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Jim Polzin: Tailback Chez Mellusi is a starter for the Wisconsin Badgers, but can he be a star?
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Jim Polzin: Tailback Chez Mellusi is a starter for the Wisconsin Badgers, but can he be a star?

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Chez Mellusi - UW fall practice

Chez Mellusi rushed for 427 yards and six touchdowns in two seasons at Clemson.

If Chez Mellusi can cut through defenses as quickly as he’s made his way to the top of the University of Wisconsin football team’s depth chart, the program’s running game should be in good shape this season.

There weren’t many surprises on the initial two-deep that was released Monday leading into the No. 12 Badgers’ opener against No. 19 Penn State on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. But it certainly was noteworthy that Mellusi, a transfer from Clemson, beat out sophomore Jalen Berger for the starting tailback position.

In the second part of the Wisconsin State Journal's position-by-position preview series, outside linebacker Noah Burks offers his take on how UW's backfield is shaping up.

Mellusi and Berger had split reps with the No. 1 offense during practices that were open to the media during training camp. It wouldn’t have been shocking if UW had listed Mellusi and Berger as co-starters this week, a common practice when either the race between players is too close to call or the coaching staff doesn’t want to give away too much information to opponents.

It instead will be Mellusi in the starting lineup. He said Monday morning the news was delivered to him not long before UW released its depth chart to reporters.

“I’m very fortunate,” he said, “and I’m very pleased.”

Is he going to be very good for the Badgers? It’s too early to say.

Here’s what we know about Mellusi: He’s got good size — 5 foot 11, 204 pounds — and displayed a good mix of power and quickness during camp.

We also know he’s a quick learner and a hard worker. Mellusi committed to the Badgers on June 1 after making an official visit to campus. His main priority from that point forward was to learn UW’s playbook.

“I think the biggest thing with him is just his approach,” UW quarterback Graham Mertz said. “He’s going to make the most out of every rep when he has one. He’s going to do the work off the field and make sure that he’s right on that rep. I appreciate (him) coming in and just getting straight to work.”

We know Mellusi arrived in Madison this summer convinced he could win the starting job and did everything in his power to achieve that goal. Chryst said it was Mellusi’s consistency that separated him from Berger and the rest of a tailbacks group that includes junior Isaac Guerendo and true freshman Braelon Allen.

“As soon as fall camp started, I knew I had to do my part to figure out a way to stand out and make sure the guys trusted me,” Mellusi said. “Once I got a grasp of the playbook and everything slowed down for me, that’s really all there was.”

We know Mellusi was a four-star recruit out of Naples, Florida, in a 2019 Clemson recruiting class that ranked in the top 10 nationally. His list of scholarship offers included Auburn, LSU, Miami (Fla.), Michigan, Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Southern Cal.

How valuable is that information 2½ years removed from when Mellusi signed with Clemson? Probably not a ton, which brings us to what we don’t know about Mellusi.

For starters, can he handle a big workload? Mellusi registered 71 carries for 427 yards and six touchdowns while playing behind Travis Etienne — a 2021 first-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars — for two seasons. That’s a healthy average of 6.0 yards per carry.

But Mellusi has yet to carry the ball more than eight times in a college game (vs. Wofford) and never more than six times against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.

New running backs coach Gary Brown said during UW’s media day in early August he hoped to find a workhorse tailback, a complementary backup option and one or two others who could be ready in case injuries hit the position. There have been a lot of seasons in which the Badgers have been spoiled by having a lead back who would average 20-plus carries per game, most recently from 2017-19 with Jonathan Taylor.

“I think that’s part of the story that isn’t answered yet,” Chryst said Monday. “To sit there and say this is going to happen, I don’t know if we’re there yet.”

We don’t know Mellusi’s ceiling. But — speaking of being spoiled by Taylor — we shouldn’t expect him to be the savior for a UW rushing attack that was stuck in neutral as it used a committee approach to replace one of the greatest tailbacks in program history.

You can count on one hand the number of times over the past 25 years in which the University of Wisconsin football team averaged fewer than 4.0 yards per carry. The 2020 season was one of those times, with the Badgers finishing seventh in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (164.6) and eighth in yards per attempt (3.9).

Placing the blame entirely on the tailbacks for that lack of production isn’t fair. The offensive line wasn’t exactly blowing open big holes and UW’s inconsistent passing game made it easier for opponents to load up the box with defenders.

Berger showed promise, averaging 5.0 yards per carry while finishing with a team-high 60 carries. But he lacked explosiveness and finished with 15 carries in each of his four games, topping out at 93 yards in a loss at Northwestern.

Garrett Groshek had his shining moment in a win over Minnesota, rushing for 154 yards on 24 carries, while Nakia Watson struggled in a lead role before being passed by Berger.

Enter Mellusi, who didn’t need long to earn a starting spot. We’ll all find out together starting Saturday whether he can star in that role.

Contact Jim Polzin at jpolzin@madison.com.

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