What the future holds: 2018 DB preview

When last season was coming to a close, Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard sat cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams down to explain some things. The South Florida product was putting the finishing touches on a redshirt freshman season that saw him earn a role as the third cornerback behind senior Derrick Tindal and junior Nick Nelson. It had its highs and lows but was trending upward at the end.

So Leonhard, knowing that Tindal was out of eligibility and Nelson was likely to leave early for the NFL, got in front of Carriere-Williams to hammer home what was going to be expected of him as the Badgers rebuilt their secondary. And it wasn’t just solely his own play. Leonhard wanted him to lift the play of others as well.

“[He told me] the things he needed me to do to be able to take that next step and be a great player,” Carriere-Williams said. “With me, sitting back and looking at it, from the understanding that I’m the corner with the most game experience, of course I look at it like I have to lead those guys. And when I say lead, it’s not telling them what to do. It’s about uplifting our guys and keeping everybody motivated. We’re all going to hold each other accountable.

“Just being that guy in the room keeping everybody up and hold that standard.”

The standard, at least in the last five years, has been set at high level for the entire secondary. The likes of Darius Hillary, Sojourn Shelton, Tindal, Nelson, Natrell Jamerson, Michael Caputo, Tanner McEvoy and others saw to that. Wisconsin’s pass defense has finished in the top 10 in the country in yards allowed three times since 2013 and never lower than 30th. Despite losing three starters from last season, the expectations for having success doesn’t change. And because of Carriere-Williams’ experience — he played in all 14 games and started five last season — eyes are on him to be the guy.

“Absolutely. That’s understandable,” Carriere-Williams said when asked about being the No. 1 cornerback. “It’s only right for them to expect that out of me. And it’s only right for me to expect that out of myself.”

Carriere-Williams will tackle the challenge fully healthy, something he wasn’t last year. He suffered an abdominal injury that bothered him throughout the course of the season, and he underwent surgery in January to fix it. He missed much of spring practice, something that was frustrating, though it did force him to take a step back and gain insight from a mental perspective. Still, it hurt the former 3-star recruit not being on the field.

“Life can get hard sometimes. Football is my getaway,” Carriere-Williams said. “I’m able to come out on the field and clear my mind. My peace of mind, just not having it, when you’ve been playing it your whole life, it bothers you.”

The 5-foot-10, 192-pound Carriere-Williams returned to practice on a limited basis late in the spring, focused on getting better from a year in which he finished with 30 tackles, one interception and seven pass breakups.

“Not good enough,” Carriere-Williams said of his season before softening a little bit. “I just want to be a better overall player. Of course my performance last year was OK. I showed signs of what I could do. But I don’t think I’ve proven I can be that guy. I’ve shown signs, but I have a lot more to prove. I have a big chip on my shoulder.”

As do the cornerbacks around him. Sophomore Madison Cone, redshirt freshman Faion Hicks, redshirt sophomore Caesar Williams and freshman Donte Burton all know that outsiders have questions about them and understand that other teams will target them this fall.

“Honestly, if I was an offensive coordinator playing against us, you’d be a fool not to test us,” Cone said. “We’re just using it as fuel. We know we’re going to get tested and we plan on making people pay.”

Biggest question: What will the starting unit look like?

Here’s what we think we know heading into fall camp. Senior D’Cota Dixon will man one of the two safety spots, just like he has the last two seasons. Carriere-Williams will almost certainly be one of the starting corners. Past that, everything is pretty fluid.

Let’s start with Cone. He served as essentially the fourth cornerback last season and should figure into the starting lineup as well. Though just 5-foot-9, he’s an explosive athlete that could excel playing in the slot.

The third cornerback spot is wide open. Hicks and Williams each had strong springs, though the latter made more big plays than perhaps any of the other defensive backs. Burton, an early enrollee, exited spring in position to push for time.

The coaching staff also seems to be excited about two other incoming freshmen — Travian Blaylock and Alex Smith.

At safety, the favorite has to be redshirt freshman Scott Nelson. He was likely ready to play by late last season, but Wisconsin didn’t want to burn his redshirt. At 6-foot-2, 207 pounds, Nelson has the size in addition to the athleticism needed for the spot. He’s also very close with Dixon on and off the field and has been soaking up everything the veteran has to say.

He’s likely to be challenged by redshirt sophomores Eric Burrell and Patrick Johnson.

What they said:

“I see great things. A group of guys that come ready to work every day. As a defensive back, there’s ups and downs, but those guys take the good with the bad. They make a lot of plays, and when they give up a play, they don’t get down. They hop back up and they get ready to make another play.”

— Carriere-Williams on what he’s seen out of the younger cornerbacks

Projected depth chart

CB: Dontye Carriere-Williams (RS SO), Faion Hicks (RS FR)
S: D’Cota Dixon (SR), Patrick Johnson (RS SO)
S: Scott Nelson (RS FR), Eric Burrell (RS SO)
CB: Madison Cone (SO), Caesar Williams (RS SO)

What the future holds: 2018 ILB preview

You could have forgiven Chris Orr if he had been just a little disappointed. A guy that’s started 15 games at inside linebacker, including eight last season, was poised to move into a full-time starting role if T.J. Edwards had bypassed his senior year and entered the NFL, as many expected him to do after a stellar junior campaign. Instead, in January, Edwards announced he’d be coming back for his final season.

“T.J. is one of my best friends here. I was happy to have him back,” Orr said in the spring, showing no signs of resentment. “The competition is just going to make me better, and we’re going to make each other better…I had a pretty good idea he was going to come back. I never really thought of it like, ‘Oh, this is my chance to be the guy.’ I’ve been playing almost every year, so I’m not really worried about that.”

The return of Edwards means that as opposed to have two experienced guys in Orr and senior Ryan Connelly, the Badgers will role with an inside linebacker group that is easily the deepest and most productive position on this year’s defense. The trio combined for 205 tackles, 25 tackles for loss, seven sacks, six interceptions and two touchdowns last season for a unit that was among the best in the nation.

But while there aren’t very many questions about the inside linebackers, there are plenty around them, where inexperience rules. The defensive line is replacing three seniors and is dealing with injuries. Only one experienced outside linebacker returns, while the secondary is also in the midst of replacing three starters. Edwards, though, doesn’t sound worried.

“No, none at all,” Edwards said when asked if he was concerned about the attrition. “I think it’s something that happens every year when everyone realizes people left and people start freaking out. When T.J. (Watt) and Vince (Biegel) left [after the 2016 season], it’s like, ‘We’re going to suck now.’ No, we replace every year. We’ve got guys that come in and work every single day that are ready for these moments.”

Edwards does understand, though, that because of what his group has done, there will be eyes on him and the other inside linebackers to help bring everyone else along. It’s what happens when you’re a Butkus Award finalist like Edwards, or an All-Big Ten player like Connelly or a proven playmaker like Orr.

“Just being a redshirt senior now, it’s my time to really take control of this defense with my voice,” Edwards said. “I think that’s something that is big for me, Connelly and Chris Orr, something that we have to really channel. Chris talks all day, so I’m sure he can do that in his sleep, but for me and Connelly, we really have to be more vocal with this team.”

What all three guys made clear this spring is that expectations don’t change even with all the losses. It’s not like Edwards returned solely because he wanted to improve his draft stock. Sure, that was part of it, but him, along with Orr and Connelly, have been a part of teams that have been so close to winning a conference title and making it to the College Football Playoff. So when he pushed off turning pro, Edwards did so with a mind towards redemption in Indianapolis and on reaching the ultimate goal of any college program.

“It’s national championship,” Edwards said of their highest ambition. “It’s easy to make those high, lofty goals right now, but there is so much that goes into that.

“Just being so hurt from those Big Ten Championship games, [I] can’t do it anymore.”

Biggest question: Who fills out the rotation?

With Edwards, Connelly and Orr, Wisconsin has three guys it can count on. But if recent history is any indication, others may be needed and the Badgers have some intriguing options to pick from.

The first is redshirt sophomore Griffin Grady. An illness last fall led to him redshirting after seeing the field in 12 games as a true freshman. He earned Wisconsin’s Scout Team Defensive Player of the Year honors and was back running with the second-team defense for much of the spring.

Another option will be redshirt sophomore Mike Maskalunas. He played in 13 games last year, mostly on special teams and in mop-up duty, finishing with 11 tackles.

A pair of true freshmen may also figure into things. Illinois product Jack Sanborn, a 4-star prospect, was the highest-rated member of Wisconsin’s 2018 recruiting class, while Waukesha Catholic Memorial’s C.J. Goetz, a 3-star recruit, is also expected to start his career at inside linebacker.

They said it

“I just had my sights set on running down on kickoff. That was my biggest hope. I was thinking, ‘I’ll just sit four years and then maybe my fifth year I can get in there and start.’ To have it happen the way it did is really a dream come true.”

— Connelly on going from an out-of-state walk-on to a multi-year starter for Wisconsin

Projected depth chart:

First team: T.J. Edwards (SR), Ryan Connelly (SR)
Second team: Chris Orr (JR), Griffin Grady (RS SO)

“The Camp” previews the ILBs

What the future holds: 2018 OLB preview

Zack Baun thought it was finally his time. After the arduous process of turning his body from that of a high school quarterback into that of a Division I outside linebacker, and biding his time behind the likes of Joe Schobert, Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt, the Brown Deer product was ready to step into an important role with Wisconsin last fall. But before he could take advantage of the opportunity, his body betrayed him. The now redshirt junior suffered a foot injury in fall camp that ended his season in August.

“It just sucks,” Baun said this spring. “You know you’re going to contribute. You know it’s your year [and] you’ve waited so long, and then the opportunity gets taken from you…It sucks. It’s not a position I would want anyone else to be in.”

Baun rehabbed hard and was 100 percent by January. He was back on the field for the start of spring practice, lining up opposite senior Andrew Van Ginkel with the first-team defense. Then, once again, he was forced to the sideline when he re-injured his surgically repaired left foot. It cost him the final three weeks of vital practice time and slightly stunted his growth as a player.

“He was looking really good,” said new outside linebackers coach Bobby April III. “If it would have happened in fall — and you miss three weeks then — that’s a big setback. Right now, he’s still part of the mental game of it. He’s getting his workouts in. He’s getting all his treatments in, so it’s not as big of a deal. It stinks that it happened, there’s not doubt, but it could be a lot worse. We’re thinking more positive right now.”

The 6-foot-3, 231-pound Baun is expected back when fall camp opens later this month. And, if he stays healthy, figures to team with Van Ginkel at a position that has produced four NFL draft picks the last three years and a total of five players on NFL teams. But this pairing figures to be a little bit different than those in the past. Baun and the 233-pound Van Ginkel are smaller than their predecessors, and it’s something they believe they can use to their advantage.

“When you look at us last year with Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs, they’re obviously bigger guys. 240-pound, 250-pound bodies,” Baun said. “We’re definitely going to be a lot faster. A different play style than Leon and Garret, but I think we can make it happen, just in a different way [than them].”

Van Ginkel definitely made it happen last year when he served as the third outside linebacker behind Dooley and Jacobs. It’s not outlandish to say that without the interception he returned for a touchdown in the first quarter, and the fumble he forced in the third quarter, the Big Ten title game against Ohio State could have become a blowout for the Buckeyes. Instead, the Badgers lost by six. Three weeks later in the Orange Bowl, it was Van Ginkel’s interception in the second quarter that jump started Wisconsin on its way to a 34-24 victory over Miami.

Despite those flashes, the former junior college defensive end is a work in progress.

“He does really good in space. That’s where is knack is,” April said. “So we really need to improve on his is run block recognition, getting off blocks, playing against the run. Those are the kind of things we’ve been focusing on [with him].”

Biggest question: Who makes up the rotation?

Wisconsin has featured three to four outside linebackers in each of the five years since moving to a 3-4 defense. Tim Tibesar, who coached the position the last three seasons before leaving for Oregon State in January, loved rotating guys to keep them fresh. But he also only played guys that proved they were ready.

For April, he’s still very much in wait-and-see mode when it comes to who will be on the field this fall.

“It’s obviously way too early. We’ve got a lot of practices left. The competition is open,” April said when asked about a possible rotation. “It’s all going to depend on how guys develop.

“[Also,] I think it’s all game driven. What guys are doing against us. How much spread, how much running they’re doing, how much pass rush. It’s a really playing it by feel as opposed to saying, ‘Here’s a set number of reps you’re going to get.’”

Beyond Van Ginkel, the Badgers don’t really have a known commodity. Baun has the talent, but has struggled to stay healthy. Junior Tyler Johnson looked solid in spot duty and figures to be in the mix. Those three are the only ones with real game experience at the position.

Senior Arrington Farrar moved to outside linebacker in the spring, his third position since coming to Wisconsin.

“I think it’s an advantage for a guy to play the back to the front,” April said of Farrar moving from safety to inside linebacker and now to outside linebacker. “He understands coverages and where guys are going to be. So it’s been a pretty good transition for him. I think it’s a good spot.”

Redshirt sophomore Christian Bell is another guy that fans thought would be in the mix by now after transferring from Alabama. He saw mostly second- and third-team reps in the spring.

“He needs to diagnose the playbook a little bit better. Understand everything that’s going on and not just his role,” April said. “Play hard, compete every play. He’s done well, though.”

Others we’ll be keeping an eye on in fall camp include redshirt sophomore Noah Burks and junior Paul Jackson.

Projected depth chart:

First-team OLB: Andrew Van Ginkel (SR), Zack Baun (RS JR)
Second-team OLB: Tyler Johnson (RS JR), Noah Burks (RS SO)

What the future holds: 2018 DL preview

It had been a long time since Olive Sagapolu had done a backflip. Certainly prior to his arrival at Wisconsin in 2015. So when he was asked in the spring whether he could still do one, the senior nose tackle wasn’t positive he could pull off the maneuver that is usually reserved for gymnasts and cheerleaders, and not 340-pound football players.

“I’ll have to test the waters [this summer],” Sagapolu said in April. “I’ll go to the gym with some of my cheerleader friends and test my flips [to] see if I’ve still got it. I think I do.”

A little more than a month later, Sagapolu showed everyone he still had it. During a vacation in May, Sagapolu not only did the backflip, he did it with his feet sinking into the sand of a Hawaiian beach. The video of the feat went viral with ESPN, CBSSports, USA Today and others all reporting on it.

https://twitter.com/BadgerFootball/status/998757942596964353

The flip didn’t necessarily surprise those associated with the program and certainly not those that were apart of the cheerleading team that Sagapolu was on in high school.

“Most people know…,” Sagapolu said of his athletic prowess. “But [the flip was] just a smidge of what I can do.”

While Sagapolu was referring to his mind-bending athleticism off the field, he believes fans have also only seen a smidge of what he can do on it. It’s what happens when you play an unheralded position that has seen a significant decrease in snaps as more and more teams move to spread offenses. It has usually meant Sagapolu standing on the sideline watching on third down.

Yeah, he’s played in some nickel situations, but the Badgers have had so many good defensive ends in recent years that they usually got the call when Wisconsin went to two down linemen. However, the graduation of Alec James, Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih has left snaps available for him to grab.

Before he could, though, he felt he needed to lose weight. Listed at 346 pounds last season, Sagapolu was at 338 pounds in the spring and looking to drop some more.

“If I want to try to become an all-down guy, I’ve got to lose some weight,” he said. “[It] helps me move faster, helps me be faster with some of my moves. This spring, I feel a lot quicker.”

But it wasn’t just a quickness thing.

“[It’s] more about my cardio. Being heavier, I knew I was going to be a first- and second-down guy. I didn’t really mind it,” Sagapolu said. “[It was] important to lose weight just so I can play longer. If we have longer drives, being able to withstand the whole drive.”

That has become a lot more important in the wake of injuries to the only other experienced players returning — defensive ends Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk. Rand was lost for the season with an Achilles injury, while Loudermilk is expected back early in the season.

Biggest question: What does Wisconsin do at DE?

The losses of Rand for the season and Loudermilk for at least a little bit means a position that was already in flux with the talent departing from last year becomes an even bigger unknown for the Badgers entering fall camp.

“We’ve targeted some guys that we know are going to be in that rotation,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said at the end of spring and before the injuries. “Now, once again, it’s trying to accelerate that process with them and get them as much experience as possible. Some guys, it’s literally going to be until week 1 or week 6, they’re still going to be riding that process of getting better and learning the game.”

So what are Wisconsin’s options without Rand and Loudermilk? Well, as explained above, Sagapolu could see more time in nickel situations when they play two defensive linemen. But when they are in their base 3-4 scheme, the Badgers are going to be counting on the likes of redshirt freshman Aaron Vopal, redshirt sophomore Keldric Preston and juniors David Pfaff and Kraig Howe. It’s possible that a true freshman like Isaiah Mullens could also factor in, though Wisconsin isn’t counting on it. Potential position changes could add even more players into the mix when camp opens.

What they said:

“That’s been a big time strength of that defense. You take the depth that we’ve had — you’re going to have injuries up there, you’re going to get banged up. We’ve done such a great job of stopping the run and making teams one dimensional. They’re a huge part of that process with what we ask those guys to do.”

Leonhard on explaining how important the depth along the defensive line has been for Wisconsin in recent seasons.

Projected depth chart:

DE: Aaron Vopal (RS FR), Keldric Preston (RS SO)
NT: Olive Sagapolu (SR), Bryson Williams (FR)
DE: Isaiahh Loudermilk (RS SO), David Pfaff (JR) OR Kraig Howe (JR)

What the future holds: 2018 OL preview

The Wisconsin offensive line is back.

What had eroded as a result of a change in philosophy under a previous regime, and a string of unlucky career-ending injuries, has been rebuilt. It’s taken time, but the struggles of 2015 led to small steps in 2016, which then gave way to giant leaps last year. By the end of the season, the Badgers had one of the better lines in the country. Now, with expectations off the charts for the team as a whole, Wisconsin’s line is back to what it was when Paul Chryst, Joe Rudolph and Bob Bostad left for Pittsburgh following the 2011 season.

Back then, they left behind a room that included future NFL starters in Travis Frederick, Kevin Zeitler, Rick Wagner, Rob Havenstein and Ryan Groy. The one Rudolph oversees now includes what draft expert Matt Miller said is his top ranked center — sophomore Tyler Biadasz — and top two ranked guards — seniors Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel. If that wasn’t enough, Miller also has junior David Edwards among his top five tackles.

“[It’s] just a nasty OL across the board,” Miller tweeted this week.

Deiter and Benzschawel could have gone to the NFL after last year, but for a variety of reasons, including improving their draft stock, they came back. Now, a number of very early mock drafts have them going in the first round next April. The same goes for Edwards.

The dramatic shift from what the Badgers lined up with against Alabama in the 2015 opener to what they’ll roll out on Aug. 31 against Western Kentucky is nearly inconceivable. It’s led to a healthy portion of the college football community calling them the best in the country and others believing they could be the best line in Wisconsin’s storied OL history by the time the season is done.

Biggest question: Who starts at left tackle?

Wisconsin returns all five starters from last season, but it’s not expected that the same five will trot out for the first series against the Hilltoppers. Deiter, an All-American at left tackle, has moved back to his more natural left guard spot. That has left an opening on the outside and Rudolph made it clear at the end of spring practice that the competition is wide open between redshirt sophomores Cole Van Lanen and Patrick Kasl, along with junior Jon Dietzen, who started 12 games at left guard last season.

“I think we need that type of fight there [to] figure out the best five to get on the field,” Rudolph said in the spring.

Four months earlier, Rudolph had issued a challenge in bowl prep, saying he wanted hard a fought competition for the left tackle spot, specifically pointing to Van Lanen, who took note.

“When a coach says that, it shows that there is opportunity,” Van Lanen said in April. “I’ve got to use every practice I can as an opportunity to prove to him that I can play next year.”

A former 4-star recruit, Van Lanen seemed to hold his own during the 15 sessions in the spring and appears to be the favorite heading into fall camp. But that’s an outsiders perspective and one that he doesn’t necessarily agree with.

“I can’t say that. All I can is I’m giving it 110 percent,” Van Lanen said. “I need to be making a difference on every play. I can’t just be going through the motions. There needs to be a significant block, consistently, to show that I’m ready.”

Kasl spent much of the spring at right tackle, which is where he played in the Orange Bowl after an injury hampered Edwards.

Dietzen is a bit of a wildcard seeing as he’s played almost exclusively at left guard since arriving on campus as an early enrollee in January of 2015. He’s started 20 games for Wisconsin, but has been limited by injuries. It’ll be interesting too see how he transitions to playing on an island.

What they said:

Reporter: “Expectations for you guys as a team are quite high. Do you talk about that at all?”

Van Lanen: “We keep the outside voices out. We only care about what we’re talking about and what we’re trying to do. It doesn’t matter what other people say.”

Reporter: “What are your expectations?”

Van Lanen: “We want to be the best in the country.”

Projected depth chart:

LT: Cole Van Lanen (RS SO), David Moormann (JR)
LG: Michael Deiter (SR), Jon Dietzen (JR)
C: Tyler Biadasz (RS SO), Brett Connors (SR)
RG: Beau Benzschawel (SR), Micah Kapoi (SR)
RT: David Edwards (JR), Patrick Kasl (RS SO)

“The Camp” previews the OL

What the future holds: 2018 TE preview

He can be as good as he wants to be.

That’s how now former Wisconsin tight end Troy Fumagalli described one of his potential replacements, redshirt freshman Jake Ferguson, last December. It was a nod toward his physical talents, which are off the charts, while also recognizing that there is still work to do.

“Somebody can be really good at anything, it’s just a matter of how much they want it,” Ferguson said in the spring when asked about Fumagalli’s assessment. “Working hard every day, just grinding with everybody. That’s what’s going to [determine] whether or not I’m good [enough].”

During spring practice, everyone saw exactly what Fumagalli was referring to. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Ferguson made highlight play after highlight play, including a one-handed grab for a touchdown on a ball that appeared destined to go flying by him.

It was the type of play the Madison native made on a routine basis last fall when he was named Wisconsin’s Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year. The Badgers also took him to Minnesota for the final road game of the year despite knowing he wasn’t going to get on the field. That move, at least in the past, has been an indicator of how the coaching staff feels about a first-year players’ chance to have an impact the following season.

“I hope I can definitely get on the field and help the team out in anyway I can on offense [or] special teams,” Ferguson said of his goals. “Anywhere they need me. That’s the No. 1 goal. If I get put in a spot, I can help the team out as best that I can.”

Ferguson learned plenty from Fumagalli last fall, and spends time in the film room watching NFL star tight ends like the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce and the New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski. Both are big bodies that can move and hurt defenses in a multitude of ways. When their quarterbacks need them to make plays, they usually come through. That’s what Wisconsin has seen out of Ferguson in practice, but they also need to see it more from play-to-play.

“He’s going to attack the ball. He’s going to protect you. [There’s] not a whole lot of bad [that] happens when you go to him,” quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr said. “The consistency [aspect] is huge. Jake would be the first one to tell you that he has to continue to work the details, so that [his route running] it’s consistently on time, consistently in rhythm. Once we get that, it will be pretty good.”

Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph echoed Budmayr’s sentiments when it came to the consistency, but also made it clear he anticipates Ferguson getting opportunities when fall camp opens.

“His ability to contribute to the team will be based on his consistency,” Rudolph said. “For as good as he is, and for the plays he makes, I think he’d tell you just the same. He’s got a maturity that he still needs to reach. A maturity from the field from seeing things, just fighting through things at the time. Being that physical presence each play. But, as a young player, watching him spark and shine, [we’re] really, really excited.”

So, too, are the guys he goes against on a daily basis. Safety Scott Nelson, who battled with Ferguson throughout the spring, laid heavy praise on a guy that has yet to take a college snap.

“He’s so gifted athletically and with his hands. He’ll provide a lot for this team, I guarantee it,” Nelson said. “He’ll definitely be one of the great tight ends to ever come through here.”

Biggest question: How do you replace Troy Fumagalli?

Replacing one of the top tight ends to come through Wisconsin will not be an easy task, nor will it be a one-person job. It would be unfair to ask one player, whether it’s senior Zander Neuville, junior Kyle Penniston, redshirt sophomore Luke Benzschwel or Ferguson, to fill the void left by Fumagalli. His 135 catches and 1,627 yards were the second-most by a tight end in school history and he got drafted by the Denver Broncos in the fifth-round of April’s NFL Draft.

But there is definitely talent at the position and they should still be a significant part of the offense despite the plethora of weapons at coach Paul Chryst’s disposal.

Wisconsin missed Neuville following his knee injury in the regular-season finale against Minnesota. His run blocking played a big role in the success of running back Jonathan Taylor and the only way the Badgers could replace him was by using an offensive lineman as a tight end against Ohio State and Miami. He showed some receiving ability as well, but his blocking is where he’s most valuable.

Penniston is intriguing, especially now that the coaching staff believes he can line up at all three of the tight end spots and hold his own. Being able to play on all three downs, like Fumagalli, Sam Arneson, Jacob Pedersen and others did before him, means less predictably for an offense.

Benzschawel lost about 10 pounds from last season, which should help in the pass game. At 6-foot-6, he provides another imposing presence when the Badgers want to run the ball down an opponents’ throat.

And then there’s Ferguson, who as we illustrated earlier, likely has the highest upside of anybody in the group. If it all comes together for him this fall, watch out.

Our take:

The top of the depth chart in August could be very different by the time October rolls around. I expect Penniston and Neuville to be the first-team tight ends at the start of the season, but Ferguson just has too much talent and play-making ability to keep him off the field. That much was evident in spring. The only thing holding him back, as evidenced above, is doing it on a down-to-down basis. Once that happens, Ferguson will be on track, at least from where I stand, to becoming an All-Big Ten tight end before his career is done.

What they said:

“He gives you a presence of a play-maker. I don’t think that’s been underestimated. He made plays last year, but I think there’s a chance for that to be more in the spotlight.”

Rudolph on Neuville being more than a blocker

Depth chart:

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

“The Camp” previews the TEs

What the future holds: 2018 WR preview

Surrounded by reporters in the middle of April, Ted Gilmore was midway through an eight-minute interview when he was asked a question about his wide receivers that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

Are there enough footballs to go around for a talented group that returns intact?

“The guys, they know they earn their reps. That’s the culture and that’s the environment we’re trying to create,” Gilmore said. “I tell them all the time, ‘I don’t control your reps. You control it by what you put on tape.’”

Gilmore’s room is filled with guys that put impressive efforts on tape last season, a departure from what had become a mostly one-man show in the seasons after Paul Chryst left for Pittsburgh following the 2011 season. So, the contributions from up and down the depth chart last season wasn’t something anyone could have predicted when Gilmore came to Madison when Chryst returned, this time has head coach, in 2015.

In the prior three seasons, one receiver — Jared Abbrederis in 2012 and 2013, along with Alex Erickson in 2014 — had more receptions than the rest of the receivers combined. That happened again in Gilmore’s first year with Erickson. But there were more guys involved in 2016 and things really took off last season when Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor combined for 100 catches and none had more than 31.

“I like the mindset [in the room],” Gilmore said. “Sure, they want to have opportunities, they want the ball. But they are genuinely excited about the [other] guy if he has success. They know if they are in there, they have earned it. That’s the environment we’re trying to create.”

The wide receiver room that Gilmore and the Badgers have built is arguably the best in school history. There may have been better individual players throughout the year but no group has had the experience and depth than the one Wisconsin will put on the field this year. The players in the room feel it, but so do their teammates and coaches.

“There’s times where we only have two receivers on the field at the same time,” running back Chris James said, “and I look at Coach Gilmore and be like, ‘How do you pick which guy to put out there because all these guys can take the top off?’”

Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, who played at Wisconsin with two of the best in school history — Lee Evans and Brandon Williams — said the Badgers have never had anything like they do right now.

“When I was here, that top tier [of] guys were very talented,” Leonhard said this spring. “Maybe depth wise it wasn’t quite what we have now. Now we have a very talented group at the top, but you start going down that group and you’re still really excited about a lot of guys or there’s just youth where they have some skills that can stress out a defense. I’m excited.”

Biggest question: What do you do with Aron Cruickshank?

The special part of Wisconsin’s wide receiver room is the depth doesn’t stop after the top four guys. Actually, most spring practice observers would have chosen early enrollee Aron Cruickshank as the MVP over the 15 sessions. Though he’s just 5-foot-9 and didn’t weigh more than 160 pounds in March, the Brooklyn, N.Y., product delivered big play after big play.

“He brings speed and quickness to the table. That stands out first and foremost,” Gilmore said of Cruickshank, who chose the Badgers over offers from Penn State and Ohio State. “Obviously, his big play potential [stands out]. He’ll have a chance to make some plays. For a guy his size, he displays some toughness when he has the ball in his hands. He’s not afraid to attack the tackler. He’s not afraid to run through things.”

Chryst joked that “Captain Obvious” could see the kid’s talent during the spring and that Cruickshank did enough to get more looks come late July and August in camp. Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph saw it, too.

“I think he’s fought his way to say, ‘Look, man, you need to take a long look at me in the fall,’” Rudolph said. “I can see a role for him as soon as this [year].”

What that role will entail remains to be seen. If he’s able to duplicate what he did in the spring, which won’t be easy seeing as the absences of Davis, Pryor and Cephus allowed him to get more reps than he normally would, then they’ll need to find a way to get the ball in Cruickshank’s hands, whether it’s as a punt returner or in some specialized role on offense.

As for what Cruickshank’s thinking, he wants to play.

“To get on that traveling team,” Cruickshank said of his goals early in spring. “[Whether it’s] on special teams or at the receiver position, they know I can help out. I know I can help out, too. It’s just that it’s up to me to take it.”

Our take

In preparing for our position previews, I ended up going down a rabbit hole of highlights from last season. And as I tweeted the other night, Cephus was a problem for teams last year before his injury in November. He was clearly Wisconsin’s top target and showed why that was in his first padded practice in spring ball, going up to snag a pass from Alex Hornibrook in the back of the end zone with one hand. He’s a difference maker and a competitor.

https://twitter.com/BadgerFootball/status/986999020122812416

The same can be said about Davis, who seemingly had a how-did-he-do-that catch every game down the stretch. Taylor also stepped up when Cephus went down and then had a big spring, while Pryor showed his skills in a variety of ways last year, including a pair of end arounds that went for touchdowns.

So, again, and I know I’m belaboring the point, but this group is loaded, and that’s not even counting on the true freshmen in Cruickshank, Taj Mustapha, Isaac Guerendo or A.J. Abbott, all of whom the staff is excited about.

However, not everyone is impressed with the group, apparently. College football expert Phil Steele put out his position rankings this week, including the top 20 wide receiver units in the country, and Wisconsin wasn’t listed. No matter, though. The Badgers will make that snub look foolish by the end of the season.

They said it

“[Quintez], his growth is a credit to him. It was accelerated pretty quickly because of his work ethic and his willingness to work at it and pick up the small things. He’s a guy that, truthfully, out of the three of them [Cephus, Taylor and Pryor], I felt his road would be longer because he was a [basketball player]. He hadn’t played a lot [of football]. I take my hat off to him [at] how he’s worked at it.”

Gilmore on the impact Cephus was able to make so early in his career

Projected depth chart:

First team

Second team

Third team

Quintez Cephus (JR)

A.J. Taylor (JR)

Aron Cruickshank (FR)

Danny Davis (SO)

Kendric Pryor (RS SO)

Taj Mustapha (FR) or Jack Dunn (RS SO)

 

“The Camp” previews the WRs

What the future holds: 2018 RB preview

Jonathan Taylor put up video game-like numbers as a freshman. The New Jersey product ran for the most yards by a true freshman in NCAA history on his way to finishing sixth in the Heisman Trophy vote and being a finalist for the Doak Walker Award. He did it all while helping his team to a 13-1 record and an Orange Bowl championship. How exactly do you improve on that?

“You’ve always got to expect to get better. You never expect anything less. You don’t want to stay the same. You don’t want to be any less,” Taylor said this spring. “You definitely have to expect to be better than last year.”

Improving on last year isn’t simply a numbers game. Getting to or surpassing his freshman total of 1,977 yards would be a remarkable achievement. With Taylor last year, there have now been five running backs in Wisconsin history to hit 1,000 yards as a true or redshirt freshman. Only one, Anthony Davis in 2002, ran for more yards in his second season.

But that doesn’t mean Taylor won’t be better. For one, he’s now more familiar with the offense. If you remember, he went from fifth on the depth chart in the first 10 days of last August to the top of the depth chart by the time the season-opener rolled around. He didn’t get there based on his knowledge of Wisconsin’s scheme. Now, after a year under his belt, the speed in deciphering everyone’s role and how it impacts him is catching up to his obvious physical talents.

“This past season, [I] was out there taking a coaching point, playing, having fun. Now it’s about having more knowledge. Knowing what’s going on, being more aware,” Taylor said. “Showing that, doing that, will make me a better overall football player. That’s one thing that [running backs coach John] Settle [and] Coach [Paul] Chryst talk about. How can you become a better overall football player.”

Chryst took it upon himself this spring to help Taylor in becoming that better overall football player. During every practice, while most of the other players were going through special teams drills, Chryst was working with Taylor on his route running out of the slot and from the backfield.

“Part of being a better overall football player,” Taylor said, pointing back to a previous answer. “You want to be a complete back as much as you can.”

Wisconsin running backs combined for just 28 of the Badgers’ 204 completions in 2017, including 13 from the since graduated Austin Ramesh and Rachid Ibrahim. But Chryst has shown at different times in his career that he’s willing to get the running backs involved more. Dare Ogunbowale had 50 catches over his final two seasons in Madison, while Montee Ball and James White combined for 39 receptions, 456 yards and six touchdowns in 2011.

“I think it makes us all better because obviously they have to defend every guy, defend the entire field,” wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore said of getting the Taylor involved in the pass game. “I think it makes it that much easier for everybody. It’s just him adding another tool to his toolbox.”

The area where Taylor knows he needs to be better is ball security. He fumbled eight times last season and lost six of them. No running back in the country lost more.

“You can run for as many yards as you want, but if you’re fumbling [once every 36 carries], you’re not going to win any championship games,” Ball said during an appearance this week on “The Camp” podcast. “You won’t. Period.”

If Taylor does get his fumbling under control, he’s going to be the star of a Wisconsin offense poised for big things. It’s why he’s among the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy in 2018, something only two other Badgers have ever done. Taylor’s focus, though, remains fixated on the team itself.

“It definitely is still pretty cool being [a favorite]. But that’s one thing you have to not worry about,” Taylor said in the spring. “You have to worry about being a favorite to [your] team. [And be] worried about knowing that you’re guys know you’re going to go out and do your job every single play.”

Biggest question: Who’s the No. 2?

Taylor is clearly the No. 1 option for the Badgers, but who will earn the second-most carries for Wisconsin this fall? That’s something that will likely play itself out during camp and the first few weeks of the season.

Most would put their money on senior Chris James. The star of spring practice in 2017, injuries limited him for much of his junior year. After rushing for 101 yards against Florida Atlantic in Week 2, James would gain just 117 yards the rest of the season. But he also scored a vital touchdown in the Big Ten title game against Ohio State and wants to build on that success.

“I think I’ve shown a couple glimpses of what I can do, but I think I’m only scratching the surface,” James said in the spring.

The senior earned the third-down role before getting hurt last year, and that may be again where he can most help.

Past him, it’s a bit up in the air. Junior Bradrick Shaw, who had 365 yards last season, is coming off a torn ACL suffered in the regular season finale, and it’s unclear when he’ll be cleared to go. Sophomore Garrett Groshek, the biggest surprise contributor for Wisconsin in his first year, is also returning from offseason surgery. Senior Taiwan Deal is expected to be healthy when camp starts and could help if he’s able to stay on the field. Sophomore Sam Brodner flashed in the spring, his first live action since tearing the ACL in his left knee the previous April.

But the guy that has some buzz around him is Nakia Watson. A true freshman, the 6-foot, 226-pound Watson ran for 1,938 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior at Westlake (Austin, Texas) High School, which is in Class 6A, the highest division in Texas. Chryst brought Watson up without prompting on Signing Day, while Settle told Jesse Temple of The Athletic that the incoming freshman had been in constant contact with Taylor and believes he’s physically ready to play early.

They said it

“He took advantage of the opportunity, and you could say, ‘well, that could’ve been me,’ but the kid took advantage of opportunities. The kid is a baller. I’m glad he took advantage of the opportunity. If those guys went down, I would take advantage of the opportunity. That’s how you’ve got to look at it. And he’s earned it. There’s nothing against him. He’s definitely earned it, and it’s exciting to see that kid grow.”

— Chris James on Jonathan Taylor capitalizing when other running backs went down last fall

Our take

By the end of last season, everyone in the country knew who Jonathan Taylor was and it led to a big bullseye on his back. After an offseason full of recognition, that bullseye is just getting bigger. But that’s not a bad thing and it’s certainly not something that will rattle Taylor. His maturity is off the charts for a kid so young and he handles nearly everything that comes at him in a way most 19-year-olds don’t.

That said, Taylor would be better off not carrying the ball 299 times or more for a second straight season, especially if he’s going to be more involved in the passing game. So, Wisconsin needs someone step up in an effort to give the Badgers a 1-2 punch. Whether that’s James, Watson, Groshek, Deal or Shaw, it needs to happen.

Eye-opening stat

Fullback Alec Ingold is averaging a touchdown every 6.1 times he touches the ball. The senior, who will move into the starting lineup this fall, has 14 career touchdowns. That’s currently the most of any player on the roster.

Projected depth chart

Tailback
1) Jonathan Taylor (SO)
2) Chris James (SR)
3) Nakia Watson (FR)
4) Garrett Groshek (RS SO)
5) Taiwan Deal (SR)

Fullback
1) Alec Ingold (SR)

“The Camp” previews the RBs

What the future holds: 2018 QB preview

When Alex Hornibrook took to the stage to play the guitar at The Buckinghams in April, the Wisconsin quarterback’s performance revealed two things. The first was, well, he’s really good. His take on Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried” got played on local radio the day after and it even got the seal of approval from the band itself. The second and more interesting aspect, at least when it comes to football, is the fact that he somehow found the time to actually learn how to play.

From the outside looking in, even for most of those that cover the team on a day-to-day basis, it seemed as if Hornibrook was all football, all the time. Save for a few pictures from a concert, baseball game or a family function, the junior’s social media is filled with football. His offseason schedule included two more visits to QB guru George Whitfield Jr. in California, time working out in Nashville and a second straight trip to the Manning Passing Academy in Louisiana. That’s not even counting winter conditioning, spring practice and summer workouts that he does with the rest of the team.

So when did he find the time to learn the instrument while at the same time being a two-time All-Big Ten academic honoree and serving as the offensive leader of a top-10 team in the country?

“I think there is a component of balance, which I think he does a good job of. You got to have a balanced life,” Wisconsin quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr said in the spring. “But, at the same time, there’s a lot that goes into playing this position and a lot of time that is taken in preparation and effort. He knows that’s what makes him great and what can make him great. It’s really important to him, and I think that’s why he puts so much time in.”

All the time he’s put in has paid dividends for the Pennsylvania native. After his first two years, a majority of which came as the starter, he’s already in the top 10 in Wisconsin history in passing yards, completions, completion percentage, touchdowns and passing efficiency. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Hornibrook also sits just 11 wins shy of Joel Stave’s record for most wins in school history. If the season goes as planned, he could break the mark this year.

Hornibrook is coming off what was arguably the best performance of his career — an Orange Bowl victory over Miami that saw him throw four touchdowns and be named the Most Valuable Player. But he didn’t spend much time celebrating that accomplishment. Instead, there he was, just a few days later, in Southern California working out.

“I think it’s good to just keep working out instead of going home and just sitting on the couch or throwing to a couple buddies…,” Hornibrook said in the spring of not taking that time off during winter break. “[I’d rather] get out there and start doing some drills and stuff. It’s good.”

So, what did Hornibrook work on this offseason? Among the highest priorities was focusing on what led to his 15 interceptions last year, including a stretch of eight straight Big Ten games where he turned it over at least once.

“You could take every phase,” coach Paul Chryst said when asked where he was looking for Hornibrook to improve. “If it’s something with footwork, he’s done some good stuff, but can clean this up. Play-action, situational football. It’s not just, ‘we want you to throw fewer interceptions.’”

Trying to improve in every aspect during an offseason is daunting. It’s why many of the best quarterbacks, including the Green Bay Packers Aaron Rodgers, choose instead to focus on one part of their games. Hornibrook is no different.

“From a physical standpoint, there’s constant work on pocket awareness, pocket movements, the throwing motion and are we being as efficient as possible [and] maximizing velocity,” Budmayr said. “I think he’s done a great job of picking a few areas and then honing in on them.”

Biggest question: Is Jack Coan ready?

Hornibrook started all 14 games a year ago, and it’s a good thing he did as his backup was true freshman Jack Coan.

An early enrollee, Coan beat out the since departed Kare Lyles for the job and appeared in six games. He completed all five of the passes he threw and didn’t look overwhelmed. But that was in garbage time. What if Hornibrook goes down in a big game this year and Coan is called upon? Is he ready?

It was a small sample size, but the work he did in the spring suggests he is. Budmayr lauded his decision making and production, which led to more and more reps over the 15 practices.

“I’ve been really happy with the way he’s worked,” Budmayr said. “His approach [was] awesome the whole spring.”

What they said:

“I know it may sound like a cliche, but it’s the truth. Competition is within yourself. Jack needs to understand that. Alex needs to understand that. When Alex Hornibrook is the best Alex Hornibrook he can be, our team is going to be good. When Jack Coan is the best Jack Coan he can be, our team is going to be good.”

| Budmayr when asked whether the starting and backup jobs were set in stone.

Our take:

This may be overly obvious, but Wisconsin’s championship aspirations, both in the Big Ten and on a national level, will hinge heavily on Hornibrook. When he plays at a high level — and don’t let his detractors tell you he didn’t at times in 2017 — the Badgers are going to be dangerous. Wisconsin hasn’t had a collection of talent at the skill positions and along the offensive line like it does this season since 2011. That group just happened to set the school record for points per game at 41.1. With a healthy and productive Hornibrook, the 2018 offense has the chance to be just as special as that group.

Projected depth chart:

1) Alex Hornibrook (JR)
2) Jack Coan (SO)
3) Danny Vanden Boom (RS FR)
4) Chase Wolf (FR)

“The Camp” QB preview

Badgers: Top QB commit shuts down his recruitment

Graham Mertz will, in fact, be coming to Wisconsin this December as an early enrollee.

Committed to the Badgers since last fall but still talking with other schools, the 4-star quarterback took to Twitter on Thursday night to let everyone know the recruiting process is over for him.

“Thank you to every coach that has taken the time to extend an offer to me,” Mertz tweeted. “This past year has truly been an amazing blessing. I got to know many great people and coaches who have my utmost respect.

“I am ready to move on past the recruitment process and just play ball. I owe it to all my teammates to completely shut down my recruitment and focus on winning another state title.

“This process has shown me that Wisconsin is the best fit for me as a student-athlete. It is time to bring together the best recruiting class Wisconsin has ever seen and bring a natty to Madison.

“With that being said, I am completely shutting down my recruitment.”

Mertz will come to Madison as the highest-rated quarterback the school has ever recruited and likely the most sought after. Though Wisconsin was one of the first to offer the Kansas product a scholarship, tons more came through in the last eight months, including from Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Texas A&M, USC and many more of the blue blood programs in the country.

Getting the Elite 11 finalist and Under Armour All-American to stick despite all that attention is a significant win for coach Paul Chryst and his staff.