Fullback may be a dying position at many levels of football, but it’s a spot that’s thriving at the University of Wisconsin.
Senior Mason Stokke and junior John Chenal form the tag team that’s been manning the role for the No. 10 Badgers (2-0) the past two seasons and both have played significantly in the team’s two games this year. The duo has to ability to be the stick-your-nose-in, smash-mouth lead blockers that is typically a fullback’s duty, but they’ve added more than that to the offense.
Stokke, a Menomonie High School graduate, has accounted for three touchdowns thus far while Chenal scored in the opener and added a big chunk of UW’s 341 rushing yards last week at Michigan.
“They’re great. They’re athletes, they can do it all. That’s what separates them from a lot of other fullbacks in the country. They can catch, they can pass block, run the ball as we’ve seen. I love running behind them,” sophomore running back Nakia Watson said after the team’s 49-11 win over Michigan.
Neither Stokke nor Chenal have been made available to reporters yet this season.
Both Stokke and Chenal have been moved around the Badgers’ backfield this year and they’re often put in motion before the snap. They’ve started plays the traditional tight end spot, on the wings and in the backfield, and a fullback has been on the field for 50% of the team’s offensive plays. On a goal line snaps against the Wolverines, both were in the backfield in front of Watson, which led to an easy receiving touchdown for an uncovered Stokke.
Versatility has been a virtue for Badgers fullbacks. Last year they helped make up for the lack of healthy options at tight end with their blocking and they’ve been consistent special teams players. This season they’re stepping into larger backfield roles after the program’s COVID-19 outbreak left the running back room thin. Stokke especially has been preparing for more work this season.
“Mase, that’s not foreign to him, it’s been in his background from kind of high school on,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said during training camp. “I think he wants to do what he does best and get in there and pop open holes and be that physical player for us and I think that’s where his mindset is. But we do rely on him as being a leader and one of those ways he leads is he’s ready to step into different roles if needed.”
Stokke has proven to be an effective red-zone threat as both runner and receiver. He has three total touchdowns this season, second on the team behind tight end Jake Ferguson, who has four receiving scores. Stokke has gained a total of 12 yards on his scoring plays.
Opponents know the Badgers’ identity as a powerful running football team and UW is using defenses’ aggressiveness to stop the run against it, especially in the red zone. Both of Stokke’s receiving touchdowns came on play-action plays that held defenders’ attention on the backfield while Stokke went into his route.
“He’s just a gritty football player. Lucky to have him on my side of the ball and have him on our team and on offense. He’s a dynamic player. He gives us the option of passes and the run, he’s a great blocker. It’s been awesome to have him,” senior tackle Cole Van Lanen said.
“You just know he’s going to give it everything he has every given play to make sure he gives us the best opportunity on every play. Feel like as an offense as a whole that’s what we do for each other. We just love having Mason out there with us.”
Chenal has also provided offense, both on the goal line and other areas of the field. Chenal punched in a touchdown against Illinois in the season opener last month and helped ice the win against Michigan on Saturday. His 71 yards against Michigan more than doubled his career total at UW and he set a career-best with a 43-yard run in the fourth quarter kick-started the team’s seventh touchdown drive of the day.
Of the 23 players listed as fullbacks in the NFL this season, two came from UW’s system — Oakland’s Alec Ingold and Pittsburgh’s Derek Watt. Ingold showed a similar array of skills that Stokke has been showing, and Ingold was a mentor to Stokke when he arrived at UW’s campus.
Badgers coach Paul Chryst said Stokke has a chance to follow that same path.
“Yeah, I do think he’ll continue to grow, he’ll continue to get better at it. We’ve got Alec playing and Derek’s playing, I think they’re all … you see some similarities and they’re a little bit different,” Chryst said. “The best part about Mase right now is he’s just trying to truly be in the moment. I think that’s the best way to approach it. I think he’s a guy that’s … he’s been around but he’s still learning the position. He’s made improvements this year certainly from last year and I think he’ll continue to improve.”
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