Offense rules the day at Wisconsin spring practice

Wisconsin was back on the practice field for the fifth time this spring on Tuesday morning.

Big day for the offense

In the locker room after the Orange Bowl, wide receiver A.J. Taylor was asked about how excited he was that his position group would have everyone back for 2018. And while he was certainly happy about it, him and fellow WR Danny Davis seemed particularly pumped about facing Wisconsin’s defense in spring ball.

“We already know,” Taylor said, “when we play the defense in the spring, it’s going to be a wrap for them.”

Whether it was because the offense had taken its lumps in recent years against a veteran defense or for some other reason, the tone of his voice made it seem like they were expecting to dominate a mostly new group of defensive backs. On Tuesday, that’s largely what happened.

Despite being without three of their top WRs, the offense was rolling. On the first play of team drills, quarterback Alex Hornibrook found Taylor for a 45-yard touchdown down the middle of the field. Later, in the same drill, backup Jack Coan hit WR Jack Dunn in stride for a 45-yard score of his own.

Taylor and Dunn weren’t finished. In red zone work, the duo caught four more touchdowns, including a pretty one-handed grab (see video below) by Dunn from Hornibrook in the back of the end zone.

https://twitter.com/BadgerFootball/status/976124742087438346

The WRs weren’t the only ones getting in on the action. Tight end Jake Ferguson had a pair of scores in the red zone, including one on a crossing route where he got drilled by safety Seth Currens but held onto the ball.

Casear Williams with a solid day

As a whole, the defense, as evidenced above, struggled on Tuesday. But redshirt sophomore cornerback Caesar Williams did flash for a second time in spring, coming up with a pretty interception. Williams got some time with the first-team defense during the red zone portion of practice.

Getting physical

It’s only day No. 5 of spring practice, but we’ve already seen a number of minor skirmishes, including a pair on Tuesday involving linebacker Chris Orr. The junior was apparently too physical for running back Taiwan Deal’s liking and took an open-handed punch to the face. That got broken up quickly. Later, Orr and TE Kyle Penniston got into it.

Working on all facets

Running back Jonathan Taylor ran for 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns last year, but he sounds like a guy that thinks he can put up bigger numbers this fall.

“You always have to expect to get better. You don’t expect anything less,” Taylor said after practice. “You don’t want to stay the same and don’t want to be any less.”

Taylor is currently the favorite for the Heisman Trophy at 6/1, according to Bovada LV. After initially brushing off a question about being the favorite, Taylor said it really doesn’t matter.

“It definitely is pretty cool being favorited, but that’s one thing you [can’t] worry about,” he said. “You have to worry about being a favorite of your team. [You have to be] worried about knowing that your guys know that you’re going to go out and do your job every single play. [That] you’ve got their back and you’re going to get things rolling.”

Spending time out West

While everyone was on winter break after the Orange Bowl, Hornibrook was out in California spending time with self-labeled “quarterback engineer” George Whitfield. The junior did the same thing prior to last season and he went on to throw the second-most touchdowns (25) in a season in Wisconsin history.

“I think it’s good to just keep working out instead of going home and sitting on the couch or throwing to a couple buddies at home,” he said. “[Just] to actually get out there and start doing some drills, it’s good.”

Injury report:

OUT (practice)
CB Dontye Carriere-Williams
WR Danny Davis
WR Cade Green
OL David Edwards
DL Garrett Rand
WR Kendric Pryor
DL Bryson Williams
WR Emmett Perry

OUT (spring)
WR Quintez Cephus
OL Michael Deiter
OL Jon Dietzen
S D’Cota Dixon
RB Garrett Groshek
TE Zander Neuville
RB Bradrick Shaw
ILB Mason Stokke
WR Adam Krumholz

What’s next?

Wisconsin returns to the field for practice No. 6 of spring ball on Thursday.

What the future holds: Wide receiver

With the 2017 season in the books, it’s time to look ahead to 2018 for Wisconsin. Over the next few days we’ll be going position-by-position to see what the future holds for the Badgers.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll refer to the players’ class in terms of what they’ll be in 2018. If someone was a sophomore in 2017, they will be called a junior here.

Wide receiver:

Returning: Quintez Cephus (JR), A.J. Taylor (JR), Danny Davis (SO), Kendric Pryor (RS FR), Adam Krumholz (RS SO), Jack Dunn (RS SO), Cade Green (RS FR), Emmet Perry (RS FR), Deron Harrell (RS FR)

Leaving: George Rushing

Arriving: A.J. Abbott, Taj Mustapha, Isaac Guerendo, Aron Cruickshank

Season grades

Biggest question: How will Wisconsin use its abundance of wide receivers?

This is definitely a good problem to have, especially with the Badgers feeling like a one-man bad at the position from 2012 to 2016. But it does present a challenge for wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore, who must mix and match a unit that is as deep as anything Wisconsin’s had in recent memory.

Before getting hurt at the beginning of November, Quintez Cephus was clearly quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s favorite weapon. He was on pace for 47 catches, 779 yards and nine touchdowns. He should be ready for summer workouts.

With Cephus out, A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor stepped up. Taylor had three of his five touchdowns in the final five games of the year, Davis capped his impressive freshman year with three scores in the Orange Bowl and Pryor, who was slowed early in the year after a moped accident in August, scored three vital touchdowns over a two week period against Iowa and Michigan.

The quartet gives Wisconsin one of the better units in the Big Ten. Now, the Badgers need to figure out a way to best utilize them.

Other notes:

If the future wasn’t bright enough for Wisconsin, there are several more incoming players that have people excited.

Isaac Guerendo and Aron Cruickshank further increase the athleticism at the position, with the latter likely having a chance to contribute in the return game and potentially in specialized offensive situations.

The other two incoming freshmen — A.J. Abbott and Taj Mustapha — were high school teammates in Michigan and will bring size and big-play potential to the table.

Cruickshank and Mustapha will both enroll early, allowing them to go through winter conditioning and spring practice.

Walk-on Adam Krumholz saw time when injuries hit in 2017, and the redshirt sophomore held his own.

Cade Green is another guy to keep an eye on. The redshirt freshman had a strong first few days of fall camp before getting injured. He suffered a foot injury during the year and was in a walking boot at the Orange Bowl. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get an opportunity as Wisconsin’s punt returner with cornerback Nick Nelson now off to the NFL.

Predicted depth chart:

1) Quintez Cephus (JR), Kendric Pryor (RS SO)
2) A.J. Taylor (JR), Aron Cruickshank (FR)
3) Danny Davis (SO), Taj Mustapha (FR)

What the future holds:
Quarterback
Running back

Grading the Badgers: Wide receivers

The wide receiver position at Wisconsin was one that came into the season with high expectations. Senior receivers Jazz Peavy and George Rushing were supposed to lead the group while Quintez Cephus would have been great to watch develop.

Things didn’t pan out that way on the outside for the Badgers. Rushing didn’t play a snap all season and by the end of the year wasn’t around the team, Peavy played in the first four games before an injury and personal issues ended his season. He was also not with the team by the end of the year.

Cephus, however, took great strides in developing his game. He was Wisconsin’s most explosive threat on the outside. Cephus had 30 grabs for 501 yards and six touchdowns on the season before he suffered a leg injury requiring surgery against Indiana.

The absence of Cephus meant that Wisconsin was missing three of their scholarship wide receivers and had to rely on much younger players at that position than previously anticipated.

Sophomore A.J. Taylor, redshirt freshman Kendric Pryor, and freshman Danny Davis became the go-to threats for Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook.

Taylor was the only one of the three to play in all 13 games for Wisconsin this season. Both Pryor and Davis missed time due to injury. Pryor was involved in a moped accident during the preseason that caused him to miss time and Davis suffered a leg injury keeping him out of a game.

Of the three, Taylor had the best season. He finished with 23 catches for 370 yards and four touchdowns. Davis was close behind him, finishing the year with 21 catches, 362 yards, and two touchdowns.

Davis and Taylor did more damage through the air than Pryor, although the redshirt freshman was still effective. Pryor had 11 catches for 149 yards and a touchdown through the air. He was also utilized in the team’s rushing attack, collecting 63 yards and two touchdowns on five carries this season.

The group grew quite a bit during the season, transforming from an experienced group with an explosive playmaker in Cephus to an inexperienced group of talented athletes. The future is really bright at this position, especially if Cephus can return to the level of play he was at during the season before he saw his season end prematurely.

GRADE: B+ — This group faced one of the more difficult transformations on the 2017 Badgers. They stepped up to the plate at the end of the season and have a very high ceiling, especially when Cephus returns. Davis might have the highest ceiling of the young trio playing at the end of the season, but Taylor and Pryor should certainly be significant contributors moving forward at the wide receiver position.

Tough test on tap for Wisconsin’s receivers

MADISON – The Wisconsin Badgers are coming off one of their better offensive performances of the season against Minnesota in their regular season finale. To say they were flawless would be a false testimony, but it was an effort that was certainly repeatable, and one they’ll likely need to attempt to improve upon this week against Ohio State.

The Buckeyes present a much more talented defense than the Gophers did, and there isn’t an argument on that front. It’s no secret that Wisconsin has struggled to take care of the ball at times. That’s something they can ill-afford to do when they square off with Ohio State. The Buckeye defense is filled with big named playmakers more than any other unit the Badgers have gone against this season.

“They’re a good defense, man,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph told the media on Tuesday. “Their defensive line, they’re so deep and there are so many guys to study and watch. Their backers can fly around and run, they can step up and play press on you all day. They’re just really good and they’re really well coached within their scheme. I said this about Michigan’s defense, was a defense that was similar, but every guy can make the play. You know what I mean? They’re a field full of playmakers, which is difficult. You’ve got to be on, and every guy has to be on. They’ll be quite a challenge.”

The Buckeyes have the eighth best total defense in the FBS this season. They only give up 291.8 yards per game while holding opponents to slightly under 20 points per game. The Buckeyes have also been stout in the passing game, keeping opponents to an average of only 179 yards per game though the air. They’re also fifth in yards allowed per play at a miniscule 4.4. On the other end, Wisconsin’s defense actually ranks first in both yards per game and per play, at 236.9 and 4.0, respectively.

On offense, Wisconsin has relied on freshman running back Jonathan Taylor to be one of the best players in the country, but recently new playmakers have started to establish themselves. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook has played better over the past two games and wide receivers Danny Davis, Kendric Pryor, and A.J. Taylor have done a remarkable job filling in for the injured Quintez Cephus.

Against Minnesota, Hornibrook had his first interception-free game in the Big Ten this year and those three receivers combined for 11 catches for 131 yards and a touchdown. That group will be facing a huge test when lining up against Ohio State corner Denzel Ward.

“Playmaker,” Rudolph said as soon as Ward’s name was mentioned in a question about Ohio State’s defense. “We saw that against us [with Iowa’s Josh Jackson]. I think you’ve got great talent on the edges there. You give them an opportunity to make a play and they can make it.”

Ward was named a first-team All-Big Ten defensive back on Tuesday by the media as well. He’s been a regular in the first round of many mock draft experts and one of the best corners the Badgers have seen all season, only Iowa’s Jackson compares.

“He’s got good feet, he’s athletic, he’s quick,” Taylor said about Ward. “It’s going to be a competition, it’s going to be a fight. He’s a good corner. It’ll be a fun matchup.”

“I feel like he may be a little more faster and quicker with his feet,” Pryor said comparing Ward to Jackson.

If the Wisconsin offense was faced with this challenge shortly after Cephus went down for the year with a right leg injury it may be too tall of a task. Even though Cephus has only been out for three weeks, they’re more seasoned on the outside at this point than they were right after his injury.

“We keep saying each game we get better and better but I really think we’re a lot more comfortable,” Taylor said. We are a lot more comfortable as a group going out there and just doing our thing. Nobody is really nervous to go out there and maybe run a route or catch a ball in a big-time moment. We’re all more comfortable and we can think now, we feel like the game is starting to slow down. I’d say that’s how we’ve gotten it. The game is slowing down to us and it’s not as fast and intense as it would be.”

The young group will be facing a tough test on a stage larger than one they’ve previously been on, but it’s a challenge they’re ready for.