The Big Ten’s obvious breakout star that no one is talking about
One of my favorite things to do to get ready for each season is to open up my Phil Steele magazine, turn to the Big Ten page and try to memorize everyone that he picked to his preseason All-Big Ten team. It’s an extensive list of guys, as he does 4 teams of 12 guys on offense and defense. Pro Football Focus does the same. It’s a lot of players, so really, anyone who is anyone is on that list.
That’s why I was very surprised to not see the name of Jalen Berger.
And here’s my prediction: If you’re not familiar with the Wisconsin running back yet, you will be soon.
It seemed most had Berger pegged as the next great Wisconsin running back when he committed. If you remember, Berger was a 4-star recruit and the No. 15 running back in the 2020 recruiting class, with Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Alabama, Florida and LSU among his 30 offers. He became the second-highest rated running back to sign with Wisconsin in the online recruiting era.
Then, Berger won the starting running back job as a true freshman last season, and even though he only played in 4 games because of the pandemic, he was impressive, racking up 15 carries in all 4 and averaging 5 yards per carry. He was good enough that Nakia Watson, who began last season as the starter, transferred in the offseason to Washington State.
In other words, Berger established himself as the guy moving forward. So why isn’t he getting more preseason love?
I know there are other really good running backs in the conference, like Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim and Iowa’s Tyler Goodson, but Berger, to me, would be in that next tier. So when Phil Steele and PFF each list 8 running backs on their preseason All-B1G teams and Berger is nowhere to be found, that is baffling. And I trust Steele, who is very plugged in because he does interviews with nearly every FBS head coach. PFF grades every snap of every game, so it’s rare for it to overlook someone.
I guess I’ll just have to respectfully disagree with two outlets I really respect.
Wisconsin running backs coach Gary Brown, who coached NFL rushing champ DeMarco Murray with the Cowboys, raved about Berger to the media.
“I don’t want to compare him right now because (Berger’s) so young, but I’ll tell you this: He is as smooth of a runner that I’ve coached,” Brown said. “He reminds me of a young DeMarco (Murray) when we had him.”
When I think of Murray, I remember how smooth he was and effortless he broke off chunk gains. Murray is a great comparison.
And let’s be honest: When Wisconsin goes out and gets a highly regarded running back, it’s impossible to ignore. Think of all the great Wisconsin running backs: Ron Dayne, Anthony Davis, John Clay, Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon, James White, Corey Clement, Jonathan Taylor. It’s been a couple of good decades for the Badgers in the backfield, huh? It’s like the way Oklahoma is producing quarterbacks, Ohio State is producing defensive backs, Alabama producing wide receivers and Iowa is producing tight ends. It just seems like there’s never a doubt with that certain position.
So with the combination of Berger’s production as a freshman, his recruiting pedigree and Wisconsin’s track record in the backfield, I don’t understand the lack of hype for Berger. Part of it could be because he was limited to 4 games last season with injuries and COVID (the Badgers were among the hardest hit last season). Part of it because he wasn’t quite the instant star like Taylor, White and Dayne were. But he still averaged more yards per carry than Ball and Gordon did in their freshmen seasons.
Berger should be a workhorse this season, provided he can stay healthy (he missed most of spring with a leg injury). Former 4-star recruit Chez Mellusi transferred in from Clemson, and he’s really Berger’s only competition for the starting job. When you add in that Wisconsin has one of the top offensive lines in the Big Ten, how could Berger not have a huge season? Talent plus opportunity usually equals success.
Eight times since 2009, a Wisconsin running back has led the Big Ten in rushing yards. Would anyone really be surprised if Berger becomes the ninth?