As the snow (hopefully) stops falling and we all turn our attention to warm weather and sunny days ahead, it also reminds us that Wisconsin Badgers spring football is right around the corner.
Following back-to-back wins in New Year’s Six bowl games, UW finds itself amongst the nation’s elite once again. With a new year ahead, what are the things that we will be looking forward to and could be the difference between winning a Big Ten title and coming up short once again?
Let’s look at our own big storylines to watch.
Cornerback, Cornerback, Cornerback
Nick Nelson saved the Badgers defense in 2017. While some may think it a crazy statement, ask yourself what would’ve happened without Nelson in the mix in the pass defense? However, Nelson was a one year stop-gap as he is off the NFL following an excellent 2017. Along with his departure came the graduation of Derrick Tindal.
That leaves Wisconsin without a returning starter at cornerback. Normally that’s not a huge deal, but for this offseason it is a really big deal because the only returning player with any experience on the field is Donyte Carriere-Williams and he was a freshman that played the third cornerback off and on last season.
Behind him are a group of young and hungry corners ready to prove they have what it takes to get on the field. But, Wisconsin may have to wait until the fall when a highly touted group of incoming freshman to really sort things out. However, there will be plenty of playing time up for grabs and it will be interesting to see who takes advantage of the opportunity in front of them.
Will it be Madison Cone or Faion Hicks? Or will it be the incoming freshman being waited on? Wisconsin would certainly like some of the young guys to prove they have the potential to be counted on by the end of this spring, but there’s no guarantee that happens.
Which Alex Hornibrook Can We Expect to See?
Will it be the Alex Hornibrook who was on fire against Miami (FL) in the Orange Bowl or will it be the Alex Hornibrook that threw 15 interceptions? Last we left off, Hornibrook was showcasing why Paul Chryst and Co. had so much faith in him all season long, despite growing fan rumblings against him as the starter.
It wasn’t just the Miami game though, because Hornibrook completed 65 percent or more of his passes in 7 of the 14 games played last season.
If the Hornibrook that showed up half the time can show up three-quarters of the season in 2018, the Badgers offense could be one of the Big Ten’s best. What with all of his top wide receivers returning, an intact offensive line back and a deep group of
Sorting Out Running Back Pecking Order
In hindsight, it was a damn good thing that Jonathan Taylor emerged as a super star early on in the 2017 season, because there was no shortage of injury issues at the position. Expected major contributors Taiwan Deal, Chris James and Bradrick Shaw all battled injury issues at different points in the season and sometimes it was just Taylor and walk-on Garrett Groshek carrying the load at running back.
Taylor’s first season in Madison has him on the early Heisman frontrunner list (for whatever that really is worth), but Wisconsin has an interesting offseason ahead of itself at running back. Coach Settle is going to have a lot of players coming back with a lot of potential coming back.
Will Taiwan Deal be able to ever overcome bad ankle injuries and be a consistent contributor? Will he even show up in spring ball or will he shut things down? Can Chris James continue the late-season form that saw his potential to be a second back for the Badgers? What about the improvement that Garrett Groshek
Can Defensive End be Dynamic Again?
Early on in the transition to the 3-4 defense, Wisconsin didn’t really get much noticeable production out of the defensive end position. In fact, you could say it was a position that became invisible. Of course, that’s not to say they didn’t play well, it is to say they didn’t show up on the stat sheet all that much and did a better job eating up space for others to make plays than making plays themselves.
That changed this past season, as Alec James became a real force. He racked up career highs in tackles (52), tackles for loss (8.5) and sacks (6.5) in his final season in the program.
The question is, can anyone duplicate that level of production with both James and fellow senior Chikwe Obasih gone.
There is promise at the position, with the likes of Isaiahh Loudermilk holding up well in his first season in the program before an injury slowed him down. He had 11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in 11 games played in reserve. Loudermilk will likely occupy one of the two vacant starting spots, but there will be a lot of new faces in the rotation. Veteran Billy Hirschfeld could slide in, but names like Aaron Vorpal, Keldric Preston and Kraig Howe will all have opportunities this spring.
Figuring out the rotation will be key, as the ends and outside linebackers work in tandem often and all four spots will see new starters in 2018.
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.
Best, Worst case scenarios for Badgers Wide Receivers in 2019
The heat of summer is upon us and the recruiting trail has been even hotter for the Wisconsin Badgers. However, that heat also indicates that the long offseason nightmare is about to be over.
With that in mind, we’re taking a summer-long look at each position group heading in to the 2019 season.
Today, we flip back to the offensive side of the ball and look at a second skill position — wide receiver.
After what was supposed to be a breakout year for the group in 2018, what will this group have in store for 2019? Let’s look at the best and worst case scenarios at play.
Best Case Scenario
If the Badgers want to get going in the pass game, the wide receiver group needs to step up the deep game in a big way. While A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor have proven to be reliable assets, 2018 felt much like they all barely scratched the surface of their potential.
The trio combined for 95 receptions (which was 53 percent of all receptions as a team), 1,212 yards and 11 of 19 touchdown receptions on the year.
For this season, the best case scenario actually involves the quarterback position almost more-so than anything this group can do. The receivers could benefit from a consistently good passer at quarterback and a more open playbook as well.
Whether it is Jack Coan or wonderkid recruit, Graham Mertz, the consistency and trust to open up the playbook needs to be there.
Additionally, an increased role for speedster Aaron Cruickshank would be the best case scenario.
Worst Case Scenario
Danny Davis emerged as the most targeted receiver last season, catching 40 passes to lead all wide receivers on the team. He will enter his junior season with an increase in expectations and no off-field distractions like he had to deal with last season thanks to his stupid decision-making.
That aside, Davis is the most well-rounded receiver in this group and the one that could wind up be the deep threat that has been missing for awhile now. So, any injury to Davis would be bad news.
In fact, any sustained injuries to the likes of Davis, Pryor and Taylor would not be good. UW is very inexperienced behind this trio, and inexperience at QB and WR may not be a fun combination.
Dare I say, it would lead to UW not being back on top of the West division mountain?
Most Likely to Happen
I fully believe that the coaching staff will go in to the season knowing which quarterback they’ll go with and stick with. Confidence is key to helping this wide receiver group and I expect the Badgers offense to be much more balanced in 2019 than it was over the past two seasons.
Look for Davis, Pryor and Taylor to all increase their overall numbers and likely go over the 15 touchdown mark as a group. More importantly, I expect much more play-action and much more from the deep passing game too. That should be music to a talented, but under used group’s ears.
Don’t be surprised to see one of the Badgers wide receivers make a run at All-Big Ten honors as a result of that shift back to balance.
Hill is Badgers QB in 2021 class
With all the flurry of activity around the 2020 class, apparently someone wanted to bring the 2021 class some attention on Tuesday as well.
Following back-to-back linebacker commitments in the 2020 class, Wisconsin picked up a verbal commitment from 2021 quarterback Deacon Hill.
The 3-star player out of Santa Barbara, Calif. went with his gut despite the potential to earn offers from the likes of USC, Oregon and Oregon State — all much closer to home.
Instead, Hill chose the Badgers over official offers from Kansas State and Nevada to date.
The 6-3, 225-pound quarterback was first offered by Wisconsin quarterback coach Jon Budmayr in May. It was the first overall offer Hill received in the 2021 class.
Wisconsin was able to get out in front of the 2021 quarterback class after a pair of big targets in 2020 passed on offers from the Badgers. Once that happened, the focus turned to the next class and it paid off in building a quick and solid relationship with Hill.
It may not be a big home run get like Graham Mertz was, but then again the Badgers were hip to Mertz before most of the country was and that paid off as he developed.
Hill is much more physically imposing than most quarterbacks entering their junior season would be, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have mobility either.
Nevada’s more spread-orientated offense and Kansas State’s quarterbacks are certainly going to be mobile ones in the new offense that is being installed.
As for Hill, the 247Sports composite rankings have him as the No. 30 ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2021 class. But, given the small amount of attention paid to that class so far we’ll see where that ends up should Hill hit the QB camp circuit in the coming months and year.
UW will only be taking one quarterback in this class, so they certainly trusted their early evaluation of the tool set that Hill possesses and could posses by the time he is finished at Wisconsin.
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