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.
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.