Wisconsin football: Who's left at running back if Chez Mellusi misses time?
The running back position at Wisconsin has seen plenty of twists and turns from the start of this past offseason till now. The backfield went from almost completely bare in the spring due to injuries and incoming players not yet enrolled to loaded at the start of fall camp. Now with 3 regular season games remaining, the Badgers are down to a small number of healthy backs.
Wisconsin has been able to battle through the disciplinary issues and injuries thanks to the emergence of Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi, but a lingering question has been what would happen if one of them is forced to miss time. Well, Mellusi left last week’s 52-3 win over Rutgers with a knee injury and never returned, and his status remains uncertain for Saturday’s game against Northwestern and beyond.
Mellusi has operated as the starting running back since Week 1 and leads the team in rushing with 815 yards. He transferred in from Clemson this offseason in order to play in an offense that gives running backs a significant workload, and that’s exactly what Mellusi has gotten in his first season in Madison.
If Mellusi is unable to play, Wisconsin is down to just Allen, Julius Davis, Brady Schipper, Jackson Acker and Grover Bortolotti. All of a sudden, a once crowded running back room features only 1 player, the true freshman Allen, who has seen consistent in-game experience. And even he battled through an ankle injury in last week’s game.
Where did everybody go?
Garrett Groshek opted not to take advantage of the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility, and Nakia Watson entered the transfer portal this past offseason.
The first exit from the 2021 roster was Loyal Crawford, who was dismissed from the team in August after an altercation with fellow true freshman running back Antwan Roberts, who was suspended before later entering the transfer portal.
Last season’s leading rusher, Jalen Berger, was expected to be the No. 1 option but was held out of the season opener against Penn State and did not see the field against Illinois before being dismissed from the team the following day. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, he did not react well to Wisconsin bringing in Mellusi, which led to Berger going against team rules by missing workouts and meetings.
Isaac Guerendo was a late scratch from the matchup against Illinois after he suffered a leg injury during pregame warmups and was ruled out for the rest of the season. He has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career with the Badgers.
With 5 healthy running backs left, the group features 2 walk-ons, 2 true freshmen on scholarship and another scholarship back who has yet to make his mark at the college level. Mellusi has received 173 carries this season, so players will need to step up to fill that void in the event he is not back this weekend.
The 17-year-old is developing into the next great Wisconsin running back and has been a huge key to the Badgers’ turnaround. Allen saw an increase in playing time 5 games ago and rushed for more than 100 yards in each of those matchups – all Wisconsin victories.
Allen has carried the ball 93 times this season for 661 yards, which is 7.1 yards per carry, with 6 rushing touchdowns. At 6-2 and 238 pounds, he is a physical freak who is tough to bring down and has the burst to get to the next level in a hurry.
Allen was originally going to be a part of the 2022 recruiting class before graduating from high school early, and Wisconsin sure is fortunate he did that. Additionally, he was recruited to play on defense before switching his focus to the running back position.
Allen was slightly limited against Rutgers with an ankle injury, and things could get interesting if he were forced to miss time alongside Mellusi. If healthy, expect him to see a ton of carries down the stretch.
Davis is a redshirt sophomore who was buried on the depth chart once again this season, but he stuck with the program and could receive a fantastic opportunity to prove he was worth the hype out of high school. As an in-state recruit, Davis signed with Wisconsin and had offers from LSU, Notre Dame and USC.
Coming into last week’s game, Davis had 1 career carry for a single yard. Allen did not enter the game till late in the first quarter against Rutgers, and Davis saw the field on the Badgers’ first drive. He finished the day with 32 yards on 7 carries.
If Mellusi is out for an extended period, Davis would likely be the guy to see the largest increase in workload among the remaining backs.
Schipper is a junior and has seen some meaningful snaps during games this season as a third-down back, though a decent portion of his stats have come in garbage time. He has carried 19 times for 83 yards and caught 2 passes for 14 yards. Expect his role to grow if Mellusi is out.
Acker is a true freshman who is a bit of a hybrid between a tailback and fullback at 6-1 and 229 pounds. He made his college debut last week and carried 3 times for 24 yards with a touchdown.
Bortolotti is a true freshman walk-on and played his first college game last week, finishing with 5 carries for 48 yards.