The 2017 Wisconsin Badgers face an interesting season ahead, with head coach Paul Chryst entering his third season at the helm of his alma mater.
His first two seasons have produced a whopping 21 wins, yet the Badgers have missed out on a Big Ten championship despite that win total. The 2016 season saw Wisconsin win the Big Ten West division and take the Cotton Bowl Classic over previously unbeaten Western Michigan.
But, that was last season and things change quickly in the world of college football. How will Wisconsin enter the offseason and what could this team look like come the fall?
Let’s take a way too early look at the Wisconsin Badgers of 2017.
Biggest Strength: Offensive Line
Ironically, one of the biggest weaknesses of Wisconsin Badgers football over the past two years has been its offensive line. Things were bad in 2015, but got better as 2016 rolled along. A lot of that had to do with youth and injuries.
However, looking forward to 2017 we see four returning starters and all of them will be sophomores or juniors this upcoming season. No player turned a bigger corner to help this squad than now sophomore right tackle David Edwards, who went from tight end to offensive lineman in fall camp this past season. By the middle of the year he was a replacement at right tackle for Jacob Maxwell and he never looked back.
Wisconsin’s run game got diverse and dynamic with his insertion in to the starting lineup as well. Combine that with quality starters like Michael Dieter at starter and Jon Dietzen at left guard and there’s a great nucleus to build around.
Of course this group does lose All-American left tackle Ryan Ramczyk to the NFL draft a season early. But, this is a team that loves its depth along the offensive line and could see Edwards slide to the left side or two redshirt players in Cole Van Lanen and David Moorman step in to the fold as well.
Heading in to 2017 there is no position group with more upside and production than the Badgers offensive line.
Biggest Weakness: Quarterback
Standing here in January, there is one glaring weakness that jumps off the page about the 2017 Wisconsin Badgers — quarterback.
Wisconsin may be lucky to have Alex Hornibrook, but the jury is still out on him as a long-term solution to the Badgers issues at QB. He made an immediate impact once he came in against Georgia State, but after some solid outings to start Big Ten play, things went downhill quick.
It ended with Hornibrook seeing less and less of the time as a starter and eventually to Paul Chryst starting Bart Houston in the Cotton Bowl Classic. That after a month of practices to get back in to the swing of things.
Should Hornibrook not snap out of the funk that hit him at the end of his freshman season, Wisconsin has literally no experience coming back at QB. Instead, it will have redshirt freshman Karé Lyles, who is coming off surgery last year to repair a shoulder injury, and incoming freshman Jack Coan.
Coan represents an interesting option after setting Long Island high school football records for passing yards and touchdowns. He comes to UW as the highest-rated QB to sign with the Badgers in the 247Sports era. Is he ready to jump right in to the mix?
Badger fans haven’t seen a QB ready to do that in his career in a very long time. Should something happen to Hornibrook or if he can’t improve on last season’s numbers, it could be a scary year behind center for the Badgers.
Burning Question: Who Makes Plays At Outside Linebacker?
Wisconsin has been lucky to have some great outside linebackers as the transition to a 3-4 defense took place over the last three or four years. That included stalwart Vince Biegel at one of the OLB positions for the past three years.
His time at UW is up, and his partner on the outside this season, T.J. Watt, had one incredible year and is off the NFL draft as an early entrant. It means for the first time since Dave Aranda changed up Wisconsin’s defensive makeup that the team will face life with two new starters at outside linebacker.
There appear to be a host of options that Wisconsin likes, with names like Zack Baun and Garrett Dooley having had plenty of experience this past season. However, Alabama transfer Christian Bell turned heads all season on the practice field and redshirt freshmen Noah Burks and Mason Stokke are also promising options.
But, whomever steps in as starters have some massive shoes to fill at arguably the most visible and important position on the Badgers defense.
Key Players To Watch This Offseason
Alex Hornibrook, QB: The reality is, seeing anyone not named Alexi Hornibrook being the starter in 2017 would be a major shock. He is literally the only quarterback on Wisconsin’s roster with collegiate experience.
Sure, he hit a wall late in the season and a promising start became a disastrous finish, but let’s also take in to account the injuries and the play of the running game as big factors in the slide in production. The good news here is there is plenty to like about his arm and his moxie. Oh, and it appears he is going to work his rear-end off this offseason too.
— Zach Heilprin (@ZachHeilprin) January 16, 2017
But, should that wall be permanent for Hornibrook, Wisconsin will have to turn to a redshirt freshman in Karé Lyles or to one of the highest-rated recruits in UW history, Jack Coan. Either way those situations aren’t ideal unless they just jump off the page this spring.
Hornibrook has a chance to cement himself as a long-term answer for the Badgers passing game, but he still has plenty to prove after a season in which he finished with a 58.6 completion percentage, just 1,262 yards and nine touchdowns to seven interceptions.
Bradrick Shaw, RB:
Many questioned if Wisconsin’s run game could get going in 2016, but few look at UW’s run game with as much trepidation as the 2017 offseason gets under way. That’s in large part because of the performance of sophomore-to-be Bradrick Shaw.
He burst on to the scene with a great combination of power and speed. Take this for example:
Shaw finished the season as the clear No. 3 running back, but with both Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale off to potential NFL futures, it appears he is in a prime position to become the featured back.
Racking up 457 yards and five touchdowns on just 88 carries should give plenty of hope for the future. So should Shaw’s ability to stay relatively healthy, something few of his fellow 2017 contenders as a starter could do.
Shaw’s biggest challenge is likely to come from Pitt transfer Chris James, but it would be a minor upset to see anyone but Shaw be the featured back in 2017 and beyond.
Arrington Farrar, S:
Few defensive backs have come to Wisconsin with as much recruiting hype as Farrar did in the 2015 class. He was a 4-star recruit and the No. 15 ranked safety in the class, but hasn’t been able to crack the starting lineup at UW since his arrival.
After playing a largely special teams role in 2015, Farrar did play a much larger role in the secondary this past season. He just couldn’t unseat Leo Musso as the starting free safety. However, he had just seven tackles and a forced fumble on the season.
If Farrar is going to live up to his potential on the recruiting trail it is a make-or-break offseason for him. Farrar won’t just be handed the starting job, as there are a lot of talented players in the mix behind him as well.
For a team that put up double-digit wins in each of the last two seasons, some would expect a dip. That’s especially true when arguably the four best players on your team are gone.
However, the hallmarks of great Badgers teams are in place once again for 2017. UW’s offensive and defensive lines are loaded with talent and most of the secondary that picked apart opposing quarterbacks is back as well. Wisconsin also appears to like what it has at wide receiver for the first time in a long time and has one of the deepest groups of inside linebackers in the country.
There are questions about who will carry the load in the run game and if the quarterback position can stabilize, but this team has the skeleton of another quality Badgers squad as we look to spring football. Don’t be surprised if its a third-straight season with 10 wins or more, even with some of its big losses.