How do you replace one of the best running backs of all time?
That’s the unenviable question head coach Paul Chryst and the rest of the Wisconsin staff will be forced to answer this season, as a stable of relatively unproven backs attempt to fill the impossibly large shoes left by two-time Doak Walker Award winner Jonathan Taylor.
Rather than designate a feature back, it appears Chryst plans on implementing a running-back-by-committee system to begin the 2020 season, relying on a rotation of Nakia Watson, Garrett Groshek and Issac Guerendo.
While no depth chart has been officially released, Chryst made it clear in speaking with the media last week that the onus would be on those three to carry the load.
“Between [Watson, Groshek and Guerendo] you hope to be productive,” Chryst said. “Certainly not trying to match what [Taylor] did, but we do have to get really good, consistent, production from that group.”
The lion's share of the touches will likely go to Watson, a redshirt sophomore with 74 career carries to his name. In backup duty to Taylor in 2019, Watson rushed for 331 yards (4.5 yards per carry) and found the endzone twice, generating plenty of hype for his 2020 campaign in the process.
Standing at five-foot-eleven, 229 pounds, Watson certainly looks the part of the quintessential power back. His tantalizing potential was put on display in week one of the 2019 season, where he rushed 14 times for 80 yards and a touchdown against South Florida.
Detractors, however, cite Watson’s lack of breakaway speed as cause for concern. After a 27-yard carry in the season opener, Watson had just one carry of longer than 20 yards over the rest of the season, and he himself admitted he needed to be more consistent in 2020.
“From watching myself last season and going into this season, I’ve noticed that I need to be more consistent with my runs,” Watson told the media after practice last week. “Just knowing where the lineman are supposed to be at and getting fundamentally sound with the lineman. Just knowing what everyone is doing, knowing what the quarterback is doing.”
While Watson will get plenty of work on first and second down, his lack of experience as a receiver and blocker will mean Garrett Groshek will likely open as the third-down back.
Groshek, a redshirt senior, had more yards receiving (289) than rushing (194) last season, and offers tantalizing agility and elusiveness in space, as evidenced by his impressive 10.0 yards per reception in 2019.
Like Watson, Groshek stressed consistency as the key to a successful rushing attack this season.
“First and foremost, taking care of the ball and being consistent,” Groshek said regarding his approach. “Whether it’s practice or in the game, just being the same player on every rep. Just feeding off of each other.”
The final piece in the Badger rushing attack is exciting weapon Issac Guerendo, an electrifying running back/receiver hybrid who turned heads with a 4.38 40-yard dash in high school. Much like Aron Cruickshank, who transferred to Rutgers this offseason, Guerendo is comfortable lining up at both receiver and tailback.
Guerendo didn’t see much action last season, carrying the ball just once and recording just one catch. He flashed his athletic ability, however, as a kickoff returner, blazing past defenders for a 56 yard return against Minnesota.
Groshek was effusive in his praise for Guerendo during media availability and sees him as a key cog in the rotation going forward.
“Obviously the first thing you see is his speed,” Groshek said of Guerendo. “He’s been one of the fastest guys on the team since he’s walked in the building. He’s come a long way as far as learning how to play running back since coming in as a wide receiver.”
None of these three will be the “next Jonathan Taylor,” but the Badgers are counting on this three-pronged rushing attack to be successful in both rushing and passing situations.