Wisconsin’s defense steps up in opener

MADISON – Ask around, the likeliest group to take a step back from the success of 2017 for Wisconsin certainly would be the defense, and it would be hard to make an argument otherwise.

Friday night at Camp Randall certainly didn’t look like Wisconsin has any plans of allowing that to be the case.

Wisconsin came into the season opener against Western Kentucky starting seven new players on defense, including four players seeing a collegiate field for the very first time. There have been question marks all offseason about how this group would fare when the season came around, and rightfully so.

They impressed.

Sure, the first test that this group had to face wasn’t the most difficult of the season, but there’s no doubting that Western Kentucky presented unique challenges for a unit featuring this much turnover. The fast pace offense featuring a great deal of pre-snap movement that Western Kentucky runs isn’t the easiest to handle.

Wisconsin has plenty of room to improve, no doubt, but this was a good start. It was a solid experience for guys getting their first taste of real game action like Faion Hicks, Caesar Williams, and Scott Nelson. Those three will be tested plenty this season as teams will attempt to gouge the Badgers through the air.

On Friday night Wisconsin was able to limit Western Kentucky to just 167 yards passing. Forty-eight of those yards came on a pass early in the second half that Nelson said was the result of a miscommunication that he took fault for as well.

Other than that play, it would be hard to find much fault with Nelson’s debut in a Wisconsin uniform. He flew around the field, leading the team in tackles with seven and breaking up two passes. Nelson probably should have intercepted one of the passes he broke up, and did narrowly miss out at an opportunity at a sack as well.

The missed opportunity to create a turnover for Nelson brought one of the more curious moments of the night. After the play was blown dead and the ball hit the ground Nelson kept running. He kept running and didn’t stop until he hit the end zone, which was approximately 40 yards away from where the play ended.

“I really don’t know, whenever I don’t make a play I just end up running,” Nelson said. “Hopefully you don’t see that too much more. A couple people asked me about that when I came off the field. When I’m out there, I don’t know what I’m thinking.”

Despite the unnecessary extra yardage on his legs, the young safety has plenty to be happy about.

“I think it was good. There’s definitely a lot that we can tighten up,” Nelson said. “Personally, there’s definitely a lot that I can tighten up. Lot of tackling, catching the ball, communication stuff. But it was good, we got our feet wet, we’re in, and we’ll only get better from here.”

Aside from Nelson’s impressive debut, Hicks added an interception in the red zone for the Badgers in his debut. Wisconsin’s secondary had a part in each of the Badgers’ two turnovers, as Eric Burrell was credited with a forced fumble – again in the red zone – that was recovered by linebacker Chris Orr.

The thing that most resembled the 2017 Wisconsin defense on Friday night was the ability to stand up in the red zone defensively. So many times last season the Badgers would be faced with a sudden-change situation leaving them in a difficult position.

They experienced one against Western Kentucky following a Jonathan Taylor fumble in the third quarter. Western Kentucky took over inside the red zone, gained four yards, and failed to convert on fourth down.

The names and faces may have changed, but the result looked just like last year for Wisconsin. Tougher tests lie ahead, and time will tell whether or not this defense will be quite as good, but Friday was a promising start.

Players to watch as spring practice gets started for Wisconsin

The University of Wisconsin will open spring practice this week and do so with extremely high expectations coming off its first 13-win season.

The Badgers return 10 of their 11 starters on offense from their Orange Bowl-winning team, while multi-year starters T.J. Edwards, Olive Sagapolu and D’Cota Dixon return on the defensive side of the ball. There are certainly holes to fill, and coach Paul Chryst and his staff will continue their efforts to plug them when the team takes the field Tuesday morning for the first of 15 practices.

Here’s a look at some of the guys we’ll be keeping an eye on:

TE Jake Ferguson

With Troy Fumagalli working towards a career in the NFL, the Badgers must find a new go-to weapon at the position. And while senior Zander Neuville and junior Kyle Penniston have game experience, it’s redshirt freshman Jake Ferguson that everyone is anxious to see.

The 6-foot-5, 230-pound, Ferguson has been described as “really athletic” and extremely “fluid” by quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who said the Madison Memorial product made some crazy catches during practice last year. Fumagalli added that Ferguson, who was Wisconsin’s Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year, can be as good as he wants to be.

With as much as Chryst likes to use his tight ends, Ferguson could play a big role in 2018. Spring ball will be the first chance for us to see if he’ll be ready.

CB Madison Cone

As a true freshman, Cone played mostly on special teams, though he did get some time as Wisconsin’s fourth cornerback. Now, with Derrick Tindal and Nick Nelson gone, the Badgers will be looking at Cone to step up and join redshirt sophomore Dontye Carriere-Williams with the starting unit.

And they do think he’s more than capable. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard raved about Cone’s approach last year and was impressed with his maturity in understanding the game. Though he’s on the smaller side at 5-foot-9, he’s more than athletic enough to make up for it, as evidenced by this dunk. A strong spring for him could go a long way in solidifying the secondary.

CB Faion Hicks

Like Cone, Hicks is being looked at as a guy that could see significant snaps this fall, especially with as much nickel defense we see teams playing these days. A shoulder injury knocked him from spring ball last year and he didn’t hit the field again until mid-September. But, when healthy, Leonhard loved what he saw from the redshirt freshman. He described the 5-foot-10 Hicks as “extremely athletic” and “hungry.” And even though it was a small sample size, Leonhard believes Hicks has a chance to be “very good” in the program.

OLB Arrington Farrar

Last spring, after being moved around much of his career, Leon Jacobs went back to where he started and found a home at outside linebacker. He excelled last fall and is now fighting for a career in the NFL. Could Farrar follow in his footsteps?

As reported by Jason Galloway of the Wisconsin State Journal, Farrar has moved from inside linebacker to OLB. It means, like Jacobs, he’s come full circle. He played OLB for the first month he was on campus, moved to safety for two years and then to ILB last year. Now, back at OLB, the senior has a chance to push for time with Jacobs and Garret Dooley gone. How will the transition go? Spring ball should give us an idea.

QB Jack Coan

Though we saw him in mop-up duty — where he completed all five of the passes he threw — the last time most of the media saw Coan for an extended period came in mid-August during fall camp. At that point, there was a pretty significant gap between him and Hornibrook. Has that gap closed? Could Coan keep Wisconsin afloat if Hornibrook were to get hurt or struggle at some point this fall? He clearly wasn’t ready last year as a true freshman, but it seems reasonable that he’ll have taken a step forward and spring ball should show us if that’s the case.

Others:

OL: Cole Van Lanen and Patrick Kasl – Wisconsin wants to move senior Michael Deiter back inside, which can only happen if either of these guys show they are ready to step in at left tackle.

OL: Kayden Lyles – Expectations are high for the redshirt freshman, who some around the program believe could push one of the returning starters out of the lineup.

DL: Garrett Rand – Where will the junior play? He’s been at nose tackle the last two years, but figures to be a better option at defensive end this year.

DL: Bryson Williams – Early enrollee that could serve as a backup to Sagapolu at NT.

S: Scott Nelson – Potentially in the mix to replace Natrell Jamerson at safety, along with Eric Burrell and Patrick Johnson.

Early enrollees – In addition to Williams, we’ll get our first look at cornerback Donte Burton, wide receivers Aron Cruickshank and Taj Mustapha, and safety Reggie Pearson Jr.