Wisconsin vs. Western Kentucky: Three keys

The Wisconsin Badgers open up the 2018 season with a matchup against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at Camp Randall on Aug. 31. The Badgers enter the game as heavy favorites and should have no issue finding their way to a win over the mid-major opponent.

Here are three things to watch as the Badgers look to move to 1-0 on the season.

Depth at wide receiver

The wide receiver group looked like one of the strongest on the team during fall camp. Things certainly have changed since then as both Danny Davis and Quintez Cephus are currently suspended. Cephus is out indefinitely while Davis is sidelined for two games.

There’s still experience and talent that will be on the field, just not as much as there could have been.

A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor both have plenty of time on the field for the Badgers, although there isn’t much behind them in terms of experience. Jack Dunn and Adam Krumholz were listed as the third and fourth receivers behind Taylor and Pryor on Wisconsin’s two-deep that was released earlier this week. Those two both saw limited action in 2017, mostly on special teams for Wisconsin. Both are local products that came to Wisconsin as walk-ons in 2016.

After those two, the Badgers will likely be giving playing time to a pair of true freshmen in Aron Cruickshank and Taj Mustapha. Both Cruickshank and Mustapha were early enrollees that impressed in the spring, but limited knowledge of Wisconsin’s playbook could be as to why Dunn and Krumholz will see the field first.

New defensive starters standing out

It was no secret that Wisconsin had an elite defense last year. The Badgers finished among the top five in the country in several categories and were able to learn upon their defense in a couple of less than stellar offensive performances.

That may not be the case this season. Wisconsin is tasked with having to replace seven starters on the defensive side of the ball, including a majority of the secondary and defensive line. The Western Kentucky offense won’t be the most difficult challenge of the season for this group, but it won’t be a walk in the park for a group that hasn’t played much football yet, either.

The defensive line would have been in much better shape had Garrett Rand not suffered an offseason injury that has him out for the season. In addition to that Isaiahh Loudermilk will miss some time after undergoing an offseason surgery as well. Olive Sagapolu returns at the nose with freshman Bryson Williams backing him up.

The defensive end spot is where things can appear questionable for the Badgers. Walk-on Matt Henningsen is starting on one side, while Kayden Lyles, a converted offensive lineman, is starting on the other. That’s something that could prove worrisome for Wisconsin this year.

On the bright side, the depth at the inside linebacker position is sound. T.J. Edwards spurned the 2018 NFL Draft to come back to school, Ryan Connelly returns, as does Chris Orr. All three of those guys have quite a bit of experience to lead the way defensively.

In the defensive backfield the Badgers are tasked with replacing Derrick Tindal, Natrell Jamerson, and Nick Nelson. To make things a little bit tougher, Dontye Carriere-Williams announced that he had been granted his release on Wednesday night and is no longer with the program.

Carriere-Williams entered the spring as a starter at corner, and did make a handful of starts in 2017, but slipped to the second team due to lack of consistency. Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks are listed as the starters at corner as of now, with Madison Cone remaining on the two-deep. Deron Harrell will likely be the next man up at that spot. He had a strong camp after transitioning from the wide receiver position during the offseason and Donte Burton is a true freshman that will likely see the field as well.

The safety spots probably have the most clarity among the newcomers, as Scott Nelson is stepping into a starting role after a very strong camp and D’Cota Dixon returns for his final year of eligibility.

Protecting the football

The biggest flaw in quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s game last year was the fact that he tossed 15 interceptions, including at least one in every conference game. Wisconsin was able to overcome that with strong defense and an excellent running game. Good teams find ways to win no matter what the circumstances are, but Wisconsin may not have that type of luxury this season.

In the Orange Bowl Hornibrook was fantastic as he threw for 258 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions on his way to being named MVP. It’s unrealistic to expect Hornibrook to repeat that performance on a weekly basis. If he somehow did then he would be in New York raising the Heisman Trophy this coming December. But if he can consistently cut out the turnovers that plagued him last season then the Wisconsin offense will be in a much, much better place.

It’s far more likely that running back Jonathan Taylor finds himself at the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York in December, but one thing that could be a hindrance to not only that campaign, but the Wisconsin offense is his propensity to put the ball on the ground.

In 2017 Taylor fumbled eight times and lost six of them. Again, in more than one of those instances he was bailed out by the terrific defense, but that may not happen now.

For Taylor to further his game and reach his potential at Wisconsin it’s imperative that he hangs on to the football on a regular basis.

Hornibrook and Taylor are two of the most important players on what should be an incredibly explosive offense for Wisconsin. Limiting the turnovers will make them that much better.

With Cephus out, Wisconsin to begin season with both uncertainty and expectations

MADISON, Wis. – The wide receiving corps for the Wisconsin Badgers has been here before. The situation is certainly different, and murkier than in the past, but the result is the same.

On Saturday night when Quintez Cephus announced on Twitter that he would be taking a leave of absence due to an on-going legal battle over an incident that occurred in April of this year. Cephus is due in Dane County Court on Thursday, Aug. 23rd at 10:30 a.m. CT where he will be facing charges of 2nd Degree Sexual Assault-Intoxicated Victim and 3rd Degree Sexual Assault.

On Monday afternoon he was suspended from the football team for a violation of the UW Department of Athletics’ Student-Athlete Discipline Policy. The University announced that he will be suspended from competition and practice pending the availability of further information relating to his case.

In 2017 Cephus emerged as the top receiver for Wisconsin. He played in the team’s first nine games, starting eight of them, prior to a season-ending injury to his leg against Indiana in early November.

After that point A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis, and Kendric Pryor all emerged as viable options on the outside for quarterback Alex Hornibrook. They’ll need to be just as good, if not better, while the legal battle ensues for Cephus. There’s no doubting what Cephus has brought to the field when on it, but the drop off in overall talent at that position may not be as big as one may think.

The other issue at hand is that Davis was named in the criminal complaint as well, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. That was uncovered after media availability on Monday. Davis has not been charged of any crime as of Tuesday morning.

“We lose a lot of Q’s juice, a lot of his energy,” Taylor said about Cephus’ leave of absence. “What we’re going to have to do as an offense is really just come together, play as a team, take it one play at a time and get back to Wisconsin football and be gritty.”

An injury is rarely, if ever, a good thing for a team to endure. There’s no doubting that Wisconsin would have been better in 2017 with Cephus on the field and they would have been more talented with him in the lineup at the present as well. The bright spot for the Badgers is that as a group they know how to handle an absence, whether it’s due to an injury or something else.

“It’s definitely a different mentality, different mindset that comes along with that [uncertainty], but at the same time we have done it before,” Taylor said. “We have worked, we know how to work. I mean, we’re going to put our heads down and grind but it’s definitely different. Definitely different.”

Taylor added in that the group as a whole has been in contact with Cephus since Saturday night’s announcement. However, neither Taylor nor Davis would divulge much more information about the situation past that.

A few things that may have made 2017’s situation easier was the fact that there was certainty that Cephus would not be coming back and the fact that Wisconsin was already nine games into the season. Now, the Badgers have a fresh start, and incredibly high expectations. The Associated Press released the preseason poll on Monday and had the Badgers tied for their highest preseason ranking ever, No. 4.

That ranking is good enough for the best in the Big Ten, edging out Ohio State by one spot. Many pundits have picked Wisconsin to win the conference and advance to the program’s first ever College Football Playoff.

Wisconsin is certainly deserving of a ranking that high, although many will partly attribute it to the uncertainty surrounding Ohio State and coach Urban Meyer as he is on administrative leave for the time being.

“I bet you none of these guys know anything about that and they probably won’t,” Davis said following practice on Monday afternoon.

He was right, considering the Badgers were already on the practice field once the poll was released.

“We stay off that social media, stuff like that. That’s what Wisconsin does a great job of. Coach Chryst implements it a lot. We don’t care about the outside noise, we don’t care about none of that. We come as a whole team and we grind. We do everything we’ve got to do to be a better team. We take it one game at a time. I could give a damn about the AP Poll. We just go out there and play as a team and have fun.”

The Badgers now enter a season filled with both uncertainty and expectations, but as always, they’re going to feel as if there is something to prove.

“We have to come in with the mindset that we’ve got to shock, we’ve got to shock everybody,” Taylor said. “That’s just our mindset, we want to be the best. If we don’t go in with that kind of mentality, then I don’t think we can get that accomplished.”

Wisconsin’s wide receivers ready to show off their ammo

MADISON – Quintez Cephus went up and made a terrific touchdown catch over Indiana defensive back Tony Fields in the week 10 matchup between the Badgers and Hoosiers. That would be the last big play that Cephus made for Wisconsin in the 2017 season. Later in the game he injured his right leg requiring season ending surgery.

“I had just thought [Cephus] was just hurt,” fellow wide receiver A.J. Taylor said. “After the game that’s when I saw him in the wheel chair and he was giving everyone a high-five. Just after that they told us [he was done]. It does hurt, we needed him and we miss him but that is how it is.”

Before the injury, Cephus was the top target on the outside for Wisconsin’s offense. He finishes the season with 30 grabs for 501 yards and six touchdowns.

Taylor is one of the receivers tasked with having to pick up the slack from that position with the absence of Cephus. Against Iowa he only had one grab, but it was a good enough for a touchdown from five yards out to put the icing on a 38-14 victory.

Taylor isn’t alone in having to help fill the void left by Cephus’ injury, however. Fellow receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor are seeing the field quite a bit and were productive against Iowa. While they’ve both been in and out of the lineup this season due to injuries, Wisconsin’s offense needs them now more than ever. They’re motivated to pick up the slack.

“If anybody says anything like [that wide receiver is a weak spot without Cephus] you just have to go out there, and you can’t think about it too much but you just have to make those plays and eventually they’ll stop saying that,” Davis said. “We’ll continue to make those plays on Saturday and shut everybody up.”

“Honestly, I don’t think so,” Pryor said when asked if Iowa expected the receiver group to play as well as they did without Cephus. “It’s just about us going out there, we just go out there and play ball and that eventually people will know that we’ll go out there and make plays.”

The extra motivation seemed to work for both Davis and Pryor. Davis was the team’s leading receiver for the day with four grabs for 74 yards, including a couple crucial grabs early in the game with Wisconsin trailing after Iowa’s Josh Jackson pick-six on the first drive.

Pryor made an impact as well. He only had two touches, with both of them finding the end zone. On Wisconsin’s fifth drive of the game he took a handoff from quarterback Alex Hornibrook around the left end and took it 25 yards to the end zone. That gave Wisconsin the lead and they never turned back. Two drives later he caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Hornibrook to put Wisconsin up 17-7 before the half.

The play of his fellow receivers seemed to appease the injured Cephus who took to Twitter during the game.

Wisconsin wide receiver Quintez Cephus took to Twitter during the second half of Wisconsin’s 38-14 win over Iowa on November 11, 2017.

“He told me after the game what he was tweeting,” Pryor said. “He came on the field after the game and was like ‘Kendric Pryor! Danny Davis! A.J. Taylor! We’ve got ammo!’ That’s pretty cool though, that just shows me he’s still engaged trying to just motivate us while he’s not able to be out there.”

With how well Wisconsin has been able to run the ball with freshman running back Jonathan Taylor this season people certainly are aware of the ammo the offense has, just not at the receiver position.

“We’ve got ammo,” Davis said, reciting Cephus’ tweet. “I thought that was pretty funny, man, because we do. We just have to go out there and showcase it on Saturday.”

While both Davis and Pryor were aware of the message Cephus was telling the Twittersphere, Taylor was unaware.

“I don’t know, I didn’t see it,” Taylor said upon learning of the tweets Cephus sent. “That’s dope, I like that. I didn’t even know about that, that’s hilarious.”

The Badgers can still perform well offensively without Cephus, Taylor knows they have the ammo to do so.

“We really just have to focus up and detail as much as we can. I mean, the biggest thing is just getting better each week and we’ve got to get better each day. We really just have to step up, step up and bring our A game.”

Wisconsin WR Quintez Cephus to miss the rest of the year

The expectation became reality today for the Wisconsin football team.

On Thursday’s injury report, wide receiver Quintez Cephus had gone from out for Saturday’s game against No. 20 Iowa to out for the season. It comes five days after he suffered a leg injury against Indiana that required surgery.

“You feel bad for him, certainly,” coach Paul Chryst told reporters. “[Quintez] will bounce back.”

Wisconsin is losing its No. 1 receiver in Cephus, who is tied with Troy Fumagalli with the most catches (30) on the team and leads the Badgers in receiving yards (501) and touchdowns (6). In fact, with Cephus out, along with seniors Jazz Peavy and George Rushing likely not playing again, Wisconsin must finish the year without three guys that have amassed 120 catches, 1,761 yards and 11 touchdowns in their careers.

That said, the Badgers have become accustomed to dealing with injuries and other guys filling in. In this case, that means sophomore A.J. Taylor, freshman Danny Davis and redshirt freshman Kendric Pryor. That trio has combined for 31 catches, 534 yards and three scores in their careers, most of which has come this season.

“I’m excited for them and their opportunity,” Chryst said. “Every time you say that it’s not like you’re not going to miss [the guy you lost]. You miss all the people. But, absolutely, I feel confident about the guys in that room stepping up and those around stepping up.”

Here’s a look at the full injury report in advance of Wisconsin’s game with No. 20 Iowa.

It’s still early, but Wisconsin’s young wide receivers have shown they can play

MADISON | Ted Gilmore was very excited about the three wide receivers the Wisconsin football team signed last February as part of their 2016 recruiting class. But even he admitted he wouldn’t know exactly what he had in them until they stepped on the field this fall.

“So many times in recruiting you think you have an idea of what you see on tape, and then once they get here, they’ve got to put it all together,” the second-year wide receivers coach said Sunday afternoon. “Is it what you thought it was? And it’s what we thought it was.”

Yes, after seven practices of fall camp it’s become clear that Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor all have the potential to contribute sooner rather than later for the Badgers.

“I like all three of those guys,” Gilmore said. “I think we hit the jackpot.”

With last year’s leading receiver Alex Erickson catching touchdowns and returning punts for scores with the Cincinnati Bengals this preseason, the gaping hole of production left behind needs to be filled. It’s believed that senior Rob Wheelwright and junior Jazz Peavy will be the top two options, and it’s likely they will be when healthy. But neither of them are right now, and that’s left the door open for junior George Rushing, senior Reggie Love and the three first-year guys. And it’s the latter of that group that have stood out.

Head coach Paul Chryst said on Saturday that the trio deserved more reps, while also cautioning they still have a way to go. And Gilmore echoed that statement.

“They have earned more reps,” he said. “They’re flashy. They’re having some moments, and they have those freshmen moments where they turn right and should have went left. But the athleticism is there. The ability is there.”

And Gilmore is coaching that ability up, likely more so than a year ago when he had veterans in the lineup. He can be seen sprinting from spot to spot on the field, telling guys if they are lining up wrong or what route they’re supposed to run. He’s the first to congratulate them on good plays and also the first to make corrections. It’s all part of a process that will take a step up on Monday when the team scrimmages for the first time this fall.

“I can’t assume anything. And not that I do with the older guys, but sometimes they’ve earned the right to fail,” Gilmore said. “Right now I’m not giving (the young players) a chance to fail. I’m steering them the whole way and helping them out. When we scrimmage (on Monday), they’re on their own. I’m not going to stand behind them. I’m just going to see who knows it for speed.”

Cephus has flashed the most of the three, beating defensive backs with regularity. That’s he’s adapted so quickly is a tad surprising, simply because he played just one year of varsity football at his high school in Georgia. His first love was basketball and had scholarship offers from a number of schools, and even committed to Furman last September. Search Youtube, and you’ll find plenty of videos where the 6-foot-1, 195-pound, Cephus is throwing down rim-rattling dunks.

Though the skills he showed on the court don’t transfer seamlessly, his competitive spirit does. He’s battled the veteran defensive backs throughout the first week of camp and didn’t cede an inch.

“I knew there would be a learning curve, and there is,” Gilmore said. “He knows the base concepts, but when we have an adjustment he’s still struggling with that. But he’s a competitor. That’s what comes out. Even if (he) doesn’t know what he’s doing, he’s competing. I love that.”

While Cephus was a basketball star, Taylor was the star running back and the No. 1 ranked player in the state of Missouri. But Gilmore saw him and thought wide receiver.

“I was a little hesitant coming in,” Taylor admitted of the position switch. “But this summer really changed my whole mindset. I’ve been working and working, trying to get more consistent. And actually, I feel a lot more comfortable playing receiver now than I did my whole four years playing running back [in high school]. I feel more confident [now] than anything.”

And when he has a question, he’ll ask it. Though Gilmore sometimes tells him to shut it down and just play.

“A.J.’s a very smart kid. A.J. is one of those kids that can overthink things,” Gilmore said. “I just tell him stop being smart for a moment. Don’t overanalyze it.”

Pryor was recruited by some to be a defensive back, and he could still end up there at some point for Wisconsin. But just like the other two players, the Illinois product has flashed play-making ability that could see him and his fellow freshmen get on the field early.

“All three of them are in the conversation,” Gilmore said of potential playing time. “What that looks like, obviously we don’t know yet. But all three of them are in the conversation whether it’s with special teams (or) whether it’s in the rotation with the main wide outs. They have put themselves in position to talk about them when we talk personnel.”

Potential is there for several true freshmen to help Wisconsin

MADISON | No one associated with the Wisconsin football team has seen the true freshmen class in a single practice yet, but based on the way some of the coaches talked on Sunday during the team’s annual media day, there appear to be several that could help this season.

Among the positions where that could happen is at wide receiver, where only senior Rob Wheelwright and junior Jazz Peavy have what would be considered significant playing experience. Junior George Rushing and senior Reggie Love have also seen some time, but they are veterans in class only.

“They’re old, yet young,” wide receiver coach Ted Gilmore said of a group that has a bunch of upperclassmen but few proven options. “For them, it’s taking that next step. All those years they sat back and watched and wished they were in a certain position, now is a great opportunity to seize that moment.

“I really feel they are ready to do that … Whatever their role is, they’re going to earn it.”

The same could be said for the true freshmen at the position, especially A.J. Taylor. One of the top rated recruits in Wisconsin’s 2016 class, the speedy Taylor played mostly running back in high school, and he did it at a high level, earning first-team all-state honors in Missouri as a senior. So when he stepped on campus in June there was some doubts about the position change swirling around in his head, but those have since subsided and he’s feeling more and more comfortable by the snap.

“I was a little hesitant coming in,” Taylor admitted. “But this summer has really changed my whole mindset. I’ve been working and working, trying to get more consistent. And actually, I feel a lot more comfortable playing receiver now than I did my whole four years playing running back [in high school]. I feel more confident [now] than anything.”

Though Taylor will learn all of the wide receiver spots, he could be most dangerous working in the slot, where Wisconsin could use him on jet sweeps and in other situations with the goal of getting him the ball in space.

Down in the trenches is another area on offense that will see an infusion of young bodies that might be able to help, at least when it comes to providing depth. Cole Van Lanen and Patrick Kasl are further along physically than normal first-year players. And they play a position – tackle – that currently lacks much experience after the starters. So offensive line coach Joe Rudolph wouldn’t be surprised to see them among the two-deep.

“I think those guys will both get reps with the second team early in camp, and we’ll kind of see where they’re at,” Rudolph said. “They aren’t far off in some areas [physically]. You need that.”

On the other side of the ball there are a couple defensive backs that could push to get on the field, especially at safety. Both Eric Burrell and Patrick Johnson appear physically ready, and they’ll get their shot at a position that is clearly the most wide-open due to the departure of Tanner McEvoy and Michael Caputo.

The most intriguing of the true freshmen is Garrett Rand. A defensive lineman, the Arizona product is already one of, if not the strongest player on the team. Much was made about his strength after video surfaced of him benching 500 pounds in high school. The tape didn’t lie, and when he showed up this summer, he managed 33 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press – the highest total on the team. What’s more, he called it an off day.

Rand is proud of what he can do in the weight room, but added, “I want to be known for more than [my bench press numbers].”

Defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield said Rand plays with a fire and will be given every opportunity to contribute at defensive end, and possibly at the nose guard spot.

Other potential first-year possibilities include punter Anthony Lotti and cornerback Caesar Williams.