Badgers: What now along the defensive line?

Wisconsin could be without two key pieces of its defensive line this fall.

According to Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, defensive ends Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk are out indefinitely. Rand suffered an Achilles injury that could keep him out the entire season, while Loudermilk underwent knee surgery this spring to deal with some lingering issues.

Both are big losses for a defensive line group already trying to replace three seniors — Chikwe Obasih, Conor Sheehy and Alec James — from last year. Rand and Loudermilk were penciled in as starters in the base 3-4 defense. With them out, what will Wisconsin do?

On the surface, this feels very much like 2014. The Badgers lost four experienced players from the previous year with seniors Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski the only experienced players back. But Herring suffered a knee injury in the season opener and missed the next five games, while Zagzebski was carted off with a neck injury, though he’d return the next week. It forced Wisconsin into playing young guys like Obasih, Sheehy, James and Arthur Goldberg. It wasn’t ideal, but Wisconsin managed. Where it’s different this time around, is this happened far enough in advance of the season they can plan accordingly.

Here’s our look at some of their options.

Olive Sagapolu

The senior is Wisconsin’s starting nose guard, and it’s his best spot. But even before the loss of Rand and Loudermilk, there was already a plan in place to use Sagapolu in different spots. Listed at 346 pounds last year, he was down to 338 in the spring and still trying to lose more as he transitioned himself into being more of a three-down player. So often in recent years, Wisconsin’s opponents would spread things out and it left Sagapolu standing on the sideline while the Badgers went to their sub packages with just two linemen. Now, though, Sagapolu should be available to defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard in all situations, which is obviously even more important now in the wake of the injury news.

Aaron Vopal

The redshirt freshman ran with the first-team defense at points this spring when Rand and Loudermilk were out and didn’t look overwhelmed. At 6-foot-6, 299 pounds, Vopal is more than capable physically to handle the grind in the trenches. And it’s important to remember that while making plays is great, the real job of Wisconsin’s defensive linemen is to keep the opposing offensive line off the linebackers so they can flow to the ball. Vopal appeared to have that ability in the limited time we got to see him in practice.

Keldric Preston

The redshirt sophomore is currently more known for a video of him eating an orange — peal and all — that went viral following the Orange Bowl. But he did seem to have some pass rushing talent in 1-on-1 drills this spring and could be some help in Wisconsin’s nickel packages.

Bryson Williams

Williams enrolled at Wisconsin in December and took part in all the offseason work and spring ball. His future is at nose guard, and it’s where he lined up during practice, serving as Sagapolu’s backup. But it’s not where he played in high school. His film shows him as a 4-3 defensive tackle and there is some carryover between that and a defensive end in a 3-4. Williams, like Sheehy and Goldberg did during their careers, seems capable of playing both defensive line spots.

David Pfaff and Kraig Howe

The two juniors have been buried on the depth chart their first three years. Howe flashed a couple times during spring practice, including having a strip-sack of quarterback Kare Lyles in a scrimmage. It would be huge if either guy can make a jump this year to being a contributor on Saturdays.

True freshmen: Isaiah Mullens & Boyd Dietzen

A 3-star recruit, Mullens chose Wisconsin over offers from the likes of Iowa, Indiana, Purdue and others. According to a Land of 10 article, Mullens weighed 292 pounds at 6-foot-6 earlier this spring, and is thought of as a really good athlete. If some of the older guys don’t take advantage of their opportunities, it might be Mullens who steps into a role in his first year.

Meanwhile, Dietzen, the top-ranked player in Wisconsin in the Class of 2018, finished with 20 tackles for loss and 10 sacks for Kimberly as it won another Division 1 title. Also a 3-star recruit, Dietzen seemingly now has a better chance of seeing the field this fall as well.

Badgers: 4 players that could have a breakout season

Football is coming, but probably not soon enough for you. In an effort to get you through the down time in the summer, we’re starting our offseason look at Wisconsin as it prepares for another year of chasing a Big Ten title. First up, four players that could have breakout seasons like wide receiver Quintez Cephus, running back Jonathan Taylor and safety Natrell Jamerson had in 2017.

WR Danny Davis
2017 season stats: 21 catches, 362 yards, 4 TDs

You could probably say this about any of Wisconsin’s young wide receivers, but Danny Davis’ ceiling is very high and he seems to be just scratching the surface. He had eight catches in the Badgers’ first nine games, before picking up the slack in the wake of Cephus’ season-ending leg injury. Over the final five games, he had 18 grabs and four touchdowns, three of which came in the Orange Bowl against Miami. And those catches weren’t just of the ho-hum variety. Nearly every week down the stretch (Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State and the Hurricanes) Davis made a circus catch look easy. And he did it despite being relatively inexperienced as a wide receiver after being more of a running back in high school.

Davis has a myriad of skills that make him special, and the Badgers found a way to exploit most of them in 2017. Expect him to have an even bigger role this fall.

TE Jake Ferguson
2017 stats: N/A

The redshirt freshman really stood out in the spring, catching nearly everything thrown his way and making the hard grabs look easy. At 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, Ferguson is in the mold of Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and could provide the perfect balance of blocker and receiver.

Though his consistency needs work — multiple coaches mentioned it throughout the 15 sessions in spring — all signs point to Ferguson playing a significant role in filling the void left by Troy Fumagalli. And while senior Zander Neuville and junior Kyle Penniston will also figure heavily into Wisconsin’s plans this fall, it certainly seems as though Ferguson has the highest ceiling of the three, and many believe he’s in line to be the next great tight end for the Badgers.

S Scott Nelson
2017 stats: N/A

Like Ferguson, Nelson turned heads as a true freshman while playing on the scout team. So much so, he, along with Ferguson and guard Kayden Lyles, traveled to Minnesota for the season finale even though there was no chance they’d play. It was just to get them used to traveling, something that has historically served as an indication of what the team expects of freshman in their second season.

From almost Day 1, senior D’Cota Dixon has taken Nelson under his wing and served as a mentor on and off the field. You rarely saw one without the other after games and practices last season. Nelson ran with the first-team defense for much of the spring while Dixon was out, but when he returns there’s a good chance that duo will be the starting safeties against Western Kentucky.

CB Dontye Carriere-Williams
2017 stats: 30 tackles, 6 PD, 1 INT

With Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal no longer around, Carriere-Williams is suddenly the most experienced cornerback on the roster. Used almost exclusively as the Badgers’ third CB last season, the South Florida native is in the same position as the likes of Garret Dooley, T.J. Watt and Leo Musso once were. All three were solid contributors before taking their games to the next level and becoming key pieces in Wisconsin’s defense. That’s what the Badgers need Carriere-Williams to do and he seems more than capable of getting done, especially now that he’s fully healthy.

The redshirt sophomore played much of last season with an abdominal injury that required surgery after the season. He missed much of spring practice, which he called frustrating, saying he knew how important those practices were. But he’s good now and most expect him to step into that No. 1 CB role and for there not to be much of a drop-off, if any, from what we saw last year.

Badgers grab commit No. 10 in Class of 2019

Wisconsin has added commitment No. 10 to its Class of 2019.

Three-star cornerback Dean Engram (Washington D.C.) announced his decision Friday morning.

The 5-foot-9, 160-pound, Engram chose the Badgers over offers from Penn State, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh and others.

Ranked as the No. 108 cornerback in the country, Engram is the son of former Penn State and NFL wide receiver Bobby Engram.

Wisconsin adds cornerback to 2019 class

Wisconsin added to its 2019 recruiting class Sunday morning.

Cornerback James Williams announced his commitment to the Badgers on Twitter.

The Hollywood, Fla., product chose Wisconsin over offers from Louisville, Nebraska, Ole Miss and others.

A 3-star recruit, Williams is ranked as the No. 116 cornerback in the country by the 247Sports composite.

He becomes the ninth commitment in Wisconsin’s Class of 2019.

Wisconsin to open the season at night, three more game times announced

For a second straight year, Wisconsin will open the season under the lights at Camp Randall Stadium.

The school announced four game times on Thursday, including the Aug. 31 season opener against Western Kentucky, which will get underway at 8 p.m. and be broadcast on ESPN.

The Badgers opened last season at night against Utah State, falling behind 10-0 before rolling to a 59-10 victory. Like that game, this one will also be played on a Friday night.

As for the rest of the announced times:

Sept. 8 vs New Mexico — 11 a.m.
Sept. 15 vs BYU — 2:30 p.m.
Oct. 20 vs Illinois — 11 a.m. (Homecoming)

The times for the other eight games will be released at a later date.

Ethan Happ returning to Wisconsin for his senior year

Wisconsin center Ethan Happ is coming back for his senior year.

The three-time All-Big Ten performer announced the decision via Twitter just hours before the 11:59 p.m. deadline to withdraw from the NBA draft.

Though not invited to the scouting combine earlier in May, Happ did have multiple workouts with teams, including the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors. But he didn’t hire an agent, which allowed him to retain his eligibility.

Happ returns to a program that missed the NCAA tournament last season for the first time since 1998, but that has a chance to bounce back this fall. Wisconsin should have a healthy Brad Davison, Kobe King and D’Mitrik Trice, while also seeing another year of development from promising front court players in Nate Reuvers and Aleem Ford.

The Illinois product will also have a chance to leave his name all over the Wisconsin record books. If he puts together a similar season to last year, Happ will own the school record for rebounding, and finish in the top-3 in scoring, assists, blocks and steals.

No decision yet for Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ

Ethan Happ still hasn’t made a decision on whether to keep his name in for the 2018 NBA Draft or to return to Wisconsin for his senior year.

Speaking following a workout with the Detroit Pistons on Thursday, Happ told reporters he’s still got at least one more workout before next week’s deadline.

“I have Golden State coming up,” said Happ, according to the Detroit News. “Then I might fit a team in on the 29th or might just call it and start making a decision whether to [withdraw] or keep my name in the draft.”

Happ has until May 30 to make that decision. Because he hasn’t hired an agent, he’s eligible to come back to Madison for his final year.

Right after the season, Happ said he’d have to be a first-round pick to keep his name in, though he’s wavered a bit on that, telling the Wisconsin State Journal’s Jim Polzin that he’d have a tough decision to make if he was told he’d be an early second-round pick. Based on most mock drafts, that doesn’t appear likely.

Still, when asked Thursday about going back to school, Happ maintained that it’s still up in the air considering where some of the team’s he’s worked out with, including the Pistons, sit in the second round.

“Detroit’s got a great pick (No. 42 overall). I thought I had a good workout. There’s obviously a lot of other good candidates,” Happ said. “There are no guarantees, obviously, in this draft business, but I definitely am keeping the option open of going back to school.”

Early college football lines have Wisconsin as an underdog

Wisconsin was a favorite in every regular season game it played last season on the way to a 12-0 record. If the Badgers are going to duplicate that mark, they are likely going to have to pull a few upsets.

The South Point Sportsbook in Las Vegas released point spreads for a number of the biggest games of the year in college football and four of Wisconsin’s contests were listed.

The Badgers have owned the Big Ten West for much of its four-year existence, winning it three times. Most expect them to do it again in 2018, so it should be no surprise they are 5-point favorites at Iowa on Sept. 22 and 17-point favorites over Nebraska on Oct. 6.

The games where they could be an underdog come later, starting with a trip to Michigan on Oct. 13. The Wolverines are listed as 3-point favorites in that matchup. About a month later, Wisconsin travels to Penn State and South Point has the Nittany Lions as 4.5-point favorites.

Wisconsin is 3-4 as an underdog during coach Paul Chryst’s three years.

Wisconsin to play home-and-home series vs Pittsburgh

Wisconsin has added another power conference team to its future schedule.

The school announced Thursday morning it had agreed to a home-and-home series with Pittsburgh. The first game will be played at Camp Randall Stadium in 2026 and the second game will be played at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh in 2027.

The Panthers are 3-0 against the Badgers, but the two sides haven’t played since 1967 when Pittsburgh won 13-11 in Madison.

Current Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst started his head coaching career at Pittsburgh in 2012, going 19-19 in three seasons before coming back to the Badgers. Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr, tight ends coach Mickey Turner, running backs coach John Settle and defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield were all a part of Chryst’s staff in some capacity in Pittsburgh.

With the addition of the Panthers, here’s a look at Wisconsin’s future matchups with Power 5 schools:

2020: Notre Dame (Green Bay)
2021: Notre Dame (Chicago)
2022: Washington State
2023: @ Washington State
2024: Virginia Tech
2025: @ Virginia Tech
2026: Pittsburgh
2027: @ Pittsburgh
2029: @ UCLA
2030: UCLA

Barry Alvarez on national title talk: ‘I think it’s healthy.’

Barry Alvarez rarely talked about national championships when he was the head coach at Wisconsin. On occasion, during his 16 seasons leading the program, he was asked whether winning a national title was a goal, and he largely brushed it aside. His philosophy was if you win the Big Ten, then you’ll be in position to play for more at the end of the year.

The landscape has changed significantly since Alvarez was the full-time coach, with the move to a playoff system in 2014. Still, with a large number of current players stating this spring that their goals included making the college football playoff and winning a national title, it made sense to see how Alvarez, now the athletic director at Wisconsin, views their comments.

“I think it’s healthy,” Alvarez said Monday. “Our guys aren’t backing away from it. They went in last year with high expectations and lived up to them. They were one possession away from playing in the [playoff]. They’ve got a good nucleus coming back — a very good nucleus. [They’ve got] some of the best players in the country at their positions.

“I think they understand how you have to work in the offseason and how you have to come together as a team. All of that comes into play. It’s not just having good guys. There are some other things you have to do to become a good team.”

Wisconsin returns 10 of the 11 players that started on offense in the Orange Bowl and have All-Big Ten players such as linebacker T.J. Edwards and safety D’Cota Dixon returning on defense. It’s led many to put the Badgers very high in their way-too-early Top 25 rankings, including USA Today having them at No. 3.

“The fact they think [they can win a national title], that’s great. I think it’s awesome,” Alvarez said. “I think they have a chance to be a really good team.”

Joe Ferguson tryout with the Packers

Former Badgers safety Joe Ferguson, Alvarez’s grandson, got the opportunity to tryout with the Green Bay Packers during their rookie orientation camp on Friday and Saturday. A backup for much of his career at Wisconsin, Ferguson played well last fall when injuries cropped up in the secondary. He tied for the team lead in interceptions (4) and returned one of them for a touchdown.

It was a year that made the possibility of a professional career something to think about for Ferguson and his family.

“Joe came to me and said he wasn’t finished and that he wanted to continue playing if he could. I gave him my blessing,” Alvarez said. “If he wants to take a look and see how he matches up, [that’s great]. If something works out for him, I’d be thrilled for him.”

Tryout players weren’t made available to the media, but, according to Alvarez, Ferguson felt good about what he was able to accomplish during the two days of practice.

“He thought he did pretty well,” Alvarez said. “He got a lot positive comments during practice. He picked up the defense quickly. He didn’t make any huge plays but was never out of position.”

Alvarez said that Ferguson has another tryout scheduled with the Indianapolis Colts when they hold their rookie camp later this week.

Bucky on Parade

Monday was the start of Bucky on Parade, an art event that will see 85 Bucky Badger statues placed throughout Madison and Dane County over the next four months. All of them will have a different theme. The one at Camp Randall Stadium is called “Bucky Alvarez,” and it’s dressed like Alvarez – headset, sunglasses, sweater vest and khakis.

“Yeah, that’s a game day outfit,” Alvarez said when asked if he liked it. “Absolutely.”

All the proceeds from the event will benefit local charities, including basketball coach Greg Gard’s initiative, “Garding Against Cancer.”

“I think the project is good,” Alvarez said. “It’s for a good cause, and you can have a little fun with it at the same time. It’s very positive.”