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Wisconsin Badgers Football: Biggest spring football storylines

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As the snow (hopefully) stops falling and we all turn our attention to warm weather and sunny days ahead, it also reminds us that Wisconsin Badgers spring football is right around the corner.

Earlier last week the overlords at talking10 gave a look at the East and West division storylines to watch. Well, the Badgers aren’t devoid of interesting storylines to say the least.

Following back-to-back wins in New Year’s Six bowl games, UW finds itself amongst the nation’s elite once again. With a new year ahead, what are the things that we will be looking forward to and could be the difference between winning a Big Ten title and coming up short once again?

Let’s look at our own big storylines to watch.

Cornerback, Cornerback, Cornerback

Nick Nelson saved the Badgers defense in 2017. While some may think it a crazy statement, ask yourself what would’ve happened without Nelson in the mix in the pass defense? However, Nelson was a one year stop-gap as he is off the NFL following an excellent 2017. Along with his departure came the graduation of Derrick Tindal.

That leaves Wisconsin without a returning starter at cornerback. Normally that’s not a huge deal, but for this offseason it is a really big deal because the only returning player with any experience on the field is Donyte Carriere-Williams and he was a freshman that played the third cornerback off and on last season.

Behind him are a group of young and hungry corners ready to prove they have what it takes to get on the field. But, Wisconsin may have to wait until the fall when a highly touted group of incoming freshman to really sort things out. However, there will be plenty of playing time up for grabs and it will be interesting to see who takes advantage of the opportunity in front of them.

Will it be Madison Cone or Faion Hicks? Or will it be the incoming freshman being waited on? Wisconsin would certainly like some of the young guys to prove they have the potential to be counted on by the end of this spring, but there’s no guarantee that happens.

Which Alex Hornibrook Can We Expect to See?

Will it be the Alex Hornibrook who was on fire against Miami (FL) in the Orange Bowl or will it be the Alex Hornibrook that threw 15 interceptions? Last we left off, Hornibrook was showcasing why Paul Chryst and Co. had so much faith in him all season long, despite growing fan rumblings against him as the starter.

It wasn’t just the Miami game though, because Hornibrook completed 65 percent or more of his passes in 7 of the 14 games played last season.

If the Hornibrook that showed up half the time can show up three-quarters of the season in 2018, the Badgers offense could be one of the Big Ten’s best. What with all of his top wide receivers returning, an intact offensive line back and a deep group of

Sorting Out Running Back Pecking Order

In hindsight, it was a damn good thing that Jonathan Taylor emerged as a super star early on in the 2017 season, because there was no shortage of injury issues at the position. Expected major contributors Taiwan Deal, Chris James and Bradrick Shaw all battled injury issues at different points in the season and sometimes it was just Taylor and walk-on Garrett Groshek carrying the load at running back.

Taylor’s first season in Madison has him on the early Heisman frontrunner list (for whatever that really is worth), but Wisconsin has an interesting offseason ahead of itself at running back. Coach Settle is going to have a lot of players coming back with a lot of potential coming back.

Will Taiwan Deal be able to ever overcome bad ankle injuries and be a consistent contributor? Will he even show up in spring ball or will he shut things down? Can Chris James continue the late-season form that saw his potential to be a second back for the Badgers? What about the improvement that Garrett Groshek

Can Defensive End be Dynamic Again?

Early on in the transition to the 3-4 defense, Wisconsin didn’t really get much noticeable production out of the defensive end position. In fact, you could say it was a position that became invisible. Of course, that’s not to say they didn’t play well, it is to say they didn’t show up on the stat sheet all that much and did a better job eating up space for others to make plays than making plays themselves.

That changed this past season, as Alec James became a real force. He racked up career highs in tackles (52), tackles for loss (8.5) and sacks (6.5) in his final season in the program.

The question is, can anyone duplicate that level of production with both James and fellow senior Chikwe Obasih gone.

There is promise at the position, with the likes of Isaiahh Loudermilk holding up well in his first season in the program before an injury slowed him down. He had 11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in 11 games played in reserve. Loudermilk will likely occupy one of the two vacant starting spots, but there will be a lot of new faces in the rotation. Veteran Billy Hirschfeld could slide in, but names like Aaron Vorpal, Keldric Preston and Kraig Howe will all have opportunities this spring.

Figuring out the rotation will be key, as the ends and outside linebackers work in tandem often and all four spots will see new starters in 2018.

 

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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