What the future holds: Safety

With the 2017 season in the books, it’s time to look ahead to 2018 for Wisconsin. Over the next few weeks 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.

Safety:

Returning: D’Cota Dixon (SR), Eric Burrell (RS SO), Patrick Johnson (RS SO), Seth Currens (RS SO), Scott Nelson (RS FR), Evan Bondoc (SR)

Leaving: Natrell Jamerson, Joe Ferguson

Arriving: Reggie Pearson Jr. (3-star)

Season grades

Biggest question: Who replaces Natrell Jamerson?

Natrell Jamerson was a revelation in his lone year at safety. Starting all 14 games, he finished sixth on the team in tackles, had 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and two interceptions, including one that he returned for a touchdown. Because of his background as a cornerback, the Badgers had flexibility and weren’t worried if Jamerson was forced to cover a receiver in the slot. All of the skills is showed last fall are going to give him a chance to stick with an NFL team.

So how does Wisconsin replace him? Well, it won’t be as simple as it was last year. As soon as the starter in 2016, Leo Musso, was gone, the Badgers pegged Jamerson as his replacement. He grabbed the job in the spring and never let go. That’s unlikely to be the case this time around.

The reason for that is there is little to no experience within the unit outside of senior D’Cota Dixon. Entering his third year as a starter, Dixon overcame injuries and missing two games to earn All-Big Ten honors in 2017. When he was out, Joe Ferguson filled in and largely played well, but he also graduated.

It leaves a bunch of young guys — sophomores Eric Burrell, Patrick Johnson and Seth Currens — that have had small roles to this point, along with redshirt freshman Scott Nelson, to battle for playing time.

“All guys that have contributed on special teams — outside of Scott [Nelson] — and know the speed of the game,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said about the group. “Now it’s time to go push. It’s time to push. That to me is the No. 1 thing.”

And by push, he means compete. There doesn’t appear to be a spot on the roster more open to competition than safety. And that means even a guy like Reggie Pearson, a member of the 2018 recruiting class that enrolled early, will have a shot.

Other notes:

It seems likely that Nelson will have some kind of role on defense. He, along with two other true freshmen, tight end Jake Ferguson and offensive lineman Kayden Lyles, traveled with the team to Minnesota for the final game of the year. Even though there was zero chance they would play, it followed a pattern used in the past by Wisconsin to get guys it expects to have an impact as redshirt freshmen used to the experience of being on the road.

Predicted depth chart:

1st-team: D’Cota Dixon (SR), Eric Burrell (RS SO)
2nd-team: Patrick Johnson (RS SO), Scott Nelson (RS FR)

What the future holds:
Quarterback
Running back
Wide receiver
Tight end
Offensive line
Defensive line
Inside linebackers
Outside linebackers
Cornerbacks

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.