Wisconsin football: Isaac Guerendo on kickoff return vs. Minnesota, hamstring injury
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Once hampered by a hamstring, Isaac Guerendo shows potential vs. Minnesota

With Wisconsin’s lead trimmed to seven points and under seven minutes remaining in the third quarter, Isaac Guerendo lined up on the field as part of its kickoff return unit. As the kick floated through the wintry conditions inside TCF Stadium, a game where the victors moved on to Indianapolis and the Big Ten Championship game, the redshirt freshman initially positioned himself near the UW 17-yard line.

Then some special teams magic swung momentum in the Badgers’ direction.

“I’m not typically on kick returns,” Guerendo told BadgerBlitz.com on Monday. “So It was just drawn up so that when I do go in ... I would time it up to where ‘AC’ [Aron Cruickshank], once he ran up field a little bit, then I would come behind him off the reverse.”

At the 12-yard line, Cruickshank flipped the ball to Guerendo -- a speedster in his second year at Wisconsin -- who then followed some key blockers to the left side of the field for a 49-yard gain. That return -- Guerendo's first collegiate touch -- allowed UW’s offense to set up shop inside Minnesota territory at the 39-yard line.

Two plays later, the Badgers extended their advantage to 14 points after Kendric Pryor’s 26-yard touchdown run that helped propel UW to an eventual 38-17 win over its rival and clinch a berth in the Big Ten Championship game.

“I think making it a two-score game was when we started to build confidence -- defense was playing excellent, special teams was playing great -- so in all phases we were playing really well,” Guerendo said. “Then obviously we were able to stretch the score out.”

Wisconsin's Isaac Guerendo on his 49-yard kickoff return vs. Minnesota.
Wisconsin's Isaac Guerendo on his 49-yard kickoff return vs. Minnesota. (Darren Lee/Darren Lee Photography)

According to Guerendo, the play was drawn up earlier in the week to work on getting timing down, and the belief was Minnesota would focus in on Cruickshank -- who now ranks second in the Big Ten in kickoff return average and was just named a consensus second-team All-Big Ten selection.

The team believed the Gophers would not see it coming. Based on the results, they didn’t.

Guerendo credited lead blocks from running back Nakia Watson and tight end Seth Currens to help spring him for the explosive return as he sprinted towards the left side of the field. But even before that, he had to receive the ball from Cruickshank.

“I didn’t want to think too much,” Guerendo said. “At that point, I just told myself, I was just like, ‘Be an athlete. Make a play however it plays out.’”

In one highlight, Guerendo showcased his playmaking ability in a microcosm. Coming out of Avon High School in Indiana, he earned the state’s “Mr. Football” from his wide receiver position during a senior campaign where he hauled in 54 passes for 1,258 yards with 16 touchdowns.

His speed also shined in the Hoosier State before coming to Wisconsin as part of the 2019 class, earning prep state titles for the 100-meter dash (10.51 seconds) and 4x100 relays.

In two seasons as a Badger, Guerendo has played in eight games. That includes four so far during this 2019 season as Wisconsin prepares to face Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game on Saturday (7 p.m. CT, FOX). Last season, the program listed him as a wide receiver, but during spring practices this season he switched to running back.

As Guerendo noted, that transition was “definitely a big change” when playing in the Big Ten because “being a running back versus being a receiver is completely different.”

“That position change is probably one of the most different so, I mean, I feel like as I’ve developed. I’ve obviously been blessed with great leaders in the running back room,” Guerendo said. “Jonathan Taylor, Garrett Groshek, all these guys making plays, so being able to watch them I think just helps build my confidence, and I’m able to use stuff, ask them questions. I think it’s been a pretty easy process with them, and they’ve helped a lot for sure.”

The biggest adjustment, in Guerendo's eyes, has been the feeling of being natural as a back after developing characteristics at receiver during his career.

“Then now, all of a sudden, you’re in the backfield where everybody is," Guerendo said. "Then just reading holes, developing run concepts and stuff like that is something that definitely I needed to work on and it’s started to get better, which is good,."

A recurring hamstring injury suffered during fall camp stunted any production from Guerendo earlier this season. According to the back, that continued until about Week 7 of the college football season, and Guerendo believes he did not dress until the following week.

Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph believes that hamstring injury was the biggest thing holding Guerendo back, which made him miss most of those August practices and the beginning of the 2019 season.

“The guy’s got a bright future and obviously’s got big-play ability, so he’s fun,” Rudolph said on Tuesday. “Just trying to keep finding opportunities for him, keep working him in. Got excited that he’s back.

“He was out there contributing -- that’s freaking cool. When you see a young guy spark like that, sometimes that’s kind of the echo of, ‘OK, I’m kind of ready,’ which is good.”

Earlier this week, head coach Paul Chryst noted the adjustment Guerendo needed to make last year and this spring to find his spot, and he thinks the young back has done so and has confidence.

"I know other players, coaches are excited about what he can be, but you have to do it and I think that was a good starting point for him," Chryst said on Monday. "He’d been doing some stuff before, kickoff cover, all of those I think add up.

"Obviously he’s early in his career but that career is going to go fast, but I love having him on this team. I think that he’s a guy that can truly contribute in a number of different ways for this team.”