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Wisconsin Badgers 2018 Preview: Competition steep for carries at running back

Jonathan Taylor leads the way for a potentially loaded Badgers backfield in 2018

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No position has a bigger spotlight at the University of Wisconsin than that of running back. It’s been the case for the better part of 30 years now. Arguably, nothing will change in 2018, even with the deepest talent pool at wide receiver the Badgers have had in over a decade at least.

The 2018 Wisconsin Badgers backfield should be very familiar to even the casual fan. That’s because every significant member of the running back group is back for another year. But, does that mean more leaning on just Jonathan Taylor or can UW lessen his load and get more out of the rest of the group?

Previous Previews: Wide Receiver | Defensive Line |

While there’s a lot of familiar faces, fall camp will be a chance for those stuck behind Taylor to show they can handle taking on more carries and become reliable second options for the run game.

State of the Position: Potentially Strong

On paper, this group could be the deepest and scariest we’ve seen since the Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon backfield. There’s a Heisman Trophy candidate in sophomore Jonathan Taylor, a pair of bruising backs in Bradrick Shaw and Taiwan Deal and a veteran do-everything back by the name of Chris James.

Taylor burst on the scene as a true freshman, rushing for nearly 2,000 yards in his debut. He did it with an uncanny ability to rush over, around and speed by defenders. But, some are quick to forget that without Taylor bursting on to the scene, this group would’ve been in big trouble in 2018.

James and Shaw all went down for significant time during the season with various injuries and Deal never saw the field while trying to get his ankles right.

Shaw was second on the team with 365 yards and four touchdowns while playing parts of 11 games on the year. Just how banged up was this group? True freshman walk-on Garrett Groshek was leaned on for 61 carries, 297 yards and two touchdowns. He showed he has value, but ideally they wouldn’t be leaning on that type of youth in 2018.

That said, UW recruited another potential sleeper at running back in Texas native Nakia Watson. His skill set and college-ready body may give him a shot to play this upcoming year, but ideally this would be a redshirt situation.

Wisconsin also returns senior fullback Alec Ingold, who has been a huge part of the success of the running back group behind him. But, just like the running back position, as long as Ingold stays healthy all season, things should run smoothly for this backfield. If not, UW will rely on a trio of freshmen who will battle it out for the backup spot in fall camp.

Biggest Question: Can Shaw or Deal Live Up to Potential?

Heading in to the 2017 season, many believed that Bradrick Shaw was going to be the breakout player. It was easy to see why, as he put up 457 yards on just 88 carries in his freshman season. That was good for third on the team behind the senior duo of Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale.

Instead of taking over, Shaw couldn’t shake the injury bug and seemed slowed all season long despite playing in 11 of 14 games. He took on more carries (96), but had fewer yards (365) and touchdowns (4) than his redshirt freshman campaign.

Deal has been a long-term question mark, showcasing bruising ability and deceptive speed. He’s also seen more ankle injuries than anyone should ever have to go through. Can a full season and another offseason to deal with those issues transform him from a question mark to a productive player?

Ideally, Shaw or Deal returns to form and along with senior Chris James makes the Badgers backfield a powerful trio to deal with. But, we just don’t know which version of either player will show up or if either will be able to stay on the field enough to be a factor.

Depth Chart:

RB: Jonathan Taylor, Chris James, Bradrick Shaw
FB: Alec Ingold, John Chenal

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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Projecting the Wisconsin Badgers 2019 defensive depth chart

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Yesterday we took a look at how the Wisconsin Badgers offense may look heading in to spring ball. Today, we turn to the other side of the ball as UW looks to figure out life without its lifebloods the last few years.

UW will face life without two of its biggest stars — inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly — as they head in to 2019 and there’s little question that replacing them will be the key to just about everything in this offseason.

But, that isn’t the only question to be answered and we’ll attempt to answer them all with a look at how we see the potential depth chart set itself up.

Defensive Line

End

1. Garrett Rand, RS Jr.; 2. Aaron Vopal, RS So./Isaiah Mullens, RS Fr.
1. Isaiahh Loudermilk, RS Jr.; 2. Matt Hennignsen RS So.

There was a significant drop-off in pass rush and overall production from the 2018 Badgers and a lot of it can be attributed to a very thin defensive line. UW lost Rand before the season, and Loudermilk couldn’t shake the injury bug after a summer leg injury hampered his start to the season.

In 2019, both should be back and healthy and it will make a big difference. Both Vopal and Henningsen got a ton of experience and should be better off for it, but behind the scenes I’ve heard rave reviews for the game of Mullens and wouldn’t be surprised to see him jump in to the mix quickly in 2019.

Nose Guard

1. Bryson Williams, So.
2. Gio Paez, Fr.

Wisconsin is going to need young players to step up and provide depth in 2019, just like it needed Bryson Williams to do so in 2018. The good news is that Williams could be trusted and got plenty of playing time, starting a few games to end the season after Olive Sagapolu’s season was cut short. While we could see walk-on senior Gunnar Roberge as a backup, my money is on 2019 signee Gio Paez helping big time off the bench.

Outside Linebacker

1. Zack Baun, RS Sr.; Tyler Johnson RS Sr.
1. Christian Bell RS Jr.; Noah Burks RS Jr.

The only thing that seems set for the Badgers in 2019 at outside linebacker is that Zack Baun will be one of the starters. However, that doesn’t mean there’s a problem afoot.

Instead, Wisconsin has a chance to find out what they have with about four players who could all easily become the starter opposite of Baun. My money is on former Alabama transfer Christian Bell becoming that player, as he saw more and more of the field as 2018 went on. He’ll get an interesting challenge from former 4-star recruit Noah Burks and the man who backed up Baun last season, Tyler Johnson. Don’t sleep on Izayah Green-May either, as he’s one of the most intriguing pass-rushing prospects on this roster.

Inside Linebacker

1. Chris Orr, Sr. 2. Mike Maskalunas, RS Jr.
1. Jack Sanborn, So. 2. Griffin Grady, RS Jr.

Losing Edwards and Connelly is going to hurt, but we’ve seen a ton of depth at this position over the last few years. Orr would’ve started for most teams in the conference the last few years and will have his final season to impress NFL scouts. The real interesting mix will be how the play of Sanborn, Grady and Maskalunas works itself out in the offseason.

Sanborn playing the snaps he did in 2018 suggests he’s the front runner, but the good news is this position will likely see plenty of rotation and even starters won’t be meaningful given the depth.

Cornerback

1. Rachad Wildgoose, So. 2. Caesar Williams, RS Jr.
1. Faion Hicks, So. 2. Deron Harrell, RS So.

Wisconsin saw a lot of youth work in at cornerback in 2018 and when the dust settled they appeared to have found some pretty good players for the next few years in the likes of Wildgoose, Hicks and Harrell for sure. Expected starter Caesar Williams disappointed in his opportunity and we could easily see Madison Cone get in to the mix here as well. The name to watch this offseason is Travian Blaylock, who played in four games this season as a true freshman and was able to keep his redshirt.

Safety

FS: Reggie Pearson, RS So.; Collin Wilder, RS So.
SS: Scott Nelson, RS So.; Seth Currens, RS Jr.

This may surprise some of you, because we all saw Eric Burrell start in the Pinstripe Bowl due to injury to D’Cota Dixon. However, I believe the talent of Pearson and Wilder is so good that they may bypass him this offseason. It’s a nice problem to have to say the least.

Nelson is a lock to play at strong safety after starting all season in 2018. However, it was an up-and-down freshman campaign and more consistency will help this group grow immensely.

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Projecting the Wisconsin Badgers 2019 Offensive Depth Chart

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January is perhaps the most dead period of action for a college football player and for the Wisconsin Badgers it’s been a period of waiting for answers to NFL futures for a few players.

We’ve gotten those answers and that means we have a much clearer perspective on what the Badgers 2019 depth chart will look like when then head to Tampa Bay to take on USF in the season opener on Aug. 31.

With that in mind, let’s break down the depth chart as we see it playing out heading in to spring ball in a few months time.

Quarterback:

1. Jack Coan, Jr.
2. Graham Mertz, Fr.
3. Danny Vanden Boom, So.
4. Chase Wolf, RS Fr.

First, the smart bet is on Alex Hornibrook not returning to football after major issues arose following a concussion later in the 2018 season. That said, a lot of outside pressure will be on naming Mertz the starter. I believe that won’t happen right away and Coan will be the one that gets the nod for the start of 2019. His level of play increased as he got on-field reps and could be enough for a stop-gap until Mertz is either ready to play this season or they try to keep his redshirt available and allow him to start in 2020.

Running Back

1. Jonathan Taylor, Jr.
2a. Garrett Groshek, RS Jr.
2b. Nakia Watson, RS Fr.
3. Bradrick Shaw, Jr.
4. Julius Davis, Fr.

Get ready for the swan song of Taylor’s career in the Cardinal and White. He’s been a record-setter already and that should continue in 2019 baring injury. With Taiwan Deal and Chris James graduated, someone has to step up in to the role of the true backup option. It could be a returning Bradrick Shaw, but Nakia Watson showed real promise and could be in line for major snaps this season too. Groshek will continue to be a primary pass-catching and extra blocking option, but don’t expect his role to expand as a runner.

Fullback

1. Mason Stokke, RS Jr.
2. Quan Easterling, Fr.
3. John Chenal, So.

Over at fullback, the Badgers will have to live life without Alec Ingold, who was a stalwart at the position. Converted linebacker Mason Stokke is going to get the first look, but Wisconsin went out and got a scholarship fullback in Quan Easterling for a reason. Don’t be surprised to see him get a serious look in fall camp and maybe take the job from day one.

Wide Receiver

1. Danny Davis, Jr.
2. AJ Taylor, Sr.
3. Kendric Pryor, Jr.
4. Aron Cruikshank So.
5. Taj Mustapha, RS Fr.
6. Jack Dunn, RS Jr.

There isn’t a position deeper on the Badgers offense than wide receiver. While the production didn’t match the hype coming in to 2018, let’s chalk that up to bad QB play first and foremost. The combination of Davis, Pryor and Taylor is a good one and UW continues to add quality and speed at the position.

No question looms larger at wide receiver in the 2019 offseason than what happens with the cases pending against Quintez Cephus. Will they resolve themselves in 2019 and will he back on campus or in prison? If it’s the first one, the Badgers have a huge playmaker back, if not, they’ll need to find a downfield playmaker more than ever. It was a giant missing piece to the puzzle in 2018.

Tight End

1. Jake Ferguson, RS So.
2. Luke Benzschawel, RS Jr.
3. Kyle Penniston, RS Sr.
4. Cormac Sampson, RS Fr.

Jake Ferguson’s first season lived up to the hype of his high recruiting ranking, as he became the go-to receiver in big situations. But, the Badgers expect more out of the position in 2019 as they hope to get a healthy Luke Benzschawel back to help in the blocking game. Look for Cormac Sampson to also emerge as his understudy and an intriguing overall prospect for the future too.

Offensive Line

Left Tackle: Cole Van Lanen, RS Jr., Logan Brown, Fr.
Left Guard: Jon Dietzen, RS Sr., David Moorman, RS Jr.
Center: Tyler Biadasz, RS Jr., Kayden Lyles, RS So.
Right Guard: Jason Erdmann, RS Sr., Alex Fenton, RS So.
Right Tackle: Logan Bruss, RS So., Tyler Beach, RS So.

Wisconsin went 1-of-2 on getting potential early entrant NFL prospects back for 2019, as Tyler Biadasz turned down a potential 1st round situation to stay in Madison. UW will only have to replace David Edwards, Michael Dieter and Beau Benzschawel instead of all four of the potential draft picks.

The biggest question at offensive line is just where 5-star Logan Brown fits in. Will he work inside first and maybe take on right guard before sliding out or will he compete with the likes of Bruss and Beach at right tackle or will he slot in behind Van Lanen for a year at left tackle?

This group is going to be fun to watch shape out over the next eight months.

Overall Thoughts:

Wisconsin brings back a ton of talent at wide receiver and running back, but they do have a lot of questions (both major and minor) to answer at key positions like starting quarterback and along the offensive line.

Those likely aren’t going to be sorted out by the end of spring ball, so expect this depth chart to fluctuate a lot in the coming months. I do feel confident in this is how it will look to start the offseason though.

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Mertz has record-setting day at The All-American Bowl

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There was plenty of hype and hope for incoming freshman quarterback Graham Mertz. The newest Wisconsin Badgers quarterback did little to slow down the hype with his performance in the annual All-American Bowl.

All Mertz did was was stand up and make everyone take notice on the biggest stage in high school football.

Against some of the best players and with some of the best players in the country, Mertz rose above them all. He completed seven passes in the game, five of them going for touchdowns and racked up 188 yards.

Both his five touchdowns and 188 yards were The All-American game records. All of it added up to him winning the MVP award for the game.

Mertz’s ability to throw big passes all over the field was on full display. He threw with touch and even most of the incomplete passes he had were put in positions for his receivers to make plays on the ball.

It’s that touch and big-play ability that has been missing for a few years now in the Badgers offense.

Of course there are things he’ll need to work on at the next level, but he showcased an ability to make the basics look easy and plenty of promise as well.

Mertz’s big day caught the eye of some big names around the world of football.

It wasn’t just those in attendance or the hopeful Badgers faithful that were excited by what Mertz did on the day. Names like Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs took to Twitter to mention him.

His fellow Badgers commits Dean Engram and Julius Davis also had comments.

Oh, and the Badgers football Twitter account couldn’t miss a chance to hype the early-entrant quarterback either.

Obviously we won’t know if his play at the high school level will translate right away to the college game, but it’s hard not to see his passing skills and wonder what could be for the Badgers offense in the near future.

Ultimately, it will be his ability to take on the offense and make the needed plays in the spring that will dictate his ability to make a quick or slower impact at Wisconsin.

However, if playing with and against the best players in his incoming class is any indication, there’s no reason to suggest he won’t be a player who ends up starting at Wisconsin and likely in relatively short order.

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Badgers 2019 signees in All-American games

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The Wisconsin Badgers capped off a disappointing season with a second butt-kicking in a row of the Miami (FL) Hurricanes. With that the offseason officially started.

So, next up on the calendar are the high school All-American bowl games.

While the Badgers success wasn’t great on the field, off the field it was arguably the best class in UW recruiting history and officially the greatest in the recruiting rankings era (since 2000).

Certainly that means the Badgers will be represented in the All-American games and you would be right.

So, let’s take a look at the players that are in the various games over the next week.

The Under Armour All-American bowl game started things off on Thursday night and Wisconsin walk-on kicker Blake Wilcox (Kettle Moraine High School) was the lone UW representative in Orlando.

He is a punter and kicker and could take on both duties for the Badgers in the coming years, but is also still coming in to his own in the football kicking game after being a top soccer player at Kettle Moraine up until his junior season.

There wasn’t much reporting done on Wilcox or the specialists as a whole at this game, but the crew from Kohl’s Kicking Camps are in love with what Wilcox brings to the table so early in his career as a kicker and punter.

Meanwhile, at the All-American game in San Antonio (the former U.S. Army All-American game) the Badgers have their two highest profile signees in quarterback Graham Mertz and 5-star offensive lineman Logan Brown participating.

By all accounts, Mertz is having himself his usual high-end showing around scouts and in competition.

He was ranked as the No. 2 player in the first day of practices according to 247Sports and the No. 3 QB of the day in day 3 of drills.

From 247Sports:

Mertz continued to showcase his clean mechanics and smooth feel in the passing game. The Wisconsin pledge is at home operating from the pocket and looks to be a strong fit for the Badgers’ offense under Paul Chryst. On Thursday, Mertz had one of the better throws on the day, hitting a tight-window touchdown to Virginia Tech signee Jaden Payoute, who was running a crossing route in the back of the endzone.

Rivals believed he was the best looking QB on the East squad after the first day of drills.

Brown has lived up to advanced billing for those who haven’t seen him already, stoning multiple pass rushers in one-on-one drills. He was ranked as one of the Top 10 overall players at Day 3 of practice by 247Sports.

We’ll see how he holds up in team scenarios on Saturday, but it appears he could be a plug-and-play player for a Badgers offense seeking to replace a pair of guards in 2019.

Overall, it appears the biggest names are performing at or near the very top of their groups while going up against elite talent.

Given the pressure that is likely to be on this group with the high ranking they received, these types of performances are good signs indeed.

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