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.


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.

What the future holds: Tight end

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 each player in terms of their class for 2018. If someone was a sophomore in 2017, they will be called a junior here.

Tight end:

Returning: Kyle Penniston (JR), Zander Neuville (SR), Jake Ferguson (RS FR), Luke Benzschawel (RS SO)

Leaving: Troy Fumagalli

Arriving: Jaylan Franklin (3-star), Cormac Sampson (3-star)

Season grades

Biggest question: Who fills the production void left by Troy Fumagalli’s departure?

Wisconsin only loses one starter from the group that started in the Orange Bowl, but it’s a big loss. Troy Fumagalli left Madison as the most accomplished tight end in school history not named Travis Beckum, and you could make an argument he was the most well-rounded of any of the guys that have gone on to get drafted in the NFL over the last 10 or so years. Fumagalli finished his career with the second-most catches (135) and yards (1,627) by a tight end, so filling his shoes won’t be easy.

But Wisconsin does have options. Senior Zander Neuville had nine catches and a pair of touchdowns before going down with a knee injury in the season finale at Minnesota, while junior Kyle Penniston had seven catches and a score of his own. Both will see plenty of playing time in 2018 and should help lessen the blow of losing Fumagalli.

Still, the most intriguing name vying for a place in Wisconsin’s offense is Jake Ferguson. The brother of now-former Badgers’ safety Joe Ferguson and — tell me if you’ve heard this before — the grandson of athletic director Barry Alvarez, the redshirt freshman was named UW’s Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year for 2017. He was also among a group of true freshmen that traveled for the game against the Gophers, an act that has — in the past — been an indicator of how the coaching staff views a player and his potential of having a big impact the following year.

“From what I’ve seen, he makes some crazy catches,” quarterback Alex Hornibrook said as the Badgers prepared for the Orange Bowl last month. “He’s really athletic when he’s catching the football. Sometimes people will be stiff, but he just looks really fluid.”

The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Ferguson has a similar build to T.J. Watt, who began his career at tight end before injuries forced him to the defensive side of the ball. That obviously worked out quite well for him, as the outside linebacker was a first-round pick last April and just finished up his rookie year with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But in the very limited snaps the media saw of him on offense, Watt had the potential to be special there, too. Can Ferguson do what Watt never got an opportunity to?

“He’s got a chance to be really good,” Fumagalli said of Ferguson. “He’s got all the intangibles. He’s big, he can move well. It’s just going to come down to how much he wants it and [how much he] works. That’s really [always] the story here [at Wisconsin].”

Other notes:

Injuries slowed the progress of redshirt sophomore Luke Benzschawel, but he showed glimpses of being a reliable pass catcher last spring and has the size to be a good run blocker.

It seems unlikely that the newcomers — Jaylan Franklin and Cormac Sampson — will have an impact in their first years on campus.

Predicted depth chart:

First team Second team
Zander Neuville (SR) Kyle Penniston (JR)
Jake Ferguson (RS FR) Luke Benzschawel (RS SO)

What the future holds:
Running back
Wide receiver