How do you define success? It’s often a very relative and personal situation, but there’s no question that after making the Big Ten title game three of the last four years (and losing all three times) success for Wisconsin will be measured in championships in 2018.
That’s what happens when you rank No. 6 in the pre-season power rankings from ESPN. It’s also what happens when you have a returning Heisman Trophy candidate and a track record of high-level success under your belt.
But, sometimes the difference between offseason expectations and post-season success comes down to a few players stepping up to the plate. Wisconsin may be in that position in 2018, so let’s look in to the players who could be the difference between a good and an all-time great season for the Badgers.
5. Jake Ferguson, RS FR, TE
Losing a dynamic player like Troy Fumagalli could be a big blow the Badgers offense, even with a talented group of receivers returning. While its likely that Zander Neuville and Kyle Penniston will get the starting nods early on in the season, neither has shown a great ability to be the game-changing pass-catcher that UW needs with Fumagalli off to the NFL. That’s where Ferguson comes in, and arguably no player on the Badgers offense helped themselves more in the spring than Ferguson did. His ability as a pass-catcher is elite, and with a creative play caller like head coach Paul Chryst, he could be one of the biggest difference makers on the season. Can he show up this fall camp like he did in the spring? If so, don’t be surprised to hear his name become integral to success as the season goes on.
4. Anthony Lotti, JR, P
Sure, Lotti increased his punting average from 37.7 to 40.1 last season, but that was only good enough for 12th in the league. One thing Lotti has done well is being able to pin opponents back in their own territory. Of the 57 punts Lotti had last season, only two were touchbacks and 27 of them were put inside the 20-yard line. He also had 18 of his punts end in fair catches. If Lotti can continue to increase his consistency as a punter, the Badgers may have a secret weapon to a victory or two on their hands.
3. Zack Baun, RS JR, OLB
It’s been plug-and-play at outside linebacker ever since the Badgers switch to the 3-4 defense in 2013. No season may put that theory to bigger test that 2018 and no player may be more important to getting the answer to be a positive one than Zack Baun. With a lot of potential and little on field production from anyone not named Andrew Van Ginkel, Baun steps in as arguably the most experienced name at the position. He’s also the one the coaching staff has pointed to the most over the last two offseason periods. Can Baun replace the production of Leon Jacobs or produce his own path to success? If he answers the bell, look for Wisconsin to have another successful season on the defensive side of the ball.
2. Dontye Carriere-Williams, RS SO, CB
No position will be under a bigger microscope in fall camp than that of cornerback. It isn’t just that there are two starters to replace or a reliable nickel back to replace either. It’s that there is a whole lack of experience to step in to the skill positions on defense. There is one player who has at least limited experience, and that is Dontye Carriere-Williams. The good news is that he ended up starting five games last season and recorded 30 tackles. He also had one interception and seven pass break ups in his reserve role. Now it will be on him to take those experiences and lead an even greener group of cornerbacks alongside him. How he leads, whether by example or inspiration will be key to making sure the defense doesn’t slip from its high expectation level.
1. Alex Hornibrook, RS JR, QB
Simply put, the answer to the question of “what will it take for the Badgers get over the next hurdle” has a two-word answer — Alex Hornibrook. If Wisconsin wants to go from the outside looking in, to in the College Football Playoff, it has to get the best of Hornibrook or at the bare minimum far fewer of the worst moments of Hornibrook’s play from 2017. The touchdown to interception ratio has been beat to death this offseason, as has the fact that he showed great promise and the height of his ability in the Orange Bowl win over Miami. Will UW see more of that version or the inconsistent one? If the version of Hornibrook that showed up against the Hurricanes is what the Badgers get, it’s hard to argue that this offense could be the best UW has had under Chryst as head coach and that could equal unprecedented success on the national level.