in-state product from Menomonee Falls, dealt with what UW officially called a core injury during fall camp and eventually redshirted in 2019. AllBadgers will keep an eye on his reps in March and April if/when practices are open to the media.

By all indications, Berger has not sent in his National Letter of Intent (NLI) -- the official National Signing Day is slated for Feb. 6 -- but Wisconsin claimed a huge recruiting win with the four-star back committing on Jan. 4. Once he gets to Madison, it will be interesting to see just how head coach Paul Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph decide to use the back, and if he can quickly he carve out a role in the offense.

Quick note on the fullbacks

Stokke and Chenal both emerged in 2019 to take over duties on current Oakland Raiders rookie Alec Ingold and continued the tradition of "Fullback City" in Madison. 

The two return once again for next season and should continue their development as lead blockers, pass catchers, and -- when called upon -- ball carriers in short yardage situations.

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