On this week’s episode of The Camp, Zach Heilprin and Jesse Temple breakdown the first depth chart of the season, discuss expectations for Graham Mertz’s first start, give their game and season predictions, and answer your Twitter questions.
It was June of 2019 that Jon Dietzen started having the itch to play football again. It had been roughly six months since he’d taken part in the Pinstripe Bowl, what he thought would be his final game for Wisconsin despite having a year of eligibility left. Injuries had taken their toll over his 32 starts and he just couldn’t go any further.
But by the time the Badgers were going through summer conditioning and getting ready to go to fall camp, Dietzen was having second thoughts. Those intensified as the season got underway and he was watching from home. By October, and after starting to work out again and feeling good, it had had gotten to the point where Dietzen wanted back in.
“In the beginning, I tried to stay away from it,” Dietzen said of watching football. “Obviously, growing up playing football, and playing high level football, you’re going to end up sitting around watching football all the time. The more I watched it, the more I started to miss it. Between June and October, the more I talked to my family about it, the more it started to develop. Once I saw Wisconsin playing, specifically, it’s something that really motivated me.”
It was then that he approached coach Paul Chryst and offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Rudolph about the possibility of rejoining the team. He stayed in touch with them throughout the spring but wasn’t cleared to return until weeks before fall camp. Once camp started, he jumped right back in working at a number of positions along the line.
“I feel pretty good, actually,” Dietzen said. “I feel better and more healthy than I have in previous years, knock on wood. I’m definitely the old guy out there, but it doesn’t quite feel like it sometimes.”
Dietzen’s personality is made for a college football locker room and he’s got the respect of every player because of what he fought through to keep playing. Seeing him back on the field, and his red hair flowing out of his helmet, has been enjoyable for guys like tight end Jake Ferguson.
“As soon as you see him in pads, it’s awesome. And then he’s got the flow going, nothing better than seeing that,” Ferguson said. “It’s almost like nothing has changed. He’s still a leader, still out there kicking butt. It’s awesome to have him out there.”
Chryst and Rudolph have both said he’s moving and bending as well as he ever has. The thought was to limit his reps early in camp, but he said he’s felt good enough that they haven’t done much of that.
“I think Dietzen looks great,” left tackle Cole Van Lanen said. “I know he’s feeling a lot better than he did when I played with him a couple years ago. He’s looking strong and it’s good to have another older guy in the room, guy with experience on the line. It’s been fun.”
Dietzen started 12 games at left tackle in 2018, splitting reps with Van Lanen, who is now entrenched at the position. While comfortable at either spot, Dietzen’s most experience came at left guard, where he started 20 games over two seasons.
“I’m really excited for him personally, to play with him,” Van Lanen said. “We were splitting reps and now we can actually on the line play together as a group.”
Wisconsin’s defense returns eight starters off of last year’s unit that finished fourth in total defense and 10th in scoring defense in the country. There is optimism among the returnees that they can be even better in 2020.
The only way that happens is if the guys they choose to fill the vacancies left by inside linebacker Chris Orr and outside linebacker Zack Baun play at a high level. That duo combined for 24 sacks and 33 tackles for loss a year ago before heading off to the NFL. No one is saying the new guys must duplicate that production but they can’t afford to have a monumental drop off in play.
With fall camp essentially done, and just a week before the season opener against Illinois, here’s where the two positions stand:
Position coach Bobby April said Thursday he feels he’s got five guys he can use right now. Those include senior Noah Burks, junior Izayah Green-May, sophomores CJ Goetz and Marty Strey, along with redshirt freshman Spencer Lytle.
“Those are the five I’ve got a lot of confidence in,” said April, who noted that trust in them stemmed from those guys being around the program for awhile.
But April said the young guys at the position — Nick Herbig, Aaron Witt, Kaden Johnson and walk-on Riley Nowakowski — are right behind the older players.
“Those four guys are pushing, man,” April said. “It’s a young competitive group.”
Burks and Green-May are expected to be the starters at the position. It’ll be the second year starting for Burks and he’s ready to have his breakout moment similar to that of Baun a year ago.
“Looking at myself in the mirror, and seeing what (the guys before me) have been through, knowing I could do the same,” Burks said. “Whether it’s taking care of my body more, getting in the film books more. It’s all about the little details that will really separate you. I’ve been trying to push myself harder in that respect. Hopefully that’s going to pay off for me this year.”
Green-May started one game last season before a hand injury derailed his development. He played in 11 games but it was mostly on special teams. A 6-foot-6, he weighed just 215 pounds in the spring. However, he added 17 pounds between then and fall camp, and the expectations are high entering the season.
“I’m expecting great things from Green-May,” said Burks, while noting the different kind of body type the junior brings to the position. “I think he’s going to take a huge step forward this year.
The belief is that Goetz and Lytle, if healthy, would be the next two in. In the past, April has used two guys heavily and then had a third rotate in.
If one of the young guys were to break through, it would probably be Herbig. The four-star recruit has garnered plenty of attention from fellow players and his name has been brought up plenty in Zoom interviews with reporters the last few weeks.
“He plays fast, he’s physical. All the stuff you saw from his high school highlights and tapes have come to fruition for us. I love where he is trending,” April said. “He’s a guy that’s got everything we’re looking for. He’s smart, tough and dependable. He checks all three boxes. I can see why people are talking about him, because the kid is a playmaker.”
Herbig came to Wisconsin from Hawaii as one of the highest-rated commits in the Badgers’ 2020 recruiting class. His talent is showing up but so is his work ethic.
“I think the biggest thing with Nick is he’s got such a high motor. The guy just never stops,” Burks said. “He doesn’t ever want to stay blocked or anything. He’s a pretty relentless finisher.”
Whether any of the young guys see the field early or not, Burks is impressed with the group as a whole.
“I would say this is probably the most physically gifted group of freshmen that we’ve gotten,” Burks said. “It’s probably the strongest and fastest group of true freshmen that I’ve seen since I’ve been here for the outside linebacker group.”
The Badgers get their leading tackler back in Jack Sanborn for his second season as a starter. Next to him will likely be sophomore Leo Chenal. A physical freak in the weight room, the 6-foot-2, 255-pound Chenal is still young as a player even though he got some action as the third inside linebacker a year ago.
“He has some power and some suddenness and speed to go along with size. Just that combination alone, that’s a pretty good combination,” inside linebackers coach Bob Bostad said. “Now it’s just putting it together. Really, when you look at him, he doesn’t have a lot of reps under his belt. It’s just taking those traits that he has and trying to get him to feel really comfortable with the scheme to be able to use those really high level traits.”
Senior Mike Maskalunas can play both inside linebacker spots and had a really good fall camp, according to Bostad.
“I think he’s playing as fast as he’s ever played. He sees things, he’s confident,” Bostad said. “I’m really excited to see him play.”
Behind those three, things get a bit murky. Bostad would like a fourth guy to step up but it hasn’t happened yet.
Redshirt freshman Maema Njongmeta was out early in fall camp, though Bostad said he’s “coming along fine,” while they also have three intriguing true freshmen in Malik Reed, Jordan Turner and Preston Zachman.
“Right now, I look at having three guys that I feel rock solid about,” Bostad said of Sanborn, Chenal and Maskalunas.
Bostad does like the young group behind those three.
“Does that mean they’re ready to play Big Ten football? That’s a stretch,” Bostad said.
Two weeks ago Wisconsin running back Nakia Watson made some waves when he said Illinois deserved a “butt-whooping” after handing the Badgers an embarrassing loss last season. A number of Illini players took notice of his words, with one even calling the sophomore an “internet gangsta.”
Since then, multiple other UW players have been asked about potential revenge in next Friday’s season opener for their lone Big Ten West lost a year ago and none have come out as strong as Watson. In fact, they’ve come out just the opposite.
“Getting revenge on Illinois is the last thing we want to think about,” cornerback Faion Hicks said. “It was disappointing what we did last year but that’s in the past. We’ve got to move forward. It’s a new year.”
Wisconsin was ranked No. 6 in the country and were 31.5-point favorites going into that game in Champaign last October. The Badgers turned the ball over twice in the final quarter and ended up losing on a last-second field goal.
“It really isn’t a revenge game,” outside linebacker Noah Burks said. “It’s a new season, a new focus. We’re just happy about the chance to play and we’re going to treat every game as like it’s its own game that we’ve got to win.”
The Badgers are 23.5-point favorites in the game, according to BetOnline.ag.
(AP: Ralph Russo) A set of proposals to permit NCAA athletes to earn money from endorsements and sponsorships deals will go up for vote in January, the last step for the association to change its rules but not the last word on how name, image and likeness compensation will work.
One year after the NCAA’s Board of Governors directed membership at each of division of the association to come up with plans to allow athletes to cash in on their fame, the Division I Council on Wednesday approved a proposal that took shape in April.
The council also approved a proposal that would permit all NCAA athletes to transfer one time without having to sit out a season of competition. Currently, football, basketball, baseball and hockey players must sit out a year after they transfer as an undergraduate. Athletes in other sports have already had access to a one-time exception.
Both proposals will go to membership for comment and feedback. barring something unforeseen, they return to the Division I Council — which has representatives from all 32 D-I conferences —- for a final vote in Janaury.
“While there has been a lot of surveying of the membership to date, getting proposals in the system has a way of sparking additional conversation and we’re hoping there will be some refinement over the next three months,” said Grace Calhoun, the athletic director at Penn and council chairwoman.
If the proposals pass, which is also likely, they would go into effect for the 2021-22 school year.
For name, image and likeness rules, though, there is still work to be done by lawmakers in Washington. The NCAA has asked for help from Congress in the form of a federal law that would set rules for NIL compensation, override a growing number of states laws that have pressured the NCAA to take action and protect the association from legal attacks.
“We have acknowledged from the early days if this that the membership of the NCAA can’t do this alone,” Calhoun said.
Lawmakers from both political parties have said they plan after the election to introduce bills related to college sports, though some are looking beyond name, image and likeness to broader reforms.
The NCAA’s proposal will allow athletes to use their names, images and likenesses to promote their own products and services or those of a third-party. An athlete could become a paid spokesperson for local business or earn money as a social media influencer.
The proposal also calls for athletes to be permitted to make money for personal appearances and autograph signings.
Athletes would also be granted access to agents for “professional advice and marketing assistance.”
There are some limitations. Under the proposal, athletes are not permitted to use their school’s logos or marks. Schools are prohibited from being involved in any deals made by athletes.
The NCAA would like to use a third-party vendor as a clearinghouse for athletes to disclose any personal business deals and determine fair-market value. Calhoun said the NCAA has made requests for proposals to several firms to manage an NIL clearinghouse.
Other action by the Division I Council included:
— Extending eligibility for winter sport athletes, giving them all an extra year because of disruptions to their seasons caused by COVID-19. That decision falls in line with similar ones made in April for spring sport athletes who had much of their seasons wiped out at the start of the pandemic and for fall sport athletes who season’s have been delayed or altered because of COVID-19.
— Approving a recommendation by the football oversight committee to waive bowl eligibility requirements for this season.
— Introduced legislation for the allocation of championship resources.
— Supported the expansion of the men’s and women’s basketball selection committees.
Former Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan was always focused on what’s next. Whether his team did something good or something bad, it was always ‘Next.’ The mantra was even printed on the inside collar of the postseason jerseys the team wore in 2014. His longtime assistant, and now current head coach, Greg Gard has kept the saying alive as he enters his fifth full year on the job. So it was no surprise that on the first day of actual full contact basketball activities since their season was cut short due to the coronavirus outbreak seven months ago, the Badgers were focused more on what’s in front of them than what they missed out on.
“We aren’t going to teleport back to March 7 and become that team right away,” Gard said. “We have to basically wipe the slate clean and we start over. We use those experiences and what it took for us to get there, but nothing is more important than the first drill of the day. We can’t get caught fast-forwarding our mind because we see how the approach to the every day process or the stick to the process mentality paid off for us.”
The last time fans saw the Badgers they were carrying the Big Ten trophy into the Kohl Center after a remarkable run that included eight straight wins to grab a share of the conference title — their first in five years. They were among the hottest teams in the country, the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament and a school that many felt could make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. All those hopes came crashing down days later with the conference tournament getting canceled and March Madness following soon after.
In the weeks after that, in an effort to fill a void, ESPN started running a simulated NCAA tournament and the Badgers won the national title. Some fans celebrated the fake championship on social media and t-shirts declaring them the 2020 national champions made the rounds. But that moment also proved to be a turning point for one of players on the team.
“I woke up and was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” guard Brad Davison said. “That kind of flipped my mindset. Alright, I’m done thinking about last year because we want to make that a reality. The only way we can do that is by flipping the switch to maximizing what’s in front of us.”
Davison said he’s not sure he’ll ever get over not having the chance to figure out what the rest of that season could hold, but the Badgers also know they have an opportunity to make another run with a very similar cast of characters. Sharpshooting Brevin Pritzl is gone and won’t be easily replaced, but they do return 79% of their scoring and could feature a starting lineup of five seniors. They also add a six-man recruiting class that features some talented players that could see the floor in their first year.
“We’re going to look at defining roles and finding where we fit and kind of putting the puzzle pieces together,” Davison said. “I kind of look at it like, yeah, we lost a piece of Brevin but also we have a whole new puzzle this year. We just have to make it work, put the pieces together and make the most beautiful picture we can make.”
Still, it’s a new year, something that Gard will hammer home as much as possible.
“When I started (Wednesday’s practice), after we stretched, it was nothing is more important than this first drill,” Gard told reporters. “We can’t get caught or consumed in what could happen down the road or what lies ahead, because if you don’t take care of today, that won’t come to the same fruition you want it to.”
It sounds like the players have been listening.
“We haven’t talked much about (not getting to finish last season) since we’ve been back,” guard D’Mitrik Trice said. “Really we’re focused on this season, we’re focused on getting better each and every day. We know there is a lot out there to get, and we know we’re going to be on a high pedestal coming into this season, ranked in the top-10 or whatnot. I’m super excited about that. I think the guys are super excited.
“We try not to look at last year, really. We know we had a lot of momentum last year, but it’s a new season and we’ve got to build that back up from the start.”
The outside expectations are significant for the Badgers. Various preseason polls have them in the top-10 in the country and they are considered to be among the contenders for not only a Big Ten title but also making a run to the program’s fifth Final Four. Inside, though, the expectations are the same this year as they have been for much of the last 20.
“We want to win the Big Ten regular season, we want to compete for the Big Ten tournament and want to make a run in March,” Davison said. e”Those are the same goals we make every year for the program because of the sustained success and tradition we have here at Wisconsin. That’s the standard, that’s the standard we want to live up to and the standard we want to continue to push forward.”
In 2019, Quintez Cephus was easily Wisconsin’s biggest weapon in the passing game. His 59 catches were nearly double that of the next closest wide receiver and quarterback Jack Coan threw the ball his way 40 more times than any other player at the position. With Cephus now catching passes in the NFL, and AJ Taylor’s 23 receptions also gone, there is a huge opportunity for senior wide receivers Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis to show they are more than just role players.
“Now it’s our chance to make plays. Last year you could kind of see glimpses. One game it might be me, then one game it might be Danny,” Pryor said. “Just us having the opportunity to make plays and when our number is called we have to ready for that chance.”
Both have shown game-breaking ability, especially Pryor when he gets the ball in his hands. He caught 59 passes in his career, but he’s also become a weapon on the ground. The senior had 180 yards rushing last season and scored a pair of touchdowns. He’s actually got more touchdowns on the ground (5) than through the air (4) in his career. Davis had similar luck last year, rushing for 110 yards and a score.
“I think we can do both,” Davis said of rushing and receiving. “Just to show people we are more versatile than they think. We can run it, we can catch it, just be able to make plays.”
The last time the duo had the kind of opportunity they have this year is when Cephus missed the entire 2018 season. It didn’t go well for them or the team. Now they have their chance again.
“It’s time for people to see and realize that we can do more than that,” Pryor said. “We can be actual deep threats, top-notch receivers in this Big Ten conference.”
Picking up where Jack left off
It’s been 10 days since Coan went down with a broken foot, allowing redshirt freshman Graham Mertz to take over as the starting quarterback. It’s apparently been largely business as usual, according to Pryor.
“Obviously (Mertz) is still a little bit younger and has to gain some more experience, but that’s anybody who plays this game,” the senior said. “You’re going to get better once you get more experience, stepping on that field and getting more reps in a game. So far, everything Graham has done has been good. He’s just kind of picked up where Jack left off.”
The experience, or lack of in Mertz’s case, shows itself most often when deciding where to go with the ball on a particular play. Pryor said because of Coan’s 19 starts in college, he may make a different read than Mertz would. Pryor actually compared that inexperience with his own when pushed into a major role in 2017 when Cephus went down with a leg injury in early November.
“There’s definitely things I didn’t know or didn’t do then that I’m doing now because I’ve gotten older and experienced seeing things in the game,” Pryor said. “That’s the difference between the two.”
More praise for Chim
No new player has garnered more attention through fall camp than wide receiver Chimere Dike. Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph mentioned him first but in nearly every Zoom session since the Waukesha product has been on the lips of players and coaches. That was the case again Tuesday when wide receivers coach Alvis Whitted was asked about the depth chart at his position and whether Dike was included among the top five.
“Chim is doing an amazing job being a freshman and just going out and playing hard every play, taking it upon himself to study more,” Whitted said. “He’s going to be a really good football player in this program. Very high football IQ, goes about his business the right way and wants to get better. He has those intangibles that you want.”
True freshman receivers rarely make a big impact at Wisconsin. Davis is probably the most recent example of one doing so, catching 26 passes for 418 yards and five touchdowns in 2017. A year earlier Cephus and Taylor played a bunch of snaps but didn’t see the ball a lot. Before that, no true freshman had caught more than five passes since 2007. So how is 6-foot-1, 196-pound Dike making such a big impression?
“He’s making plays when his number is called and that’s really what all of this is about,” Pryor said. “You may not get that many opportunities, but when you do, you just have to be ready for it. He’s making plays when the ball is thrown to him.”
Davis going deep?
As a true freshman, Davis averaged 16.1 yards per catch. He was routinely targeted down the field and he often came up with an impressive grab. That number dropped to 10.4 in 2018 and down to 8.3 last season. But with Cephus and Taylor gone, could Davis start seeing his number called on deep plays again?
“Yeah, for sure. I feel like we need to keep the defense on their toes,” Davis said. “They’re going to be feeling the run, so we have to be able to take shots and connect on them. I can see that being the case and I hope for that.”
Graham Mertz to Danny Davis.
— Zach Heilprin (@ZachHeilprin) October 8, 2020
Davis said his focus isn’t solely on improving his down the field routes, but also on the short and intermediate ones. Still, video of him catching a deep ball from Mertz last week in practice went viral and could be a sign of things to come.
“Yeah, it’ll be a big factor,” Davis said.
Wisconsin’s 2020 season will open under the lights at Camp Randall Stadium.
The Big Ten announced Monday that the Badgers matchup with Illinois will come Friday, Oct. 23 with kickoff coming at 7 p.m. The game will be televised on BTN.
There's somethin' special about Camp Randall at night 💫
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) October 12, 2020
It will be the fourth-straight season Wisconsin has opened on a Friday night. The Badgers won the last three, getting victories over Utah State and Western Kentucky at home, and beating South Florida on the road.
The game will mark the first time since 1982 that Wisconsin will open the season against a Big Ten team and the first time since 1981 that it will do so at home. Obviously, this one will be different, as there will be fans in the stands due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Illinois is the only Big Ten West team to beat Wisconsin in 2019, as they pulled off a monumental upset over the sixth-ranked Badgers in Champaign. That prompted UW running back Nakia Watson to recently tell reporters that, “Illinois definitely deserves a butt whooping from last year.”
A key piece to Wisconsin’s 2020 recruiting class is stepping away from the team for a little bit.
Guard Lorne Bowman has left Madison and returned home to attend to a personal matter, according to a release put out by Wisconsin on Friday.
“Wisconsin freshman Lorne Bowman has taken an indefinite leave of absence and returned home to Detroit, Michigan to tend to a personal family matter. Bowman will continue taking classes at UW-Madison, utilizing the virtual learning option and remains a committed member of the men’s basketball team.”
A three-star recruit, Bowman is part of a six-man recruiting class put together by coach Greg Gard and his staff.
“As a program, our thoughts are with Lorne and his family right now,” head coach Greg Gard said in the release. “He is a big part of our Wisconsin Basketball family and we are going to continue supporting him in every way possible during this time.”
The college basketball season is slated to start Nov. 25.
Due to COVID-19, nearly every reporter that covers Wisconsin hasn’t seen a minute of live practice this fall. Instead of using our eyes to report on what’s been happening during camp, we’ve had to rely on short video clips put out by the Badgers and what we’re hearing from the players and coaches themselves. Among the more notable items we’ve learned is a couple of true freshmen turning heads early on.
Wide receiver Chimere Dike has been the standout on offense among the young players. We got a look at that when Wisconsin posted this video on Twitter of the Waukesha product.
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) October 7, 2020
The praise about the 6-foot-1, 193-pound Dike started with offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph last week.
“He’s already shown a level of understanding and maturity that’s greater than his experience level here in college,” Rudolph said. “He’s been impressive.”
It continued when reporters got a chance to talk with the quarterbacks Thursday.
“I heard people were talking about Chim a little bit, but to be completely honest he’s not that good. We don’t like him at all,” redshirt freshman Graham Mertz joked. “Chim is a great guy. I love his approach. I think the way he’s been working, and the questions he’s asked, he’s definitely beyond his age. He’s going to be a great one here.”
“He’s a stud,” redshirt sophomore Chase Wolf added. “He’s going to be a guy we rely on in the future.”
On the other side of the ball it’s outside linebacker Nick Herbig. Defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield mentioned the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Hawaiian without being prompted.
“We’ve got a lot of good guys coming off the edge,” Breckterfield said. “Nick Herbig is really doing his thing in camp.”
Defensive lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk took that a step further.
“There’s a lot of guys who have been stepping up all across the board at outside backer,” Loudermilk said. “(Herbig), he’s been just absolutely tearing it up. He’s going to be a guy that’s a special talent.”
True freshmen haven’t made a huge impact at wide receiver or outside linebacker in recent seasons and that may continue to be the case this year. But with big production holes to fill with Quintez Cephus and Zack Baun now in the NFL, Dike and Herbig could be among the first-year players to see the field this fall.