A bitterly disappointing 2018 regular season was capped off by a very satisfying performance against the Miami (FL) Hurricanes in the Pinstripe Bowl.
The Badgers took down the Hurricanes 35-3 and became the first Big Ten team in history to ever win five straight bowl games. It also gave UW back-to-back wins over the Hurricanes.
Oh, and did we mention that star sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor went well over the 4,000-yard mark? Ya, he set an FBS record for rushing as a freshman and sophomore with 4,171 yards over his first two seasons in a Badgers uniform.
It was all-in-all a good end to the season.
But, as we flip to a new day, all the attention now turns to the 2019 season and hopefully a return towards the top of the Big Ten football food chain.
In order to get there, Wisconsin must answer some key questions and we have those questions for you to watch throughout the winter/spring and summer leading up to the season-opening trip to Tampa Bay to take on the USF Bulls.
Can UW Get QB Upgrade?
One reason Wisconsin shot to the top of the preseason love fest’s in 2018 was Alex Hornibrook’s performance against Miami in the Orange Bowl. It turned out that he wasn’t able to build off of that and regressed back to the inconsistent player he was for the majority of the 2017 season.
Hornibrook would play in just nine games this season thanks to issues stemming from a concussion against Illinois late in October. He would finish the season completing just 59.5 percent of his passes for 1,532 yards and just 13 touchdowns to 11 interceptions.
Sophomore Jack Coan got three starts and played in five games this season thanks to Hornibrook’s concussion and symptoms surrounding it. He wasn’t much better, completing 50 of 82 passes for just 442 yards and four touchdowns to two interceptions.
All of this adds up to a series of big questions at quarterback for the Badgers in 2019. First is if Hornibrook, who came back to play late in the regular season and then missed the bowl game due to lingering concussion issues, will even play another down of football?
Even if he is back, will the Badgers open up the job to a true competition given both Hornibrook and Coan proved to not be a difference maker or even a reliable option at quarterback?
What about the chances for the No. 4 pro-style quarterback in the country, Graham Mertz? He seems like a potential game-changer for UW at quarterback, but could he make an instant impact or would the Badgers redshirt him to take some pressure off?
Next Up at Linebacker?
As great as it was watching Jonathan Taylor run roughshod over the Hurricanes vaunted defense, the other part of the story was Wisconsin’s defensive performance. Leading the way was the linebacker group and specifically the play of Andrew Van Ginkel, T.J. Edwards and Chris Orr.
Looking forward to 2019, only Orr, who has been a part-time starter throughout his career will be back from that trio. He had just 27 tackles, 1.0 tackle for loss, 1 fumble recovery and the interception in the Pinstripe Bowl.
He’s got plenty of experience, so replacing Ryan Connelly won’t be a big issue. However, the Badgers haven’t given a ton of playing time to backups underneath All-American T.J. Edwards nor to those playing under Van Ginkel and that is where things could get interesting.
UW likes Jack Sanborn, Griffin Grady and former walk-on Mike Maskalunas and depth could be there, but sorting out the crowded inside linebacker group is going to be interesting and very telling towards success on defense in 2019.
As for replacing Van Ginkel, that’s where things get more interesting. Christian Bell was listed as the backup to Van Ginkel and did play well at times in relief of the senior linebacker. Perhaps its time for the soon-to-be junior transfer from Alabama to live up to the hype.
If not, look for names like Noah Burks and Izayah Green-May to get in the mix as well.
The good news is Wisconsin has the depth and talent to not have to worry about finding a player capable of starting, it’s more about figuring out which pieces fit together best in this group.
Who Backs Up Jonathan Taylor?
The 2019 season should easily be the last for running back Jonathan Taylor, barring anything unforeseen happening of course. With all that he’s accomplished in his young career there’s not much left to prove and the NFL awaits.
But, as the Badgers look forward at the position they see a running back group that just lost main backup Taiwan Deal and little-used senior Chris James. Yes, Garrett Groshek is back, but is he really the No. 2 back or out there to be a change of pace to other backs?
Wisconsin saw Bradrick Shaw burst on the scene in his freshman season in 2016, but couldn’t get on track in 2017 as Taylor took over the starting job. He didn’t play in 2018 thanks to an injury and his road to recovery may need to be smooth or UW is in trouble.
The name to really watch may be that of freshman Nakia Watson, who provides pure power to go with the speed, vision and power of Taylor. It sure would be nice to be able to not put nearly 30 carries a game on Taylor in 2019.
Who takes the reigns in spring and runs with the opportunity that is wide open behind Taylor is a key question to answer going forward.
What Will O-Line Look Like?
We all know the Badgers will lose starting right guard Michael Dieter, but he may not be the only member of UW’s offensive line to be gone to greener pastures in 2019.
There’s an outside chance that four of UW’s starting five will head to the NFL this offseason and a good chance that three of five will be gone. Decisions have yet to be made by the likes of Beau Benzschawel, Tyler Biadasz and David Edwards. Benzschawel and Biadasz have big time NFL potential and could be high draft picks, so don’t be surprised to see one or both off to the big league.
But, the good news is that Wisconsin is so deep along the offensive line that it may be plug and play and the casual fan noticing next-to-no difference come the start of 2019. Names like Tyler Beach, Logan Bruss, Jason Erdmann and David Moorman looked great in the final drive of the game against Miami and throughout the season when they got a chance to play.
Having 5-star offensive lineman Logan Brown in the fold could also be a huge boost to depth if the Badgers lose all four of those players.
This question is more about who actually leaves and how the coaching staff shuffles a deep group to get the best five players on the field in 2019.
What wrinkles will the 2019 recruiting class be able to provide the Badgers?
We’ve already talked about highly-rated names like offensive lineman Logan Brown and quarterback Graham Mertz, but this is a deep and intriguing class that offers very different things to UW.
Case-in-point is Brown’s teammate, wide receiver Stephan Bracey. He is another smaller wide receiver like Aron Cruickshank was in the 2018 class but has loads of speed to add to the table. Could the Badgers find ways to exploit two speedsters on the field at the same time?
Julius Davis adds a lot of power to the Badgers backfield that may not be there overall.
Late addition Quan Easterling is a fullback in the mold of some of the great ones at UW and could really boost things at the position this year, as well on special teams.
Outside linebacker Spencer Lytle was a huge get, with Wisconsin beating out Clemson. Could the Badgers find a spot for him in specialty situations on defense or again, upgrade the athleticism of the special teams unit?
Point being, this is a group with varied skill sets and a lot closer to being college ready than previous groups to sign with the Badgers.
It will be interesting to see how the Badgers coaching staff figures out how to use this group and mix and match to keep redshirts if wanted.
Chryst excited by Graham Mertz’s future with Badgers
No recruit has ever been as hyped as quarterback Graham Mertz has been in Wisconsin Badgers history.
Normally that would lead to coaches tempering their words and expectations. Given head coach Paul Chryst’s history of exactly that, it was a bit surprising to hear him speak with excitement about what Mertz may bring to the table in Madison.
So far, Chryst has been very impressed with how Mertz is handling everything on and off the field.
“Yeah, Graham has got a great personality,” said Chryst at Big Ten media day on Friday. “I think he’s done a nice job of — he came in the spring, and getting to know our teammates, and I think he’s handling — there’s a lot of buzz and talk about him, and I think he’s handled it well, and I think the team has handled it, as well.”
What has impressed the head coach most about his freshman quarterback? Chryst says it is how he is handling everything that has been thrown at him since he entered school in January.
“They’re experiencing a lot for the first time, going to school and being away from home, and there’s obviously a ton of football with it, and I think all three have handled it, and Graham has handled it well, and I’m excited for those three, Graham in particular, that went through spring and then you have summer and now they’ll be able to go into fall camp and it’s not all new to them,” said Chryst.
“But I’ve been impressed with how Graham has handled himself, and I think he’s — again, cares a lot about teammates and is a good teammate himself, a good person, and I think that’s a great place to start.”
Perhaps the most telling statement from Chryst during his time at the podium on Friday, was the one where he actually used the words “excitement” and “Graham” in the same sentence.
“And certainly we’re excited, really excited about Graham,” Chryst said to the media. “He’s early in on the process, and so I like the group that we have. I’m thankful that we’ve got Jack coming back that’s played in games, and certainly looking forward to fall camp and seeing the growth and development of all of them.”
Does that mean Mertz is the immediate savior of the Badgers offense? No.
But, unlike years past, Chryst is at least willing to go out on a limb and live in the excitement of what could happen in the future.
This type of talk should only serve to continue to spark the speculation and the spotlight on the quarterback position in Madison in the next few weeks.
Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers quarterbacks in 2019
Believe it or not, the start of the Wisconsin Badgers fall camp is right around the corner and we’re hitting the home stretch of our preview season as well.
No position has had more of the spotlight and taken up more of our conversation than what is happening at quarterback. After watching the QB play go from ok to disaster in 2018, it is back to the drawing board in many ways.
With Alex Hornibrook off to Florida State for his final season and the highest rated quarterback recruit in Badgers history on campus, this offseason has been full of intrigue.
But, what will the 2019 season look like for the most critical position on this offense? Let’s take a look at exactly that.
Best Case Scenario
The Badgers find out they hit the jackpot with Graham Mertz and he’s spent the time between spring and fall ball getting up to speed on the offense. Mertz immediately shows this is his job and the coaching staff sees it quickly as well.
Either that or Jack Coan comes in and commands the position and the offense with accuracy and an ability to hit the deep ball. The offense gels around him and heading in to the opener at South Florida, Coan is the man behind center by a wide margin.
Yes, there are two best-case scenarios at play. But, that’s because Wisconsin’s coaching staff would really love for someone to flat-out win the starting job early on in fall camp. Will that happen? That’s the million dollar question and don’t count out Chase Wolf from this competition either. He came on strong as spring went along and his abilities give the Badgers offense some different wrinkles that could be intriguing.
No matter whom wins the battle in fall camp, the best case scenario is that that person wins the battle early, the offense can focus on installing around that quarterback and said quarterback shows why he won the job with quality play during the season.
Worst Case Scenario
If we go in to week three of fall camp and there is no winner to the quarterback job, I’m not so confident in this group. Yes, it’s the job of everyone to compete at a high level, but the coaching staff not being able to separate between the bunch isn’t good news.
My worst-case scenario would be no winner coming out of fall camp, we see quarterbacks splitting time in the fall and this offense stalling out in the pass game once again.
Musical chairs at quarterback never seems to work at Wisconsin and that especially played out last season with Coan clearly thrown to the wolves before he was ready to make a full impact after Hornibrook’s injury.
As long as the Badgers can avoid having to play multiple quarterbacks because none of them have wrestled the position for themselves, UW’s offense should be in a better position in 2019 than it was in 2018.
Most Likely to Happen
As much as the fans want to see Graham Mertz come in and be this game-changing quarterback out of the gate, the most likely scenario is that Mertz gets some game action in the non-conference games and Jack Coan is your regular starter.
I can foresee the scenario playing out much like Coan’s true freshman season. The only difference being that Mertz won’t have to give up his redshirt to play in a single game.
It seems like the most likely to happen scenario is that Coan is your starter for the year with Mertz as the man getting the early season reps behind him and then Chase Wolf being the other option to get reps during conference play.
Let’s not forget that Coan is the only quarterback on this roster that has seen more than a complete mop-up duty. Danny Vanden Boom could be an option too, but it seems like Wolf and Mertz passed him up in the spring competition.
As much as Mertz is the future, coaches are paid to win games now and that likely means playing it safe with Coan.
Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers ILB’s in 2019
We hope you enjoyed the Independence Day holiday, but it is time to get back to some business and that means continuing our series looking in to every position group for the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers.
Since we went outside the last time around, today we will focus on a position that has long been a strength of the Badgers program — inside linebacker.
What could happen with this group in 2019? Let’s find out.
Best Case Scenario
Yes, the Badgers face life without an All-American and a steady veteran thanks to the graduations of T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly. But, the good news is that this group was one of the deepest and most productive overall last season.
Veteran Chris Orr will get one starting spot and former 4-star recruit Jack Sanborn will step in to the other starting role. So, the best case scenario for this group is that Orr, who started as a freshman, gets back to that kind of form, and we see quality play from a combination of younger players like Sanborn and freshman Leo Chenal.
No one had a bigger breakout this spring than Chenal did. He came in as an early enrollee, but well under the radar. By the end of spring ball, it looked very much like he won’t be redshirting and will be challenging for a lot of snaps in the fall.
It would be great to see that happen, because Orr has just one year left in the Cardinal and White.
Worst Case Scenario
What would really hurt this group is if Orr or Sanborn were to go down with an injury here. Yes, Chenal looked good in spring ball like I mentioned before and yes Mike Maskalunas has shown flashes of ability, but are they really ready to be thrust in to the majority of snaps at inside linebacker together?
Experience is an issue for this group and I could see an injury exposing that lack of experience in a big way. Even if the Badgers wanted to go with an older player, the only other option would be Seth Currens and he just converted from safety in the spring himself.
Other than that it would be Hunter Johnson or two walk-ons that were here in the spring.
The Badgers only inside linebacker recruit in the 2019 class was Chenal too, so there will be no more help coming in to fall camp.
Most Likely to Happen
The good news is that I don’t see the worst case scenario actually happening, at least not in a major way. Orr’s medical history suggests he could be prone to missing a game or two with a nagging injury, but don’t expect anything crazy to happen.
I also believe we will see the emergence of Sanborn and Chenal as the future of this position for the Badgers. In fact, Sanborn has looked so good in spring and in his limited playing time last season, that I suspect he could be a darkhorse for All-Big Ten honors at season’s end.
Look for this group to be a downhill, hard-hitting and more athletic group than we saw last season and that could make a major difference for those playing behind them.
Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard and his staff have a lot to figure out, but they should feel safe with the talent that is available to them at inside linebacker.
Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers OLB’s in 2019
This time next month, the pads may be popping and the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers fall practices will be under way. It’s so close we all can almost taste it.
But, as we look forward to the 2019 season we’re going to try something a bit different. Gone are the usual ways of looking position groups and giving you a fall preview that last’s a week.
Well, that’s because this season is vital to the Paul Chryst era. There’s a changing of the guard going on. After a disappointing 2018 season that saw UW drop Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time in 15 years and not win the Big Ten West, the question is if that’s a sign of decline or a blip on the radar.
In order to best answer that question, we’re actually going to start with a look at what needs to happen, what the Badgers need to avoid and what is really likely at every position.
Up today is a look at the outside linebacker position.
Best Case Scenario:
Last year, the outside linebackers contributed just 8 total sacks to a team total of 19. That’s a lot of contribution to the effort, but the effort was far below expectations set by previous groups. Additionally, the graduation of Andrew Van Ginkel means just 2.5 sacks return from the outside linebacker position in 2019.
Those sacks belong to Zack Baun, who got his feet wet as a starter last season and is looking for big things to happen in 2019. The good news is that Baun was one of Wisconsin’s best run-stoppers on the edge.
Ideally, Baun not only is a leader of this defensive group in 2019, but becomes much more disruptive behind the line of scrimmage too.
Wisconsin has a lot of potential that could start opposite of him. Former Alabama transfer Christian Bell, former 4-star recruit Noah Burks and former inside linebacker Griffin Grady all had their moments of shine in spring ball.
In a best case scenario, the Badgers have more than one of that group step up as contributors to an overall group of outside linebackers that don’t have a lot of in-game experience or depth.
Getting this group to contribute double-digit sacks as a whole would be a great step forward.
Worst Case Scenario:
Noah Burks or Christian Bell don’t live up to their enormous potential. It’s as plain and simple as that.
Wisconsin needs them to become pass-rushing specialists in a big way if this defense is going to be as aggressive as it is designed to be. Often times last season, the inability of the front seven to get pressure really hung an inexperienced secondary out to dry.
If UW experiences more of that, it could really be trouble in 2019. The Badgers need this defense to step up its game, and having both of the expected top contenders in replacing Van Ginkel flame out would be a disaster all the way around.
Most Likely to Happen:
Given all the unknowns surrounding the outside linebacker position, this is a difficult position to predict. However, I will say this — Zack Baun will end up as an All-Big Ten performer.
I believe he just scratched the surface of his potential last year, especially since he was just coming off an awful injury history prior to it. If he stays healthy in 2019, I predict he becomes a surprise player to many outside observers in the Big Ten.
That said, I also believe we will see Christian Bell and Noah Burks become a handful for opposing offensive coordinators to deal with. Both have been patient with the talent that was in front of them, but they are bursting with potential when they have seen the field.
So, to answer the question most want to know…I believe this all signals a position group ready to be a major force once again after that down year in 2018.
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