Can a healthy Chez Mellusi change Wisconsin’s offense? Badgers RB hungry for return

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin running back Chez Mellusi understands why there is a label that follows him now whenever he steps on the football field. Three injuries in as many seasons with the Badgers, including two season-enders, mean that many people view him as a good player who is too injury-prone to be reliable. Mellusi sees it a different way.

“Yeah, I’ve had my fair share of injuries,” Mellusi said Friday. “But injury-prone injuries are where someone is injuring the same thing multiple times over and over again. I think at the end of the day, I just have sh—y luck sometimes.”

Mellusi is in the process of preparing for his sixth season of college football. And he is hoping that, this time, good fortune will be on his side to finally allow him to demonstrate his talent over a full season at Wisconsin.

“I’d be selling myself short if I didn’t give it one more shot, especially here,” Mellusi said. “I think that myself, my family deserves it. I think everyone knows I can play at the next level. I just have to put together that healthy season.”

A healthy Mellusi has the potential to drastically change Wisconsin’s offense, which he showed flashes of last season. The good news is he has been a full participant during spring practices and looked a lot like the player he believes he can be. It is also clear that Mellusi has a big hurdle to overcome once the season opener arrives.

That’s because Mellusi has missed 17 games over the past three seasons. In 2021, he tore the ACL in his left knee during the third quarter of a victory against Rutgers, which sidelined him for the last four games. He broke his arm at midseason in 2022 and was forced to sit four more games. Mellusi’s last appearance in a Wisconsin uniform was in Week 4 of last season when Purdue outside linebacker Kydran Jenkins tackled him for a 1-yard loss at midfield late in the fourth quarter and landed on Mellusi’s left leg. Mellusi was carted off the field while Wisconsin’s entire team surrounded him.

After the game, Mellusi emerged from the locker room on crutches, a gray boot over his leg and a white towel covering his head. He stared toward the team bus where family members of players leaned against the fence and lightly applauded as a tribute to his efforts, showing an understanding that he was about to endure another serious recovery. Mellusi said he not only fractured his fibula but also dislocated his ankle, which required what he called “a full ankle reconstruction.”

What made the situation more difficult, Mellusi said, was seeing how much Wisconsin’s offense struggled without him as he watched games from upstairs in the box with members of the offensive staff. The Badgers finished 7-6, averaged their fewest points per game in a season in 19 years and ranked 64th in rushing offense. Mellusi said he believed he would have made a significant impact in those Wisconsin losses, which ate at him.

Offensive coordinator Phil Longo lamented the injury to Mellusi, whom he said “arguably was our most explosive player.” Mellusi opened last season with 13 carries for 157 yards rushing and two touchdowns in a victory against Buffalo, which included a scintillating 89-yard score. He scored touchdowns in each of Wisconsin’s first three games and finished with 307 yards rushing and four touchdowns.

Mellusi said he took a few days after the injury to process his emotions. But once he learned from the doctor that he didn’t have another torn ACL and faced a reasonable timetable to come back, he turned his mind toward another college season. He said he never thought about giving up, in part because he felt as though he had so much more to give.

If there was anything good to come out of what happened to him, it’s the fact that the injury occurred during the fourth game, which allowed him to preserve a redshirt under NCAA rules. Mellusi spent his first two seasons at Clemson before transferring to Wisconsin but never used a redshirt year, instead only utilizing the extra year of eligibility granted from the pandemic in 2020 to play last season.

“If you’ve never gone through something hard, finding silver linings is difficult,” Mellusi said. “I’ve gone through a couple tough things, so I always find a silver lining some way, somehow. I got hurt in the fourth game. The one game before I would run through that redshirt. So it was weird, but it was a silver lining. At the end of the day, finding those little things that can make those really bad things better is important.”

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Mellusi is well ahead of schedule this spring. Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell said in February that he thought Mellusi “won’t get a big load, if any load, in the spring.” But Mellusi said he was cleared nearly two months earlier than expected and said it was important to knock the rust off his game now rather than wait until preseason practices in August.

Running backs coach Devon Spalding praised Mellusi’s decisiveness as a runner, as well as his comfort with the offense in Year 2 of the system. He said having Mellusi on the field was “like having another coach out there.” Mellusi said he has focused on being a leader for the entire group, particularly after spending the past three seasons working alongside running back Braelon Allen, who declared this offseason for the NFL Draft. Mellusi’s leadership and positive energy has been felt by teammates.

“It’s been a long road for him,” running back Jackson Acker said. “But he’s here, he’s dedicated, he’s putting in the work. So it’s inspiring to see that. I look up to him. He’s a great guy and a great teammate. I think he inspires all of us running backs just because we’ve seen what he’s been through, and it’s been tough for him.”

Wisconsin is slated to have eight scholarship running backs, including a pair of four-star signees in the 2024 class in Darrion Dupree and Dilin Jones who will arrive this summer. Oklahoma transfer Tawee Walker has shown good power and burst and could complement Mellusi in the backfield, as could returners Acker and Cade Yacamelli. But Mellusi is the running back the Badgers need to step up because his skill set is an ideal fit for Longo, who can utilize versatile players with speed in space.

“To me, he can do it all,” Walker said. “I don’t see one thing on the field he really can’t do. He’s really versatile, can catch out of the backfield, will lower his shoulder, will make you miss, has open-field speed and is not scared to pick up in pass pro. I think he has an all-around game.”


Inside a Wisconsin comeback more than a thousand days in the making

Mellusi has 407 career carries for 2,021 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also has 17 receptions for two touchdowns. Mellusi said the ways in which he builds on those numbers are not motivating factors to him right now. He simply wants to help Wisconsin win games and finish what he started.

“Everyone’s journey is different,” Mellusi said. “And at this point, I’m just so used to it. It’s never been easy. At this point in time, I don’t even really know if I want it to be easy because it’s part of my story. I’ve just been embracing it, and I think it’s going to make for an even better story at the end of the day.”

(Photo: John Fisher / Getty Images)

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