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.

Wisconsin has its No. 2 quarterback

MADISON — Following Wisconsin’s scrimmage last Friday, coach Paul Chryst said it was too early to name a No. 2 quarterback. Six days later, Chryst has made a decision.

During a Thursday night appearance on 100.5 FM in Madison, the third-year coach said true freshman Jack Coan would serve as Alex Hornibrook’s backup in 2017. Coan beat out redshirt freshman Kare Lyles for the job.

A 3-star recruit, the Sayville, N.Y. native enrolled early after setting Long Island career records by throwing for 9,787 yards and 128 touchdowns. He added another 2,551 yards and 33 touchdowns on the ground.

During spring practice and fall camp, Coan flashed the attributes that allowed him to be so prolific as a prep, though his lack of experience was evident in terms of his inconsistency.

It remains unclear how Chryst will choose to use his backup quarterbacks. Most coaches wouldn’t want to burn a true freshman’s redshirt year just for some mop-up duty, but Chryst also has to make sure Coan is ready if Hornibrook were to miss any significant time.

If Coan does play, he’ll have done something few others at Wisconsin have in the last 30 years. Using a true freshman at quarterback in Madison is almost unheard of, with the last one to start a game being Lionel Crawford in 1988.

Wisconsin will open its season Sept. 1 against Utah State at Camp Randall Stadium.

Wisconsin Spring Game: Defense 20, Offense 17

MADISON — In a spring game missing nearly every marquee player on Wisconsin’s roster, the defense prevailed over the offense 20-17 Friday night at Camp Randall Stadium.

Playing the game under the lights for the first time, a crowd of 8,095 were treated to a practice segment followed by an hour-long game with a running clock, played mostly by backups, including at quarterback where freshmen Jack Coan and Kare Lyles got all the snaps with sophomore Alex Hornibrook looking on.

The defense, which could rack up points through sacks, three-and-outs and forcing turnovers, held the offense out of the end zone until the final play from scrimmage, as Coan found tight end Zander Neuville for an 8-yard touchdown.

Though it was difficult to take much of anything from the game itself, it was the culmination of 15 practices, all of which were open to the media.

Here, then, are some of our thoughts on what we saw over the last month.

1) Backup quarterback is a concern

Wisconsin returns 15 starters from last year’s 11-3 squad that won the Big Ten West, and many are picking the Badgers to do it again. And while we’ll acknowledge it’s only April, the chances of them repeating would likely be derailed if there’s an injury at the quarterback spot.

Hornibrook had a solid spring and is the unquestioned leader of the offense. But not since Russell Wilson took every meaningful snap in 2011 has Wisconsin not needed their backup quarterback at some point.

Coan, who should still be a senior in high school right now, looked solid on Friday and generally outperformed Kare Lyles this spring, especially during the scrimmage portions. That bodes well for him, but it also came mostly against the second- and third-team defense. Both guys need to take a big jump this summer to be ready if Hornibrook were to go down.

2) Finding a left tackle

The offensive line has a chance to be as good as its been since 2014, but the Badgers need to solidify the left tackle spot vacated by All-American Ryan Ramczyk. Sophomore David Edwards, who started eight games at right tackle last year, moved to the left side this spring and was OK. An ankle injury sidelined him late, and it led the Badgers to move junior Michael Deiter into his spot. Deiter has started games at center and guard during his career, and coach Paul Chryst said it’s entirely possible he could add tackle to the list when the season starts.

“Whatever we have to do to get the best five on the field,” Chryst said of their mindset. “The more guys can do, play different spots, whether it be right side, left side, center, guard or tackle, it’s helpful.”

Depending on how the summer goes, it would not be a surprise to see Deiter at left tackle, with sophomore Jon Dietzen at left guard, highly regarded redshirt freshman Tyler Biadasz at center, junior Beau Benzschawel at right guard and Edwards back at right tackle, and then having experienced backups in juniors Micah Kapoi and Jake Maxwell, and up-and-coming freshmen Cole Van Lanen and Patrick Kasl.

3) The defensive line is stacked

No position group on the team has more experience than the defensive line where they return their top six players from last season and are even deeper this time around.

Redshirt freshman Isaiahh Loudermilk spent most of the spring in the offensive backfield, and sophomore Garrett Rand got a ton of reps and found a home at defensive end. Both guys are going to push seniors Alec James, Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih for playing time this fall and be the face of the defensive line once those guys exhaust their eligibility.

4) Expectations haven’t changed on defense

Despite losing All-Big Ten players like T.J. Watt, Vince Biegel and Sojourn Shelton, along with Team MVP Leo Musso, the Wisconsin defense isn’t expecting any kind of drop off from what it accomplished last year, or for that matter, the last four seasons when the Badgers have become one of the elite units in the country.

“None of us are going to have that diminish on our watch,” senior linebacker Jack Cichy said of the defense’s almost unparalleled success in Wisconsin history. “I guess if you want to say it would tarnish our legacy, it would. But we don’t really think about it like that. We’re better than that. This program can’t have any fall off just because how far it has come. I just don’t think we as a defense would allow (it).”

Wisconsin came into the spring needing to find four new starters and it appears they have. Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson has stepped into Shelton’s cornerback spot, while senior Natrell Jamerson made the move from cornerback to safety and worked with the No. 1 unit all spring in the place occupied by Musso a year ago. Instead of Watt and Biegel at outside linebacker, it’s seniors Garrett Dooley and Leon Jacobs, both of whom had very good springs, while sophomore Zack Baun and junior college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel will see time as well.

As for other key spots, a battle for the third cornerback job will play itself out in fall camp with the favorites being redshirt freshman Dontye Carriere-Williams and senior Lubern Figaro. The Badgers also need to figure out how to best use their ridiculous depth at inside linebacker where Cichy and sophomore Chris Orr return from injuries to battle two-year starter T.J. Edwards and superb fill-in Ryan Connelly.

When everything is said and done, it’s possible that the 2017 defense could match or even surpass what the 2016 group did.

5) Just fine at running back

Wisconsin lost a lot of production with Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale moving on to the next phase of their careers, but it appears they won’t hurt for options to fill the void.

Sophomore Bradrick Shaw isn’t overly flashy, but his one cut and go style is perfect for the offense. Then you’ve got junior Chris James, who is a threat to score every time he touches the ball, and will be big in the passing game and on third down. Add in what the Badgers hope is a healthy Taiwan Deal this fall, along with incoming freshman Jonathan Taylor, and things are looking just fine in the backfield.

A somewhat informed guess at Wisconsin’s depth chart:

  First-team Second-team
OFFENSE
QB Alex Hornibrook (RS SO) Jack Coan (FR) OR Kare Lyles (RS FR)
RB Bradrick Shaw (RS SO) OR Chris James (JR) Taiwan Deal (JR)
FB Alec Ingold (JR) Austin Ramesh (SR)
WR Jazz Peavy (SR) A.J. Taylor (SO)
WR Quintez Cephus (SO) Kendric Pryor (SO) OR George Rushing (SR)
TE Troy Fumagalli (SR) Zander Neuville (JR)
TE Kyle Penniston (RS SO) Luke Benzschawel (RS FR)
LT David Edwards (RS SO) Cole Van Lanen (RS FR)
LG Jon Dietzen (RS SO) Micah Kapoi (JR)
C Michael Deiter (JR) Tyler Biadasz (RS FR)
RG Beau Benzschawel (JR) Micah Kapoi (JR)
RT Patrick Kasl (RS FR) OR Jake Maxwell (JR) David Moorman (RS SO)
 
DEFENSE
DE Chikwe Obasih (SR) OR Alec James (SR) Garrett Rand (SO)
NT Olive Sagapolu (JR) Billy Hirschfeld (JR)
DE Conor Sheehy (SR) Isaiahh Loudermilk (RS FR)
OLB Garrett Dooley (SR) Andrew Van Ginkel (JR)
ILB Jack Cichy (SR) Chris Orr (RS SO)
ILB T.J. Edwards (JR) Ryan Connelly (JR)
OLB Leon Jacobs (SR) Zack Baun (RS SO)
CB Derrick Tindal (SR) Lubern Figaro (SR)
S D’Cota Dixon (SR) Joe Ferguson (SR)
S Natrell Jamerson (SR) Patrick Johnson (SO)
CB Nick Nelson (JR) Dontye Carriere-Williams (RS FR)
     
Kicker Rafael Gaglianone (JR) Zach Hintze (RS SO)
Punter Anthony Lotti (SO) P.J. Rosowski (JR)

 

Final stats:

Wisconsin names Alex Hornibrook its starting quarterback for 2017

MADISON — Wisconsin has named its starting quarterback before spring practice even got underway.

In an article on the team’s website, coach Paul Chryst said that redshirt sophomore Alex Hornibrook is his starter heading into 2017.

“He is the guy,” Chryst told UWBadgers.com. “He knows it and he thinks it.”

As a redshirt freshman, Hornibrook started nine games while sharing time with senior Bart Houston. He threw for 1,262 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions.

“Couldn’t be more excited about Alex,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said on National Signing Day. “What he was able to do in his redshirt freshman year is huge. You don’t see that. It’s uncommon.”

With Hornibrook installed as the starter, the battle for the backup job falls to redshirt freshman Kare Lyles and true freshman Jack Coan, who enrolled early.

“It’ll elevate that position and provide us depth going into the season. Real depth, not just someone who can go out there and line up,” Rudolph said of the competition. “Somebody with enough knowledge and the ability to learn this spring, go through some good and some bad, (and then) truly have a plan in the summer of how they better approach it to get themselves ready for fall camp. I think it will be really beneficial for us.”

Wisconsin opens spring practice on Tuesday morning. It’s the first of 15 sessions, culminating with the annual Spring Game on Friday, April 21.