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Wisconsin Badgers 2018 Preview: Young secondary under the microscope

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Sink or swim — it’s that simple for the Wisconsin Badgers secondary in 2018. It’s also a really good test of just how good a coach Jim Leonhard is as he readies for his third season on UW’s coaching staff and second as the defensive coordinator.

Previous Previews: Wide Receiver | Defensive Line | Running Back | Special Teams | Quarterback | Linebacker |

It’s what happens when you graduate two seniors and have an underclassman leave for the NFL draft…and that is just at the cornerback spot. 

There is just one remaining starter and one player who had any significant snaps in the Cardinal and White last season. So, there’s a lot of pressure on safety D’Cota Dixon to lead this young group forward. 

No pressure or anything, but the Badgers are coming off of one of the best seasons on defense in school history, and the secondary had a big hand in that. 

So, as we get through the second week of fall camp, how does the position actually look? 

State of the Position: Youthful Exuberance

It’s hard to not be nervous about a group that has to replace three starters. It’s even harder when those that are coming in next are players who have barely any collegiate game experience under their belts. 

That’s the reality facing UW in 2018, but the good news is that through just under a dozen practices, the coaching staff and observers have seen a really intriguing group of young players. 

At cornerback it has been a pair of redshirt freshmen stealing the show. Faion Hicks and converted wide reciever Deron Harrel have stepped up in a big way so far in fall camp. Both are receiving snaps with the first team, and in the case of Hicks it’s happening in between some nagging injuries. 

Dontye Carriere-Williams and Madison Cone came in to fall camp as the projected starters, but Cone has been out-done by the younger players in the mix. Carrier-Williams has had his own naggin injuries and has been on-again, off-again in practice. The good news is that those who are given the opportunities in fall camp are showing a whole lot of promise. 

With the position needing a mentality of “forget about the last play” on every play, could it be that youthful ignorance and exuberance could play in to UW’s advantage? 

Biggest Question: Who Will Rise Up Next to Dixon?

D’Cota Dixon became a huge playmaker for the Badgers last season. He finished with 55 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception. He also gained a reputation as one of the biggest hitters in the Big Ten. 

Part of the reason he was so successful is that he had a quality group of players next to him in Natrell Jamerson and Joe Ferguson. 

This season, much like at cornerback, it is a battle between players with little to know in-game college football experience. Much like the cornerback position, UW feels strongly that they have quality players even if they are inexperienced. 

Leading that group seems to be redshirt freshman Scott Nelson. The Detroit, Mich. native has taken the majority of the snaps with the first team defense, while Eric Burrell has also been in the mix to get the starting position next to Dixon. 

Both are likely to see plenty of snaps early on this fall, but someone needs to show they can allow Dixon to roam like he has in the past when the real games happen. 

Depth Chart:

CB: Dontye Carriere-Williams, Deron Harrell
S: Scott Nelson, Eric Burrell
S: D’Cota Dixon, Patrick Johnson
CB: Faion Hicks, Madison Cone

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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Badgers football

REPORT: Former Badgers QB Hornibrook transfers to FSU

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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.

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Badgers football

2019 NFL Combine results for Badgers players

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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.

D’Cota Dixon

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)

Beau Benzschawel

MADISON, WI – NOVEMBER 18: Beau Benzschawel #66 of the Wisconsin Badgers in action during a game against the Michigan Wolverines at Camp Randall Stadium on November 18, 2017 in Madison, Wisconsin. Wisconsin won 24-10. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

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)

Michael Deiter

MADISON, WI – AUGUST 31: Wisconsin offensive lineman Tyler Biadasz (61) and Wisconsin offensive lineman Michael Deiter (63) block for Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook (12) during a college football game between the University of Wisconsin Badgers and the Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers on August 31, 2018 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, WI. (Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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)

David Edwards

MADISON, WI – SEPTEMBER 01: Wisconsin Badger offensive lineman David Edwards (79) looks for someone to block durning an college football game between the Utah State Aggies and the Wisconsin Badgers on September 1st, 2017, at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, WI. Wisconsin defated Utah State 59-10. (Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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)

Ryan Connelly

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)

T.J. Edwards

MADISON, WI – SEPTEMBER 08:Wisconsin Badgers inside linebacker T.J. Edwards (53) goes for a diving tackle on New Mexico Lobos wide receiver Jay Griffin IV (23) during an college football game between the New Mexico Lobos and the Wisconsin Badgers on September 8th, 2018 at the Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, WI. Wisconsin defeats New Mexico 45-14. (Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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

40-yard dash:
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)

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Badgers football

Hornibrook’s gone, but questions remain the same for Badgers QB’s

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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.

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Hornibrook leaves Badgers, enters name in transfer portal

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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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