Wisconsin's rushing attack will look quite a bit different this season without Jonathan Taylor in the backfield.
The Badgers hope it won't necessarily be that much less potent.
Wisconsin begins adjusting to life without Taylor on Friday night when the 14th-ranked Badgers host Illinois in their pandemic-delayed season opener. Taylor went to the Indianapolis Colts in the second round of the NFL draft after becoming the first Bowl Subdivision player to rush for over 6,000 yards in three seasons.
"JT used to always say the standard is the standard," fifth-year senior running back Garrett Groshek said. "That's what our goal is, at least in the running back room, to be at the exact same level if not higher and to keep raising the level of running back play at Wisconsin."
That standard preceded Taylor's arrival on campus.
A Wisconsin player has won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back four of the past eight years. Montee Ball won it in 2012, Melvin Gordon in 2014 and Taylor the past two seasons.
This marks the first time since 2006 that Wisconsin has opened a season without a single player who has rushed for at least 100 yards in a single game.Yet the Badgers remain confident in the guys who will be carrying the ball.
"I like the pieces," Badgers coach Paul Chryst said. "Now we've got to put it all together."
Wisconsin's depth chart lists either Groshek or sophomore Nakia Watson as the first-team running back this week. Chryst says sophomore Isaac Guerendo also will get opportunities.
Groshek, a former walk-on, has 916 career yards rushing. He had 42 carries for 196 yards and two touchdowns last year.
Watson ran for 331 yards and two touchdowns on 74 carries last season. Guerendo has one career carry.
They'll be running behind a line that lost three starters from the 10-4 team that reached the Rose Bowl last year, though 32-game starter Jon Dietzen is back after he missed the 2019 season because of injuries.
"Jonathan Taylor is Jonathan Taylor, obviously," offensive tackle Cole Van Lanen said. "But our running backs are solid. I'm really excited for them. You've seen some things they can do in the past when they've had their opportunities. Now it's their time."
If this turns into more of a backfield by committee, the members of it believe they can provide an effective combination.
Watson describes himself as a power runner while praising Groshek's football IQ. Watson said Groshek often sees things on the field he might have overlooked.
"I feel we complement each other in that way, and we feed off each other," Watson said.
At the start of the preseason, it seemed as if the presence of senior quarterback Jack Coan could take some pressure off the Badgers' untested rushing attack.
That changed when Coan injured his right foot in practice and had to undergo surgery.
Coan is now out indefinitely and redshirt freshman Graham Mertz will start. It means Wisconsin lacks proven playmakers in backfield and the rushers must produce right away.
"I'm really confident in them," offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. "I'm excited to see it."