Former Westlake High School star Nakia Watson is expected to take the reins of the Wisconsin running game; Jonathan Taylor, who rushed for more than 6,000 career yards, was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts. (Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Our 12th annual preseason Top 25: Westlake’s Watson is No. 13 Wisconsin’s next-man-up runner

Jonathan Taylor has taken his 6,000 career yards to the NFL, leaving Nakia Watson primed to inherit his carries.

Posted July 13th, 2020

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The 2020 college football season is two months away. Right? As it approaches with question marks, our 12th annual countdown series of our preseason Top 25, as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff, breaks down who we think are the top teams in the country.

Last year’s eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, fourth, fifth and sixth in our 2019 poll.

No. 13 Wisconsin

Can an Austin native help Wisconsin nab an elusive College Football Playoff spot? Running back Nakia Watson, a bruising 230-pound running back from Westlake, certainly looks the part for a physical team hungry for a fifth Big Ten West title in the past seven years and a return trip to the conference title game. A road date at Michigan on Sept. 26 looks like the biggest regular-season challenge, but either Ohio State or Penn State will likely be there waiting in the title game.

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Wisconsin was ranked 20th in our preseason poll last year.

 

About the Badgers

2019: 10-4, 7-2 in the Big Ten; fell 34-21 to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and lost 28-27 to Oregon in the Rose Bowl

Coach: Paul Chryst (71-35 overall, 52-16 in five years at Wisconsin)

Returning starters: 5 offense, 8 defense

Shoes to fill: RB Jonathan Taylor (2nd round, Colts); WR Quintez Cephus (5th, Lions); ILB Chris Orr (11.5 sacks in 2019); OLB Zack Baun (3rd round, Saints, 12.5 sacks); C Tyler Biadasz (4th, Cowboys)

 

Catching up

Wisconsin certainly has proven its bona fides when it comes to producing big-time talent in the backfield, but a back like Taylor won’t be easy to replace. He’s the first player in NCAA history to rush for 6,000 yards in a three-year span and he left for the NFL — a season early — as the fourth-leading rusher in FBS history. He won’t be easy to replace. But there are other roster holes, too. Two Badgers went into the transfer portal: Bradrick Shaw, a long-time reserve running back, and Aaron Cruickshank, who had emerged as one of the top kick and punt returners in the country. Wisconsin signed Jalen Berger, a four-star running back, and maybe former NFL receiver Alvis Whitted will spark the offense as the Badgers’ new receivers coach.

 

Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan passes against Oregon during the Badgers’ 28-27 Rose Bowl loss. He threw for 18 touchdowns against only five interceptions last year. (Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today)

Returning leaders

Passing: Jack Coan (led team), 236-339-2,727 yards, 18 TDs, 5 INTs

Rushing: Nakia Watson (2nd), 74-331-2; Garrett Groshek (3rd), 42-198-2

Receiving: TE Jake Ferguson (2nd), 33-407-2; RB Garrett Groshek (3rd), 29-289-0

Tackles: LB Jack Sanborn (led team), 80; S Reggie Pearson (4th), 60

Sacks: LB Jack Sanborn (3rd), 5.5; DE Matt Henningsen (4th), 4

Interceptions: LB Jack Sanborn and S Eric Burrell (tied for team lead), 3

 

Returning all-conference

Offense: G Logan Bruss (hon. mention); TE Jake Ferguson (hon. mention); OT Cole Van Lanen (hon. mention)

Defense: S Eric Burrell (hon. mention); DE Matt Henningsen (hon. mention); CB Faion Hicks (hon. mention); DE Isaiahh Loudermilk (hon. mention)

 

FYI

Hello, Chap: Westlake product Nakia Watson looks like the next tailback up in a long line of Badgers stars. A first-team, all-Centex selection by the American-Statesman as a senior in 2017, Watson ran for 1,916 yards and 27 touchdowns and added another 327 yards and six scores on 18 receptions in his final season for the Chaps. The 5-11, 230-pound redshirt sophomore looks like a natural fit in Wisconsin’s power running game; he finished second behind Taylor with 331 yards on 4.5 yards per carry with two touchdowns last season.

Passing fancy: Regardless of who gets the carries for the offense, returning quarterback Jack Coan looks poised for a big year. He threw for 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns with just five interceptions last season, and returning receivers Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis III combined for 53 receptions. If the passing game were to bog down, former four-star recruit Graham Mertz could step in and please the fan base, which always loves the No. 2 quarterback.

Big men on campus: Joe Thomas, Mike Webster, JJ Watt, Tim Krumrie. The NFL has long been the landing spot for such Wisconsin linemen from both sides of the ball, and the current crop looks primed to add to the legacy. Tackle Cole Van Lanen and guard Logan Bruss anchor what should be another formidable offensive line, and five-star freshman Jack Nelson waits in the wings. Defensively, Wisconsin finished fourth in the nation and welcomes back 18 of its top 20 tacklers, including a massive noseguard duo of Keeanu Benton and Bryson Williams and solid ends in Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand.


2019 national stat rankings

Where Wisconsin ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Badgers ranked in 2018.

Scoring: 23rd (2018 — 61st)

Scoring defense: 10th (34th)

Total offense: 38th (36th)

Total defense: 4th (29th)

Passing: 96th (118th)

Pass defense: 12th (22nd)

Rushing: 15th (6th)

Rush defense: 6th (54th)

Red zone offense: 47th (41st)

Red zone defense: 11th (77th)

Turnover margin: T-61st (T-63rd)

Time of possession: 1st (28th)

 

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25: Boise State figures to keep its perch atop the Mountain West

No. 24: Might this pandemic lead to not one, but two Iowa State-Iowa games?Inside the Cyclones

No. 23: Will Kirk Ferentz emerge from Iowa’s summer of discontent unscathed? / Inside the Hawkeyes

No. 22: Cincinnati’s picking up recruiting in 2020 where it left off in 2019 / Inside the Bearcats

No. 21: Former Gamecocks quarterback hopes to take over at Utah / Inside the Utes

No. 20: Central Florida, Darrell Wyatt are reloading with receivers / Inside the Knights

No. 19: Recruits are raving about Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck / Inside the Gophers

No. 18: A Q&A with North Carolina coach Mack Brown / Inside the Tar Heels

No. 17: Jim Harbaugh is fighting for Michigan, college football / Inside the Wolverines

No. 16: Oklahoma State’s Hubbard finds his voice / Inside the Cowboys

No. 15: USC is Zooming up the recruiting rankings / Inside the Trojans

No. 14: Is Jimbo Fisher taking Texas A&M back to the good ol’ SWC days? / Inside the Aggies

No. 13: Wisconsin Badgers

 

Coming tomorrow

Our No. 12 team. Want a hint?

This school has produced three Heisman Trophy winners, including one who briefly played college football in the state of Texas and is still playing in the NFL.

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