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5 Biggest Questions facing Badgers football following spring practice

UW’s annual spring football camp left plenty of questions to be answered in the fall. Does it mean good news or bad news?

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Friday night under the lights of Camp Randall gave us all the final glimpse of this Wisconsin Badgers football team until August. It also meant 15 practices were in the books and now is the perfect time for reflection.

It is what the coaching staff will be doing while they hit the recruiting circuit in earnest.

So, we’ll follow suit all week here and take a look back at the 2017 spring football camp.

That will start with a look at the unanswered questions coming out of spring camp, and for a team with a lot of turnover there are plenty left to be answered.

What Will the Offensive Line Look Like?

The spring was a bit of a mixed bag for the offensive line. On the one hand, there are plenty of players with starting experience in the mix. On the other hand, a lot of those players were missing from spring football.

It opened opportunities for players like Tyler Biadasz and Micah Kapoi, both of whom had solid spring camps. However, it also puts offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Rudolph in a very interesting position.

Many thought the offensive line was pretty easily set, lining up like this from left to right — David Edwards, Jon Dietzen, Michael Deiter, Beau Benzschawel and either Jacob Maxwell or Patrick Kasl at right tackle.

But, Edwards, Dietzen, Benzschawel and Maxwell all missed parts or the whole of spring camp. It meant Biadasz playing a lot of center and playing it at such a high level he may be pushing Dieter out to a different position come the fall.

If that happens, we’re likely to see Deiter at left tackle and Edwards back at right tackle. But, that is all a big if at this point.

While there are some really good pieces to the puzzle in play, figuring out the five best players and where they belong will be a huge challenge for Rudolph and Co. come the fall. At least this group has the depth to worry about who the best five are and not just finding five capable players anymore.

Depth isn’t a concern, just chemistry and the best thing for this offense overall.

Who Is the Backup Quarterback?

As deep as the offensive line is, Wisconsin is razor-thin at quarterback. It was easy to see why sophomore Alex Hornibrook was named the starter before spring camp even broke for the first time. He’s lightyears ahead of early enrollee Jack Coan and redshirt freshman Karé Lyles.

In fact, if the spring game was any indication, UW may be in some serious trouble if something happens to Hornibrook.

Lyles looked timid at times, while Coan is clearly still trying to develop within a college offense. At least the raw tools seem to be there for Coan and the confidence was also more evident. But, he’s got a lot of progressing to do if he wants to have that redshirt taken off of him.

It is also incumbent on Lyles to become more comfortable throwing in the pocket over the tall offensive line in front of him. Can he overcome the biggest issue we see in his game to overtake Coan and become the backup?

If the Badgers really want to redshirt Coan, Lyles is going to have to give the coaching staff a reason to beat out the other freshman on the roster. Summer workouts and fall camp are going to be vital to the progression of the quarterback position as a whole.

Right now, it is difficult to be confident that this group can be more than a game-managing one at best.

Is There Enough Playing Time For All The Talent at Linebacker?

A lot of teams would love to be in the position the Wisconsin Badgers find themselves in at the linebacker position. Not only does UW have four returning starters at inside linebacker, it also had two players who made a case to be starters after spring football — Griffin Grady and walk-on Mike Maskalunas.

We should see the full return of players like Jack Cichy, Chris Orr, T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly. So, if you’re counting along with us at home that makes six really good players for two positions at inside linebacker. It also means there is going to be a huge fight for snaps come the fall.

You could say the same thing at outside linebacker where Zak Buan and Garrett Dooley have starting experience, but there’s a host of talented and exciting options outside of those two names. Players like Andrew Van Ginkel and Alabama transfer Christian Bell have stepped up and so has the returning Leon Jacobs (who moves back to where he started his career in a Badgers uniform) along with sophomore Griffin Grady and freshman Izayah Green-May.

All could stake a claim to being good enough to start, and all are likely to see the field in some capacity this season.

That’s where the interesting part of Jim Leonhard’s first year in charge of the defense will come. How does he rotate and get players the snaps they need based off production in camps? There may simply not be enough snaps to go around and patience may be key at this position in 2017.

Will Move of Natrell Jamerson to Safety Be the Right One?

There’s no questioning that Natrell Jamerson is one of the four best defensive backs the Wisconsin Badgers have. However, the bigger question is if the role they have put him in — strong safety — is the right one for this team.

Let us flashback to Penn State and even Western Michigan torching the UW secondary last year. Jamerson wasn’t one of those players getting regularly torched and that was due to his ability to be a rangy player in the back of the defense. He also was one of the three best cornerbacks UW had.

Fast forward and Jamerson won’t be a starter at cornerback thanks to Nick Nelson’s emergence after transferring and sitting out last season. Still, the Badgers have very little experience or quality behind the starters.

Would Jamerson be better suited at a less-loaded position like cornerback and allow for younger players like Eric Burrell and Patrick Johnson III to settle in at safety? A lot of the answers are going to come from the play of Donyte Carriere-Williams and Lubern Figaro.

If Figaro can figure out how to stop getting burned and Carriere-Williams can continue his strong progress from the spring to the fall, then Jamerson’s move to safety could be the best for this defense. However, don’t be surprised to see more tweaks to the secondary from defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard.

Can Rafael Gaglianone Be the Weapon He Was Supposed to Be as Kicker?

When you hear the words back surgery and kicker in the same sentence, one gets a bit squeamish. That is exactly what happened to Rafael Gaglianone last season and it was for the second time in his life too.

That has to be worrisome for a kicker who relies on power and a kicking style that is hard on the body. He also has been a huge weapon in knowing he can kick deep field goals at a good clip.

In the spring game we saw him hammer a few home from 42 yards out and that is a good sign that the strength is still there. Still, one has to wonder if 42 yards was put out there on Friday night because that was as far as Gaglianone could comfortably kick or not.

How Does Running Back Group Shape Up?

We know a lot about Bradrick Shaw, and he seems to be the most decisive and downhill runner the Badgers have in the backfield this season. However, Pitt transfer Chris James was neck-and-neck with him throughout most of spring.

Some believe he may even have a leg up thanks to his better pass protection and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Oh, and then there is Taiwan Deal, who is coming off ankle surgery in the hopes of staying healthy.

When healthy, Deal has shown enough to be considered in the race for the No. 1 spot. But, can the affects of surgery and injury be shaken off in time to catch up to Shaw and James during fall camp?

Competition is great, and a welcome sight to a running back group that has been depleted over the past few years beyond the starter. It also means that fall camp will have a lot of the answers to the question of how this group shapes up.

It will certainly be a fun group to watch compete and work in camp, that’s for sure.

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Badgers football

Badgers fall victim to the trap, lose to Illinois

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This is why they don’t play the games on paper. On paper, the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers should have been able to make quick work of a struggling Illinois Fighting Illini team.

Instead, it was a slog for the Badgers offense and Illinois took advantage of three turnovers for 17 points en route to a shocking 24-23 victory.

With the Badgers driving to potentially salt away a hard-fought victory, Jack Coan threw just his second interception of the season and Illinois drove the ball deep in to Wisconsin territory and kicked a game-winning 39-yard field goal as time expired.

Wisconsin’s usually rugged run game was off, and the stingy run defense was far from that. Yes, Jonathan Taylor went over the 5,000-yard mark for his career on the first carry of the game, but he would put up just 132 yards on 28 carries on the day and UW’s defense allowed a season-worst 141 yards on the ground to Illinois.

Prior to this game, Wisconsin’s worst performance on offense was 97 yards against Northwestern.

Taylor’s struggles included a brutal turnover, as he gained a first down at the Illinois 17-yard line but coughed up the football trying to fight for extra yardage a third time on the play.

Illinois drove the ball down for a touchdown in just 1:19 of game time and what could’ve been a three-score game turned in to a 23-21 lead with 5:53 to play.

Wisconsin drove the ball past midfield on the next possession appearing poised to put the game out of Illinois reach again, but stumbled near midfield.

On a 2nd and 11, Coan attempted to drop a pass to Jake Ferguson in between the zone. However, Tony Adams had backed off the underneath and picked off the pass at the Illinois 47-yard line.

From there, Illinois ripped off big run after big run to get themselves in to field goal range and the rest was history.

Ironically, it was Coan who powered the Badgers offense for most of the day, throwing for 263 yards on 24 of 32 passing.

Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown combined for 153 yards on the day for the Illini on 28 carries, and came up huge when they needed it as the game went on.

Illinois outplayed the Badgers up front on both sides of the ball and deserved this win.

This was easily the most shocking loss in the Paul Chryst era and a date with Ohio State looms large if Wisconsin wants to continue to hope to make it to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game.

A loss next week and all control of their own destiny goes out the window.

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Badgers mid-season report card: Defense

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As Saturday’s game against Illinois inches closer to kick, it’s also a good time to remind ourselves that we are at the halfway point of the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers season.

UW is 6-0 and ranked No. 6 in the country in both polls (if you want to care about those things). So, how did Wisconsin get here and who has been vital to all of that success so far?

Well, we’re taking a look back at the first half of the season for you. Earlier this week we took a look at our grades for the Badgers offense. Today, we take a look at the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive Line: A+

One of the biggest question marks coming in to the 2019 season was the UW defensive line. With no Olive Sagapolu and two starting defensive ends coming off of major injuries, how would this group look in 2019? Well, the answer is pretty damn good.

Bryson Williams, the starting nose guard, went down with a bad injury early in the season and in stepped true freshman Keannu Benton, who ripped off back-to-back performances that were rated No. 1 on the team by Pro Football Focus.

Isaiahh Loudermilk had a small injury early on and has been very good since his return, while Garrett Rand is doing work on the other side. Perhaps the biggest story is that this group has been disruptive in a major way.

We’ve had Matt Henningsen score a touchdown not once, but twice and the defensive linemen have racked up 3.0 sacks to date. Not too bad for a group of unproven, but talented players.

Linebackers: A+

Another big question mark coming in to the year was if the Badgers could get enough pressure from its linebacker group to make a difference in 2019. Last season was a dramatic drop off in sacks and tackles from loss as a team, but there has been no such issue in 2019. j

Zack Baun has been one of the best players in the country through the halfway point of the season. He’s put up 26 tackles, has one pick-six, 10.5 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks (tied for 8th nationally) through the first six games of the season.

It’s earned him Pro Football Focus mid-season first-team All-American honors. Considering he didn’t produce at nearly this level last season, it’s been a huge start for the senior.

On the opposite side of him, we’ve seen the combination of Izayah Green-May (missed time with a broken thumb) and Noah Burks become dangerous players in their own right. As a team, Wisconsin has put up 23 sacks through six games, which is more than they had in all of 2018 (19.0).

Jack Sanborn has been great and the pairing of him with Chris Orr has unleashed one of the most athletic and dangerous combinations of inside linebackers the Badgers have had since switching to the 3-4 defense when Gary Andersen arrived.

You could not draw up a more productive start to a season from a linebacker group if you tried.

Secondary: A

If you just go by the stats, it is hard to argue that Wisconsin isn’t playing some of its best ball against the pass that we’ve ever seen. I mean, they have allowed a Big Ten low three passing touchdowns and the team has eight overall interceptions, with two going for a defensive touchdown.

But, some of the stats can be misleading, especially those eight interceptions. The good news for the secondary is that five of the eight interceptions are attributed to the defensive backs, with starting safety Eric Burrell picking off a pair of passes.

It isn’t just the starting group that has held up well either. Wisconsin has had a next man up mentality and it has worked well. Colin Wilder and John Torchio stepped up when both Burell and fellow safety Reggie Pearson got tossed for hits to the head against Michigan.

Deron Harrell is credited with four pass breakups and Wilder with five to lead the secondary group in that category.

Overall, it’s hard to pick apart this group, but if there’s one area to watch it is their inconsistency in intermediate and deep balls. Luckily, most offenses don’t have enough time to set up a deep passing game so it hasn’t been much of a worry at all.

Overall: A+

Let’s just go over these stats given up by the Badgers defense once again:

4.8 points per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally
44.6 rushing yards per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally
129.0 passing yards per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally
173.7 total yards per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally

In fact, Wisconsin’s 173.7 total yards per game given up is 60.3 yards per game better than the next best team — Ohio State — has given up this year.

Given all of that information, how could it not be an A+ so far this season? After all, Wisconsin is the first Big Ten team since the 1962 Minnesota Gophers team to pitch four shutouts in the first six games of a season.

Enough said.

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Badgers mid-season report card: Offense

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Believe it or not, but we have already reached the middle of the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers football season. I know, it doesn’t seem possible because there seems to be so much football ahead.

You would be right, what with Ohio State, Iowa and Minnesota still looming large on the schedule and all.

But, as we want to look forward, we need to know the foundation that future has been built on. How have the Badgers faired so far in 2019? Let’s take a look position by position.

Offensive Line: A –

All seems to be rosy for the Badgers offensive line. They’ve given up a Big Ten-low of eight sacks and are the No. 2 rushing attack in the league, trailing only Ohio State. While you could say the Buckeyes have yet to face a real defense, they still are consistently putting up better numbers than Wisconsin has.

We’ll see if that holds up, but on the whole it is hard to argue that this group hasn’t been very good. They’ve dealt with a few injuries and haven’t really missed a beat for the most part.

If there’s one area that has put them from an A to an A- in my book, it is their performance in the run game against Northwestern and Michigan State at home. In both cases, Jonathan Taylor really struggled to get going and the offensive line found themselves back on their heels quite a bit. Thus, Taylor’s struggles.

Yes, both Northwestern and MSU are very good defensive fronts, but if you want to earn the top grades, you have to win more than they did up front against those two defensive lines. That’s especially worrisome when you see the defensive fronts that both Ohio State and Iowa can put out there.

This unit is very athletic and certainly can do some special things. But, it needs to be more consistent against high level defenses if the Badgers want to prove they belong in the College Football Playoff conversation. Not having a single member of this group on the Pro Football Focus mid-season All-American list tells me this group hasn’t been as good as potentially then can be by the end of the year.

Running Backs: B

Yes, Jonathan Taylor is a Pro Football Focus and everywhere else mid-season All-American and yes, he’s en route to break all sorts of historical marks, but there’s more to this group than Taylor and for that reason we have to give this group an overall grade of B.

In fact, if you were to take Taylor away from this position group, you would be far lower on the grade. Redshirt freshman Nakia Watson has picked up 53 carries for just 238 yards and is averaging 4.5 yards a carry. While that average isn’t bad, Watson hasn’t shown any flashes of being the next big star running back at Wisconsin with ample opportunities to do so.

Bradrick Shaw and Garrett Groshek haven’t been big factors in the Badgers run game either and Julius Davis appears headed for a complete redshirt. What happens if Taylor goes down? There hasn’t been anyone producing at a high enough level to give us confidence that it’ll just be “next man up” as we’ve seen year over year over year at UW since 1990.

John Chenal and Mason Stokke (pre-injury) have been very good fullbacks in the traditional Wisconsin mold, but they could be a bit better at their blocking technique and that will come with time on the field as both are younger options at fullback.

Overall, this group is doing well, I just downgrade for a lack of a second dynamic option at running back so far this year.

Tight Ends: B+

Much was expected out of junior tight end Jake Ferguson, so much so that many believed he would showcase himself and leave for the NFL after this season. After six games, I’m not so sure that is going to happen.

Yes, Ferguson is second on the team with 15 receptions, but he’s averaging 11 yards a catch and has just one touchdown to his name. Those numbers pace far behind last season.

There just seems to be something missing from the explosive player we saw in 2018, who caught 36 passes for over 450 yards and had four touchdowns to his name.

On the bright side, Ferguson has become a more reliable blocker and that could be the thing that gets him to the NFL a year early. We’ll see what happens the second half of the season though.

As for the rest of the group, it’s been hard to grade because injuries have piled up and not a single other tight end as caught a pass for the Badgers so far this season. So, when I look at Ferguson’s play, it’s hard to not give him a solid grade, but room for improvement and impact in the second half.

Wide Receivers: B-

There is no doubt that getting Quintez Cephus back in a Badgers uniform has been huge. But, with that said, this group has not produced the big plays we’d hope to see after a few years of experience for names like Danny Davis, A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor.

Cephus is the only receiver with a touchdown to his name, albeit there have only been eight passing touchdowns on the season. However, the leading TD man is running back Jonathan Taylor, who has four already this year.

Pryor came up big against Michigan State and overall this group has produced well when given the opportunity. But, the inability to get separation and thus stretch the defense holds them back.

Maybe the coaching staff is also holding back what we see from this group, as by-in-large, UW hasn’t had to open up the full offense to win a game this season.

Quarterback: A –

Alright, it’s time for Badgers nation to eat some crow here. Everyone thought that Coan was the second-coming of Alex Hornibrook after his first efforts last season. But, through the first six games, Coan has been anything but the second-coming of Hornibrook. In fact, you could say he’s been the anti-Hornibrook.

He’s been clutch, he’s making the smart decisions and he’s keeping drives alive. Doing that at Wisconsin, with the best running back in college football, is exactly what is needed.

Coan is completing a ridiculous 76.3 percent of his passes, which leads the league and is second nationally only to Joe Burrow at LSU. Now, he has only thrown for 1,119 yards (8th in the B1G) and you could say that isn’t great, but consider how he’s become a complementary piece to the run game and you can see why his efficiency and clutch play matters more.

Additionally, his eight touchdowns to just one interception ratio is phenomenal. Ohio State’s Justin Fields is the only other starter in the Big Ten that has thrown just one pick through the halfway point of the season.

I wanted to give a higher grade, but Coan has struggled to hit the deep ball at times and seems most comfortable hitting the seven to 15-yard passes. That’s fine, but having someone to really stretch a defense out of eight-man boxes would be nice.

Maybe I’m nitpicking, but Coan has established himself as the rightful starter and put to bed most of the critics by becoming the go-to force in the win over Michigan State after a shaky couple of weeks against Michigan and Northwestern.

Having three multiple-touchdown games given what Jonathan Taylor is doing on the ground is impressive through six games.

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Badgers football

Defense leads Badgers to win over Northwestern

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It sure wasn’t pretty, but the Wisconsin Badgers took down reigning West division champions, the Northwestern Wildcats just the same.

UW’s defense came up big in the 24-15 victory. What happened, which players were the highlights and what needs to be worked on as the 4-0 Badgers go out of conference next week?

Our publisher, Andrew Coppens, comes to you with his full recap of UW’s win.

Don’t forget to subscribe, hit that notifications bell and you’ll never miss a single video the rest of the year!

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