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Wisconsin Badgers 2018 Preview: Youth served along defensive line

Wisconsin faced a big enough challenge replacing 3 quality ends, but offseason injuries have UW’s D-Line looking real thin heading in to fall camp.

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In Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense, the linebackers tend to get all the glory, but it wouldn’t be possible without the dirty work that has been done up front as well. Let’s just call the three defensive linemen the defense’s unsung heroes. It’s also been nice for the coaching staff and others to be able to lean on a veteran group of players up front.

Unlike the past few seasons, one could easily be forgiven for not knowing anyone along the Badgers defensive line in 2018. After years of veterans stacked across Wisconsin’s three-man front, only one true vet will take the field for UW this upcoming fall.

With the graduations of Alec James, Chikwe Obasih and Conor Sheehy, things were bound to be very different on the edge in 2018.

Previous Previews: Wide Receiver |

Just how different? Let’s take a look at the UW defensive line for the upcoming season.

State of the Position: Shaky

How else do you describe a position that lost both starters and a third senior at defensive end alone? UW would’ve been in much better shape, but expected starting defensive end Garrett Rand is out for the season with an injury and redshirt sophomore end Isaiahh Loudermilk is coming back from a leg injury himself. That leaves a lot of inexperience at both end positions.

The good news is that there is at least one veteran with extensive playing time up front — nose guard Olive Sagapolu. He’s becoming more and more of a disruptive force up front as well, notching career highs in tackles (17), tackles for loss (3.5) and sacks (3) last season. With a lot of unknowns around him, Sagapolu is going need to be more than a space-eater up front. Luckily, he has proven a solid leader and a fast study.

Additional good news comes from the fact that UW has a knack for recruiting well and getting those guys coached up quickly. One end position will likely see Loudermilk as a starter if he can go this fall, while juniors David Pfaff and Kraig Howe need to show they can be relied upon in fall camp.

Don’t be surprised to see Loudermilk and redshirt freshman Aaron Vopal get the starting nod, with up-and-coming Keldric Preston a pressure-down situational piece to the puzzle up front. However, that’s a lot of pressure on a group that has played less than a full season of college football combined.

After years of being solid up front, this group could be the biggest question mark on UW’s defense.

Biggest Question: What happens if Sagapolu gets injured?

Wisconsin has been light on depth at the nose guard position for a few years now. A combination of injuries, positional changes and Gary Andersen recruits not panning out did that to UW.

This season, Sagapolu is really it up the middle for the Badgers. Just how dire is the situation at nose guard? Former 4-star offensive lineman, Kayden Lyles, is switching positions for fall camp. He’ll be joined in a backup role by true freshman Bryson Williams. Neither of those two have played a down of college football, so it will be trial by fire up the middle for UW’s depth up front to say the least.

Stat to Know: 5

UW’s defensive line doesn’t get nearly the credit it should get, but that’s part of the nature of playing in a 3-4 defensive, where the line makes linebackers look really good. Given all that is gone from the d-line in 2018, we’ll see if the linebackers can continue to shine or not.

However, one of the biggest points of pride for the Badgers defense has been its ability to control the game and the scoreboard..and that’s in large part due to the line. In fact, over the last three seasons, UW has ranked inside the top 5 of scoring defenses in the country. Continuing that trend requires a young, inexperienced and thin defensive line to be able to stand up to the pressure of some really solid offensive lines on the docket.

Depth Chart:

DE: Aaron Vopal, Kraig Howe
NG: Olive Sagapolu, Kayden Lyles or Bryson Williams
DE: Isaiahh Loudermilk, David Pfaff or Keldric Preston

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Chryst excited by Graham Mertz’s future with Badgers

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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.

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Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers quarterbacks in 2019

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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.

Previous Positions:Running Back | Defensive Line | Wide Receiver | Outside Linebacker | Inside Linebacker |

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.

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Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers ILB’s in 2019

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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.

Previous Positions: Running Back | Defensive Line | Wide Receiver | Outside Linebacker |

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.

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Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers OLB’s in 2019

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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.

Previous Positions: Running Back | Defensive Line | Wide Receiver

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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