After six weeks of uncertainty, Big Ten football is coming back Oct. 23/24. While the focus is on how to do that safely, a lot of people will now turn their attention to the kind of product Wisconsin will be putting on the field after a 2019 season that saw the Badgers win the Big Ten West and go to the Rose Bowl. Here is our quick position-by-position look at what we can expect from coach Paul Chryst’s team:
Despite playing through several injuries in 2019, Jack Coan produced at a high level, throwing for 2,727 yards, 18 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Still, three of his four lowest-rated games came in losses. With Jonathan Taylor gone, Coan is the face of the offense and will be counted on to step his game up in the biggest games.
If Wisconsin had spring practice, it’s possible that Graham Mertz would have made a push during fall camp for the starting job. But with little 11-on-11 work this offseason, Coan should be under center when the Badgers kick the season off.
Replacing a guy that ran for more than 6,000 yards in three seasons won’t be easy, but the Badgers do have a number of options that will try to fill the shoes of Jonathan Taylor now that he’s in the NFL.
Sophomore Nakia Watson figures to get the first crack at it after gaining 331 yards and scoring a pair of touchdowns last season. Running backs coach John Settle is also very high on sophomore Isaac Guerendo, while redshirt freshman Julius Davis and true freshman Jalen Berger could also figure into Wisconsin’s plans.
With his strong pass catching and blocking skills, senior Garrett Groshek likely remains as the third-down back.
The Badgers are set at fullback with the return of senior Mason Stokke and junior John Chenal.
Though they lost one of the best wide receivers in the Big Ten — Quintez Cephus — the Badgers have a lot of experience returning in seniors Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor. Both have an opportunity to show that they can be the dynamic playmakers they have played like at times in their careers.
Two other seniors, Jack Dunn and Adam Krumholz, will also see time, but a lot of eyes will be on the younger players at the position. That includes redshirt freshman Stephen Bracey, and sophomores Taj Mustapha and AJ Abbott. If there is one newcomer to watch it’s Waukesha product Chimere Dike.
Wisconsin’s leading returning receiver is Jake Ferguson. The junior grabbed 33 passes for 407 yards and two scores last season, slightly down from the year before. But with Cephus gone, there are a bunch of targets available and Chryst loves his tight ends.
The question at this position is who fills in behind. With Cormac Sampson back with the offensive line, a pair of redshirt freshman — Hayden Rucci and Clay Cundiff — figure to be the answer.
The Badgers have to replace three starters on the interior of the line, including the top center in the country, but they have to feel good about the line as a whole.
Assuming he’s healthy, junior Kayden Lyles figures to slide into Tyler Biadasz’s spot at center. Another junior, Josh Seltzner, will likely be the guy at left guard after starting four games last season. Wisconsin plans to move starting right tackle Logan Bruss to right guard — a spot the junior started at in one game last season — while inserting junior Tyler Beach in Bruss’ old spot. Senior Cole Van Lanen returns for a third season as the left tackle, looking to bounce back after injuries caused his play to dip in 2019.
Offensive line coach Joe Rudolph always wants eight or nine guys ready to play, so the likes of Joe Tippmann (guard, center), Michael Furtney (guard), Logan Brown (tackle) and Sampson (tackle) will probably see time this season. Wisconsin also brought in a talented 5-man recruiting class headlined by Trey Wedig and Jack Nelson.
This unit returns largely intact from last year and will be anchored by senior defensive ends Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand. Junior Matt Henningsen provides valuable depth and there’s hope that redshirt sophomore Isaiah Mullens and redshirt freshman Rodas Johnson can provide even more.
At nose guard, sophomore Keanu Benton is a star in the making, while junior Bryson Williams is looking to bounce back from an injury-shortened season.
While the defense returns a ton of starters, the linebacker position was hit hard as the two biggest playmakers — Zack Baun and Chris Orr — are now in the NFL.
We’ll start on the outside where Wisconsin has to replace Baun’s 12.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. Senior Noah Burks figures to be the guy on one side after a solid 2019 in which he finished sixth on the team in tackles and fourth in tackles for loss.
Who will line up on the other side is the big unknown. Junior Izayah Green-May started opposite Baun in the opener last year but a hand injury derailed his season and he never truly recovered. Sophomore Jaylan Franklin has the athleticism to cause problems, while highly regarded redshirt freshman Spencer Lytle now seems physically poised to make a push for playing time. Also worth keeping an eye on 2020 four-star recruits Nick Herbig and Kayden Johnson.
The answers are little more clear at inside linebacker where Orr’s intensity, leadership and production will be missed. Junior Jack Sanborn is now the face of the defense and is coming off a season in which he led the Badgers in tackles and was third in both tackles for loss and sacks.
Next to him will either be sophomore Leo Chenal or senior Mike Maskalunas, while redshirt freshman Maema Njongmeta is an intriguing name to watch.
The Badgers return everyone from a year ago when they finished 12th in the country in pass defense. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard used a number of different starters at the position but senior Caesar Williams and junior Faion Hicks were the most consistent. Redshirt freshman Semar Melvin, sophomore Donte Burton, junior Deron Harrell and sophomore Alex Smith provide Leonhard a ton of options if the top guys don’t play well.
Junior Rachad Wildgoose is Wisconsin’s best nickel corner, though you could, and likely will, see others shuffle through there. That includes senior Madison Cone.
Safety is intriguing with three guys that have a ton of experience returning. Senior Eric Burrell is one of the leaders on the defense after tying for the lead in interceptions and second in pass breakups. Sophomore Reggie Pearson was the fourth-leading tackler last season and was active around the line of scrimmage.
Their play leaves Scott Nelson’s role a little uncertain. He started every game as a redshirt freshman before a knee injury wiped out his sophomore year in Game 1. He’s now back and fully healthy and it’s likely that Leonhard will figure out a way to get all three safeties on the field at the same time as he did in the opener against South Florida last year.
Senior Collin Wilder offers Wisconsin great depth at the position.
Four of the six punters/kickers on the 2019 team are gone, leaving some uncertainty at the positions.
At kicker, Colin Larsh figures to be the man, at least to start. He went 12-for-18 during his sophomore season, but was just 5-for-11 outside of 30 yards. They need more consistency out of him.
At punter, no one outside of the team knows who will line up here. If eligible, junior Andy Vujnovich would figure to have a shot to grab the job. He transferred in from Division III and the Badgers filed a waiver to the NCAA for him to be eligible.
Redshirt sophomore Conor Schlichting is the only returner at the position.
Senior Jack Dunn figures to be the punt returner again, but Wisconsin must find a replacement for Aron Cruickshank at kick return after he transferred this offseason.