New faces from the Badger's Week 1 depth chart: Offense

  • Post Author
    by Sports director
  • Post Date
    Wed Sep 01 2021

Author: Ryan Wollersheim

MADISON – The Wisconsin Badgers released their two-deep depth chart on Monday prior to the team's Week 1 matchup against the Penn State Nittany Lions. The Badgers' offense struggled with injuries and COVID-19 related absences for most of last season that resulted in inconsistent play and one three-game stretch where the team scored a total of 20 points. Lucky for the Badgers, the team's offense will feature eight of the 11 regular starters from last season. There are some new faces, and some unexpected surprises, that will fill out the remaining three spots in the Badger's starting offensive unit.

RB Chez Mellusi – Jr.

Junior transfer Chez Mellusi getting the nod as the starting running back was easily the biggest surprise of Monday's depth chart release. Mellusi beat out redshirt freshman Jalen Berger for the prestigious title of No.1 running back for the Badgers. Berger led the Badgers in rushing in 2020 with 60 carries for 301 yards and two rushing touchdowns last season. With this solid production in his redshirt freshman campaign, Berger seemed primed to take over as the starter this season. That is until he began to split carries with Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi this summer. 

Mellusi, like Berger, is a former four-star recruit who flashed his combination of speed and power as well as his ability as a receiver out of the backfield. This spring, Mellusi, who is 5 foot 11, 204 pounds, also showed patience and vision with the opportunities he was given behind the Wisconsin starting offensive line. 

“He's been really consistent. That, I think, means a lot,” said Badgers head coach Paul Chryst on the decision to name Mellusi the starter.

Mellusi spent his first two seasons as the third option at tailback in a Clemson backfield dominated by star running back Travis Etienne. Clemson's offense leaned more and more on drop back the passing game over these two seasons (52.7 and 45.6 percent in 2019 and 2020 respectively). This made it difficult to find opportunities to carry the ball for Mellusi who registered 71 rushes for 427 yards and six touchdowns over 20 games.

Mellusi himself cited this as a reason for his decision to transfer out of the Tigers' program for an opportunity to become the No.1 option in an offense that featured running backs more. With these criteria, it is no surprise that Mellusi decided on Wisconsin (a team that normally runs the ball around two-thirds of the time) as the program that would give him this best opportunity. 

Mellusi also mentioned the long run of historic college running backs stretching from Ron Dayne to Jonathan Taylor as a reason why he decided the Badgers were the best program for him to continue his college career. While this is an ambitious bar to aspire to, it is unlikely that Mellusi in his first year will be able to match the annual production or workload of these all-time greats. As mentioned earlier, Mellusi is still relatively inexperienced as he has never carried the ball more than eight times in a single game. Berger, Mellusi's backup on the depth chart, carried the ball exactly 15 times in all four games he played last season, still a far cry from the workload of former star running backs at Wisconsin. 

So, while Mellusi is the starting running back going into Week 1, it's likely the Badgers may still rely on a consistent running back by committee approach this season – something the team was unable to establish last season due to COVID related absences throughout 2020. 

“We're still in a position where we have to have a number of backs play well,” said Chryst on Monday after the release of the Week 1 depth chart. 

In this case, the team would likely cycle through Mellusi along with Berger and redshirt junior Isaac Guerendo who could offer further depth on third downs as a high school wide receiver converted to running back. 

Either way, the Badgers are in need of a more explosive backfield this season as the team finished seventh in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (164.6) and eighth in yards per attempt (3.9) last season. The steady presence of Mellusi leading the way for the other Badger running backs should provide a much-improved running game to fall back on.

OC Joe Tippmann – R So.

Center Joe Tippmann may be the all-around most improved offensive player for the Badgers going into this season. Tippmann began taking first-team snaps late in the first week of practices in fall camp and never looked back. 

“You see [Tippmann], each day, take those steps needed in growing. He's still got a ton of stuff to continue to do, but then he takes the coaching points and wants to apply them … That part's been fun to watch,” said Chryst in a press conference on Monday. 

Weighing in at 6-foot-6, 320 pounds, Tippmann has the size and versatility to play at any position along the offensive line – a trait Badger offensive line coach Joe Rudolph covets. Before the move over to center this summer, Tippmann appeared in two games as the backup right guard last season before he suffered a season-ending torn labrum injury in the Badgers loss to Northwestern in November. He was able to return to his fully healthy form this spring before he first put the pads on again during fall camp. 

Tippmann also made the most of his return the summer in the weight room posting personal bests with a 430-pound bench and 615-pound squat. This speaks to the physical play that Tippmann could bring to the interior of the offensive line whose play last season was at least partially to blame for the team's lackluster rushing performance (164.6 ypg ranked No. 62 nationally). A group of fully healthy starters along with substantial veteran depth should help get this unit back on track heading into the season. 

Tippmann took over the job from redshirt senior Kayden Lyles who has 17 games of experience with eight starts along the offensive line. Lyles was also the starting center last season before he suffered two season-ending injuries to the right leg (a torn MCL and fractured tibia) in the Badgers' loss to Indiana in December. Lyles had managed to come back as a full participant in the spring and was taking snaps with the first-team unit. He is currently listed as the backup center behind Tippmann. 

RG Jack Nelson – R Fr.

Right guard Jack Nelson will be the youngest starting offensive lineman going into Week 1. The redshirt freshman from Stoughton, Wisconsin began taking first-team reps in spring practice after he appeared in just one game last season as a backup right guard. This is an impressive achievement for such a young player on a team that has plenty of veteran offensive line depth. Coach Rudolph has always preached about having the five best offensive linemen among the starting unit and Nelson has distinguished himself among this group during spring and fall camp. 

Nelson – 6 foot 7, 304 pounds – was known throughout camp for physically finishing through the whistle which regularly resulted in scuffles and friendly altercations with his defensive teammates. This hardnose, take-no-prisoners mentality is something Nelson learned from his father, Todd Nelson, a former offensive lineman who played for the Badgers from 1984 to 1988.

“He always told me you don't have to be the best, but you gotta have the most intensity, the most effort. I guess ever since then I just took it and ran with it because my dad, he's an intense guy … I think that's kind've what I bring to the table on this offensive line as I'm the youngest and most inexperienced. I'm still figuring stuff out mentally and physically, but I'm going to give the most effort every time,” said Nelson during fall camp. 

Nelson's mauling playstyle in the preseason has earned him praise and respect from fellow teammates along both sides of the line of scrimmage.

“Jack Nelson you can already tell is a special type of player, special type of athlete and he's got a different type of attitude than I've ever seen. The way he approaches everything … he has no regard for his body, for anything. He just wants to play, he just wants to be the best. It's kind've special to see,” said redshirt senior defensive end Matt Henningsen in early August. 

Nelson will combine with redshirt senior Logan Bruss, who has started seven games at right guard and 15 games at right tackle in his career. The experience Bruss brings to the starting duo on the right side of the offensive line will likely further help with Nelson's development this season.

Additional veteran depth in the first and second-team units should all help this group improve from their overall inconsistent play in 2020.