A bitterly disappointing 2018 regular season was capped off by a very satisfying performance against the Miami (FL) Hurricanes in the Pinstripe Bowl.
The Badgers took down the Hurricanes 35-3 and became the first Big Ten team in history to ever win five straight bowl games. It also gave UW back-to-back wins over the Hurricanes.
Oh, and did we mention that star sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor went well over the 4,000-yard mark? Ya, he set an FBS record for rushing as a freshman and sophomore with 4,171 yards over his first two seasons in a Badgers uniform.
It was all-in-all a good end to the season.
But, as we flip to a new day, all the attention now turns to the 2019 season and hopefully a return towards the top of the Big Ten football food chain.
In order to get there, Wisconsin must answer some key questions and we have those questions for you to watch throughout the winter/spring and summer leading up to the season-opening trip to Tampa Bay to take on the USF Bulls.
Can UW Get QB Upgrade?
One reason Wisconsin shot to the top of the preseason love fest’s in 2018 was Alex Hornibrook’s performance against Miami in the Orange Bowl. It turned out that he wasn’t able to build off of that and regressed back to the inconsistent player he was for the majority of the 2017 season.
Hornibrook would play in just nine games this season thanks to issues stemming from a concussion against Illinois late in October. He would finish the season completing just 59.5 percent of his passes for 1,532 yards and just 13 touchdowns to 11 interceptions.
Sophomore Jack Coan got three starts and played in five games this season thanks to Hornibrook’s concussion and symptoms surrounding it. He wasn’t much better, completing 50 of 82 passes for just 442 yards and four touchdowns to two interceptions.
All of this adds up to a series of big questions at quarterback for the Badgers in 2019. First is if Hornibrook, who came back to play late in the regular season and then missed the bowl game due to lingering concussion issues, will even play another down of football?
Even if he is back, will the Badgers open up the job to a true competition given both Hornibrook and Coan proved to not be a difference maker or even a reliable option at quarterback?
What about the chances for the No. 4 pro-style quarterback in the country, Graham Mertz? He seems like a potential game-changer for UW at quarterback, but could he make an instant impact or would the Badgers redshirt him to take some pressure off?
Next Up at Linebacker?
As great as it was watching Jonathan Taylor run roughshod over the Hurricanes vaunted defense, the other part of the story was Wisconsin’s defensive performance. Leading the way was the linebacker group and specifically the play of Andrew Van Ginkel, T.J. Edwards and Chris Orr.
Looking forward to 2019, only Orr, who has been a part-time starter throughout his career will be back from that trio. He had just 27 tackles, 1.0 tackle for loss, 1 fumble recovery and the interception in the Pinstripe Bowl.
He’s got plenty of experience, so replacing Ryan Connelly won’t be a big issue. However, the Badgers haven’t given a ton of playing time to backups underneath All-American T.J. Edwards nor to those playing under Van Ginkel and that is where things could get interesting.
UW likes Jack Sanborn, Griffin Grady and former walk-on Mike Maskalunas and depth could be there, but sorting out the crowded inside linebacker group is going to be interesting and very telling towards success on defense in 2019.
As for replacing Van Ginkel, that’s where things get more interesting. Christian Bell was listed as the backup to Van Ginkel and did play well at times in relief of the senior linebacker. Perhaps its time for the soon-to-be junior transfer from Alabama to live up to the hype.
If not, look for names like Noah Burks and Izayah Green-May to get in the mix as well.
The good news is Wisconsin has the depth and talent to not have to worry about finding a player capable of starting, it’s more about figuring out which pieces fit together best in this group.
Who Backs Up Jonathan Taylor?
The 2019 season should easily be the last for running back Jonathan Taylor, barring anything unforeseen happening of course. With all that he’s accomplished in his young career there’s not much left to prove and the NFL awaits.
But, as the Badgers look forward at the position they see a running back group that just lost main backup Taiwan Deal and little-used senior Chris James. Yes, Garrett Groshek is back, but is he really the No. 2 back or out there to be a change of pace to other backs?
Wisconsin saw Bradrick Shaw burst on the scene in his freshman season in 2016, but couldn’t get on track in 2017 as Taylor took over the starting job. He didn’t play in 2018 thanks to an injury and his road to recovery may need to be smooth or UW is in trouble.
The name to really watch may be that of freshman Nakia Watson, who provides pure power to go with the speed, vision and power of Taylor. It sure would be nice to be able to not put nearly 30 carries a game on Taylor in 2019.
Who takes the reigns in spring and runs with the opportunity that is wide open behind Taylor is a key question to answer going forward.
What Will O-Line Look Like?
We all know the Badgers will lose starting right guard Michael Dieter, but he may not be the only member of UW’s offensive line to be gone to greener pastures in 2019.
There’s an outside chance that four of UW’s starting five will head to the NFL this offseason and a good chance that three of five will be gone. Decisions have yet to be made by the likes of Beau Benzschawel, Tyler Biadasz and David Edwards. Benzschawel and Biadasz have big time NFL potential and could be high draft picks, so don’t be surprised to see one or both off to the big league.
But, the good news is that Wisconsin is so deep along the offensive line that it may be plug and play and the casual fan noticing next-to-no difference come the start of 2019. Names like Tyler Beach, Logan Bruss, Jason Erdmann and David Moorman looked great in the final drive of the game against Miami and throughout the season when they got a chance to play.
Having 5-star offensive lineman Logan Brown in the fold could also be a huge boost to depth if the Badgers lose all four of those players.
This question is more about who actually leaves and how the coaching staff shuffles a deep group to get the best five players on the field in 2019.
What wrinkles will the 2019 recruiting class be able to provide the Badgers?
We’ve already talked about highly-rated names like offensive lineman Logan Brown and quarterback Graham Mertz, but this is a deep and intriguing class that offers very different things to UW.
Case-in-point is Brown’s teammate, wide receiver Stephan Bracey. He is another smaller wide receiver like Aron Cruickshank was in the 2018 class but has loads of speed to add to the table. Could the Badgers find ways to exploit two speedsters on the field at the same time?
Julius Davis adds a lot of power to the Badgers backfield that may not be there overall.
Late addition Quan Easterling is a fullback in the mold of some of the great ones at UW and could really boost things at the position this year, as well on special teams.
Outside linebacker Spencer Lytle was a huge get, with Wisconsin beating out Clemson. Could the Badgers find a spot for him in specialty situations on defense or again, upgrade the athleticism of the special teams unit?
Point being, this is a group with varied skill sets and a lot closer to being college ready than previous groups to sign with the Badgers.
It will be interesting to see how the Badgers coaching staff figures out how to use this group and mix and match to keep redshirts if wanted.
REPORT: Former Badgers QB Hornibrook transfers to FSU
It apparently didn’t take long for former Wisconsin badgers starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook to find a new home.
After spending a few days on a visit to Florida State, reports indicate he will land with the Seminoles.
Hornibrook announced his intention to graduate in May and move on from the Badgers in a statement at the end of February.
His move to FSU makes a lot of sense, as the Seminoles have a huge void at QB and hardly anyone in the position group this upcoming season.
Following the dismissal of former starting QB Deondre Francois, the Seminoles has just one scholarship quarterback on the roster.
That was redshirt sophomore James Blackman, who has started in the past but also explored his own potential transfer this offseason.
As for the Badgers, this spring will see a wide open competition for the starting quarterback job.
There is four-game starter Jack coan, along with walk-on Danny Vanden Boom. We’ll also get the first big look at redshirt freshman Chase Wolf and the highest rated quarterback to come to Wisconsin in Graham Mertz.
It appears both sides of this transfer are getting what they want and that’s the best outcome you could hope for.
Hornibrook won’t have to compete with four other quarterbacks and the Badgers can get a better read on their realistic options for 2019 and beyond this spring.
2019 NFL Combine results for Badgers players
The next step up for many former Wisconsin Badgers is the NFL. For eight players that step included an invite to the annual player combine, where teams test and poke and prod players for an entire weekend.
So, how did the Badgers fare? Let’s take a look at results and talk coming out of the combine.
40-yard dash: 4.81 seconds
Bench Press: 20 reps
Vertical Jump: 33.5″
Broad Jump: 119.0″
What was said about Dixon (from Lance Zierlein): Although he was an interchangeable, versatile safety in college, Dixon may need a more static position in the pros to minimize his exposure. He can handle man cover duties, but his instincts and anticipation aren’t good enough to make up for his lack of closing burst and his lack of height limits his ability to challenge deep jump balls. He does have some talent, however, and could compete for a backup role with an eye on dime linebacker or a Cover-2, Cover-4 safety.
Prospect Grade: 5.26 (NFL Backup or Special Teams Potential)
40-yard dash: 5.24 seconds
Bench Press: 20 reps
What was said about Benzschawel: Tall, pass-blocking specialist who will need to prove he can be serviceable against NFL power in the run game to become a future starter. Benzschawel plays with good technique and an understanding of blocking concepts in the run game, but might lack the play strength at point of attack NFL teams look for. However, his allure to GMs and offensive coaches could be his ability to match up against athletic, sub-package rushers in today’s quickness-oriented rush approaches.
Prospect Grade: 5.55 (Chance to Become NFL Starter)
40-yard dash: 5.23 seconds
Bench Press: 21 reps
Vertical Jump: 28″
Broad Jump: 105.0″
3-cone drill: 7.88 seconds
20-yard shuttle: 4.81 seconds
What was said: Durable, capable guard/center prospect who knows how to play the game but might lack the athletic elements needed to become a full-time starter on the next level. Dieter’s experience in a variety of pro-style rushing schemes and his overall technique work are in his favor while his experience across the line offer flexibility that could lock him into an NFL roster as an early backup with the potential to step in and start if needed.
Prospect Grade: 5.60 (Chance to Become NFL Starter)
40-yard dash: 5.28 seconds
Bench Press: —
Vertical Jump: 25.5″
Broad Jump: 99.0″
3-cone drill: 7.69 seconds
20-yard shuttle: 4.77 seconds
What was said: Quarterback-turned-tight-end-turned-right-tackle who has maintained his light feet but is missing functional strength and body control to hold his ground against NFL power. Edwards isn’t the technician we’ve come to expect from the Wisconsin program and he’ll need additional technique work to help make up for some of his physical deficiencies. He’s still a pup as an offensive lineman and he should improve with more experience and weight room work, but it’s tough to project him behind average backup to low-end starter at this point.
Prospect Grade: 5.44 (NFL Backup or Special Teams Potential)
40-yard dash: 4.66 seconds
Bench Press: —
Vertical Jump: 34.5″
Broad Jump: 118.0″
3-cone drill: 7.09 seconds
20-yard shuttle: 4.31 seconds
What was said: Connelly fits the Wisconsin mold of tough, productive linebackers who end up lacking either size or speed as NFL projections. He’s not big enough to play SAM and he’s not fast enough to play WILL so he’ll end up as a slightly smaller/slower 3-4 or 4-3 inside backer. He does a decent job of playing around his deficiencies and finding ways to make impact tackles and he’s fairly instinctive is zone coverage. He has the demeanor and play traits to become a solid special teamer with average backup potential.
Prospect Grade: 5.36 (NFL Backup or Special Teams Potential)
40-yard dash: —
Bench Press: 16
Vertical Jump: —
Broad Jump: —
3-cone drill: —
20-yard shuttle: —
What was said: Stout four-year starter who shows up and does his job each week as a banger in the box with surprising ball skills to flip the field. He improved each season and his off-season weight loss is indicative of how seriously he takes the game. He lacks desired chase speed and might be maxed out as a player, but he doesn’t make many dire mistakes that hurt his team. Edwards is a backup inside linebacker for a 3-4 or 4-3 defense with the ability to step up and handle starter’s duties if needed.
Prospect Grade: 5.47 (NFL Backup or Special Teams Potential)
Andrew Van Ginkel
Bench Press: 17
Vertical Jump: 38″
Broad Jump: 123.0″
3-cone drill: 6.89 seconds
20-yard shuttle: 4.14 seconds
What was said: Unimposing 3-4 outside linebacker with decent athletic ability but a concerning lack of aggression as a run blocker and consistency as a pass-rusher. Van Ginkel has the motor to tally stats with effort and secondary rush, but he needs a better rush plan and more proactive hands to set him up for success in attacking the quarterback. He will need a lot more strength and toughness to hold up as a run defender, but his length and production on special teams could give him a shot at the back end of the roster or on a practice squad.
Prospect Grade: 5.0 (50-50 chance to make an NFL roster)
Hornibrook’s gone, but questions remain the same for Badgers QB’s
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
It’s hard to argue that the formula that the Wisconsin Badgers have used for nearly 30 years has been highly successful. Play great defense, pound your opponent in to submission and catch them with a deep ball or two along the way.
UW has gone to six Rose Bowls, participated in two College Football Playoff bowl games and won six Big Ten titles in those nearly 30 years and with said formula.
But, that last part has been missing from the Badgers offense for awhile now…you know, since Russell Wilson stopped dazzling us with his rocket arm and escapability back in 2011.
From Joel Stave to Alex Hornibrook and other quarterbacks in between, the UW offense has struggled to find that guy who makes opponents respect his arm enough to stop stuffing the line of scrimmage.
With the news on Wednesday that Hornibrook would be transferring from the program for his final season, the competition is now wide open for the next Badgers starting quarterback.
The bar for success is admittedly low, after all, the Badgers finished 102nd in the country last season with 14 interceptions and 119th in passing offense (157.7 passing yards per game). Nearly anything would be better than what the quarterbacks of 2018 produced.
Losing Hornibrook does mean losing an experienced player, but does it matter much when that player had 33 interceptions in as many games played?
Sure, he was 26-6 as a starter over three years. But, was that because of or in spite of him? I’d argue having one of the best defenses and running back groups in the country has been the driver of that success, not Hornibrook.
Which brings me to the question at hand — is there a quarterback on the Badgers roster that can be someone other teams have to respect? Is there another player ala Russell Wilson, who is capable of taking this offense from ground and pound to three dimensional?
Let’s start with a look at the only quarterback on the roster to play a college game — Jack Coan.
Last season we got the biggest glimpse of Coan to date and what was shown wasn’t all that promising. He played in five games, starting four and completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 515 yards and 5 touchdowns to 3 interceptions.
There was plenty left to be desired, but I also wonder if it was because of too much protection from the coaching staff or just not being ready for the situation. Often the game plan called for Coan to dink and dunk the ball and he was never really given the opportunity to unleash the deep ball.
It seemed like the coaching staff was trying hard to get away with not having to put the game on the sophomore quarterback.
Coan now has those four starts under his belt and with Honribrook out of the way has the experience advantage over everyone else. But, is experience enough?
We’re about to find out, because the Badgers have one of the top quarterbacks in the 2019 class in the fold this spring in Graham Mertz.
Last we saw him, he was setting records at The All-American Bowl game en route to MVP honors. He was flinging the ball deep and accurately, something Badgers fans haven’t seen from a quarterback since Wilson came in to save this team in 2011.
But, there is bound to be a learning curve as Mertz transitions away from spread-based concepts to more under center work. How that transition goes this spring and how quickly he understands and executes the playbook will be telling.
The good news is that we’ve seen Mertz challenged against the best competition in the country at the quarterback position and he’s lived up to billing on every occasion. If ever there was a QB up to the challenge of playing early in a Badgers uniform, it is Mertz.
But, that doesn’t mean he has to be “the guy” either. There are other options to consider already on the Badgers roster.
Both Danny Vanden Boom and Chase Wolf flashed moments of potential all last offseason. In fact, Vanden Boom outplayed Coan throughout most of last spring before tailing off a bit in the competition in the fall.
Could Vande Boom pick it back up this spring and become a viable option? The former Kimberly star and walk-on at UW certainly has played at a level that makes giving him a legitimate chance this spring worthwhile.
On the other hand, Wolf was one of five quarterbacks in the mix last offseason and his reps have been limited. He’ll likely see many more this spring and it’s a chance to shine.
There’s no doubt he’s the dark horse in the race to replace Hornibrook, but with a full year of studying and learning the Badgers offense you never know what will happen when he gets his chance this spring.
All of this leads me to this conclusion — no one, not even the coaching staff has a real answer as to whom will lead the Badgers offense in 2019. If anyone tells you they do, it’s just an uneducated guess at best.
But, what I do know is that spring camp provides the coaches and players the best opportunity to fully understand what the quarterbacks could be capable of in 2019.
There’s little need to get work in in the run game save for the offensive line, but what is going to be important is pressure-testing the quarterbacks. Doing so in a controlled environment like spring ball is a great way to do so.
If the Badgers want to transform from a good team to a great one, they’ll need to find that transformational quarterback as soon as possible. It could also be that the coaching staff needs to find ways to transform the Badgers offense in small ways to take advantage of the quarterback’s strengths.
Hopefully there’s a positive answer that emerges following spring ball.
Hornibrook leaves Badgers, enters name in transfer portal
The Wisconsin Badgers will have a new starting quarterback in 2019, as senior quarterback Alex Hornibrook announced his departure from the program.
“Alex informed us of his decision to leave the team earlier today,” head coach Paul Chryst said in a statement. “He contributed to a lot of our recent success and we want to thank him for all he did for our program. We wish him the best of luck.”
Not only is Hornibrook not playing for the Badgers next season, he has also entered his name in to the transfer portal and will look to play elsewhere next year.
Hornibrook went 26-6 in three seasons as a starting quarterback for the Badgers, including a 20-4 record in Big Ten games. His .813 winning percentage is the best of any quarterback in program history.
He ranks in a tie for third all-time at Wisconsin in touchdown passes (47), fourth in completion percentage (60.5%) and fifth in passing yards (5,438).
That would normally suggest this loss is a big blow. But, there have always been serious questions as to just how much he was contributing to the cause of that 22-6 record.
Additionally, he benefited from longevity quite a bit. Hornibrook started from his redshirt freshman season played in the majority of three seasons, which hasn’t been the normal rate for quarterbacks in college football or at Wisconsin specifically.
There are also the mounds of interceptions to consider as well, as Hornibrook threw 33 interceptions to just 47 touchdowns in his first three years. He also contributed 11 interceptions towards last season’s 14 total as team. That ranked 102nd in the country.
The Badgers will start their search for a new starting quarterback on March 26.
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