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Wisconsin Badgers Football: Biggest spring football storylines

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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.

Earlier last week the overlords at talking10 gave a look at the East and West division storylines to watch. Well, the Badgers aren’t devoid of interesting storylines to say the least.

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.

 

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Can Benton step up to big challenge against Michigan?

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Through two games, the Wisconsin Badgers defense has been the talk of the town. Pitching back-to-back shutouts and doing so with a lot of new players in the mix was equally impressive.

Maybe the competition wasn’t the best, but a young group of players stepped up and the result has been zero points on the board and a 2-0 record.

One name has played above the rest in the group of freshman and sophomores in the mix — true freshman nose guard Keeanu Benton.

He had no choice but to play last week, as regular starting nose guard Bryson Williams went down with an injury late in the week and there isn’t much depth at the position.

If you pay attention to the analytical side of the game, Benton took his opportunity and ran with it though.

You may not see it on the stat sheet (1 tackle, 1 tackle for loss), but Pro Football Focus named Benton the best of all the Badgers in the win over Central Michigan two weeks ago.

He was in the top 10 players in the win over USF in the opener as well. That’s about as good a start as you could have hoped for for the young man.

Benton played 19 of the 45 plays that the Chippewas had last week, accounting for just over 42 percent of all snaps. His grade of 89.1 edged out Jack Coan’s grade of 86.9 for the top spot in that game.

Most importantly, Benton graded out well against the run, with an 89.6 rating in that category alone.

Given that Michigan has tried hard to establish the run early on in the season, having Benton play so well with his limited snaps is going to be huge come game day against the No. 10 Wolverines.

The hope for the Badgers was that Benton could use that experience and build off of it as starter Bryson Williams returned from an injury sustained in the build up to the CMU game.

Unfortunately, as the Badgers get ready for the Wolverines we already know that Williams will be out. He was listed as such on UW’s first injury report for this week.

While we’ve seen great work overall from Benton in the first two weeks of the season, and the Badgers defense has produced great things on paper, this is going to be a much bigger challenge.

Michigan comes in to this game ranked 45th in the country in rushing, having gone for 341 yards in just two games. Admittedly, most of that work was done in the opener against Middle Tennessee, where they ate up 234 yards.

Against a much more stout Army defense, Michigan’s ground game stumbled to just 108 yards on the same 45 carries it had in the opener.

Michigan has punched the ball in to the end zone five times already, including the critical scoring in the 24-21 win over Army in Week 2.

On the other hand, Wisconsin’s run defense has been its bread and butter. UW leads the nation in rush defense, giving up just 41 total yards on 44 carries over the course of the first two games of action. There hasn’t been any touchdowns given up since the Minnesota game to end the regular season last year too.

Benton has been a big help in that effort over the course of his first two games in action and his fellow players are quick to take notice of his efforts early on in his career at Wisconsin.

“Coming in, Keeanu was raw. He still is kind of raw. But he’s a big body, he’s fast, he’s strong, but what we’ve seen from him so far in camp and in the first two games, he’s definitely a playmaker,” defensive end Isaaiah Loudermilk said Monday, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

Senior captain Chris Orr has also been impressed with what Benton brings to the game.

“He’s big. Big,” Orr said to the Wisconsin State Journal. “When I first saw him, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, put him right there in the middle in front of all of us. Let him eat up them blocks.’ But I think what I’m most impressed about is that he doesn’t just stay on blocks. When he gets double-teamed, he’ll eat the double then split it and go make a play.”

Doing that on Saturday against better overall competition will be a telling sign of where Benton is and where his potential lies.

If he can step up on the big stage against the biggest opponent to date, the sky may just be the limit for him and this Badgers defense.

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What the Badgers need to work on in the bye week

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Two games, two victories, two shutouts and two record-setting performance. It would be easy to think the 2-0 Wisconsin Badgers football team is riding high in to its early bye week.

But, with the challenge of the Michigan Wolverines just around the corner things are not exactly going to go as planned.

So, with a week off to prepare what are some of the areas of concentration and concern heading in to the matchup with the Wolverines?

Get Healthy

I feel like this is a mantra of any team on a bye week, but after only two games it shouldn’t be that bad. But, guess what, Wisconsin is two games in to the season and the injury gods have not been kind to this team.

On Sunday, we learned that starting safety Scott Nelson will miss the rest of the season with a leg injury.

Late last week we knew that five other players were going to miss the Central Michigan game, with two of those being starters on defense in Bryson Williams and Izayah Green-May.

Now luckily, the depth of this team showed up as true freshman Keeanu Benton (1 TFL) played well in place of Williams and Noah Burks (2 tackles, 1 TFL and 1 pass break up) made it seem like there was nothing missing at outside linebacker.

But, there’s no question that playing with a full group of players against Michigan will be advantageous. Let’s see if the Badgers can get Williams and Green-May healthy and my guess is that they will be able to do just that with nearly three weeks of treatment and testing.

Stay Hungry

One of the things that has been clear so far about this team is that they have been playing with a lot of emotion and edge to them. It’s almost as if they spent an entire offseason stewing over a less-than-stellar performance in 2018 and are bound and determined to not let that happen again.

Whatever was bottled up in the offseason was certainly unleashed in the first two weeks of the season. Can UW find a way to continue to play with that edge and fire now that they have no game this week?

Sometimes the bye week can mess with a team, especially one that is rolling like the Badgers are. But, I have a distinct feeling that motivation and focus are not going to waver at all with this coaching staff in place.

Wisconsin also has the advantage of being the underdog in the matchup with Michigan (at least on paper it will) and has a ton of hungry young players looking to make a name for themselves.

What better way to do that than against Michigan with the whole college football world watching you?

This idea of staying hungry doesn’t worry me in the least, but it would be something to watch coming out of the gate against Michigan. If the Badgers look flat or out of sorts, I’d be worried. If not, then look for Michigan to be in some serious trouble on Sept. 21.

New Wrinkles?

Early on this season, we’ve already seen a lot of Jonathan Taylor the running back, but we’ve also seen a lot of JT23 the receiving back and it has produced glorious results.

Even better is the fact that the Badgers coaching staff hasn’t had to get exotic with the play calling early on this season either. There’s been few sightings of Aron Cruickshank end arounds or double running back sets or anything crazy.

Wisconsin has lined up, punched the opposing defense in the mouth up front and done the basics needed to put points on the board.

It will be interesting to see what wrinkles will be added with the extra time and the opponent at hand. Will the Badgers break out a few things that Michigan won’t be ready for or will they stick to the tried and true and just see what happens?

Pass Protection

If there’s one thing we know about Michigan’s defense is that it is nearly the Badgers equal in aggressiveness. Through two games the Badgers have allowed four sacks on the quarterback.

It may not seem alarming, but last season, UW allowed a total of 24 through 13 games for an average of 1.85 per game and that was a bit of a problem in bigger games. Furthermore, 12 of the 24 sacks came in Wisconsin’s five losses last year.

The good news seems to be that UW is going to get some help for the quarterback spot in avoiding some of those sacks this year. Jack Coan may not be a world-record sprinter, but he has shown to be more comfortable stepping up in the pocket and taking off if needed.

But, the Badgers were not really tested so far in terms of overall talent and did give up three sacks against USF in the opener. On the flip side, the offensive line looked much better against CMU and only one sack happened on the day.

Does that indicate improvement or just how bad the Chippewas were? With an extra week to work on things, lets see how the Badgers offensive line works through any potential issues and any adjustments that may be needed.

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Sunday Morning Hangover: What to make of Coan’s confident start

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By now, Jack Coan isn’t a total newcomer to the starting quarterback role for the Wisconsin Badgers. But, on Saturday he was making his first career start inside Camp Randall Stadium.

All five of his previous starts would come on the road or in a bowl game.

So, how did Coan handle the home crowd and it being a season opener at Camp Randall nonetheless? Judging by his record-setting numbers it was safe to say it was home, sweet home for the junior quarterback.

After passing for over 200 yards for the first time in his career last week against USF, Coan set personal records for passing attempts, completions, yards and touchdown passes in a single game.

It’s hard to get much better than that.

On the day, Coan would go 26 of 33 for 363 yards and 3 touchdowns. Those numbers were the catalyst to the Badgers 61-0 blanking of the visiting Central Michigan Chippewas.

His 363 yards were the fifth best in a single game by any Badgers quarterback. Coan also became just the 11th Badgers QB to throw for 300 or more yards in a game.

Additionally, his 276 yards in the first half were the most ever by any Badgers quarterback in a single half.

That’s some historic territory for anyone to reach.

However, after sleeping on it, I am still left wondering if this is a sign of things to come or a blip on the radar and we’ll never see this again.

Maybe it’s because I can still remember being there in person to witness Coan fumble and bumble his way to a loss at Northwestern last year.

Maybe that’s the Hornibrook affect in me too? After all, we got totally burned by thinking Hornibrook had turned a corner with his great performance in the bowl win over Miami two years ago.

Instead, Hornibrook reverted right back to the inconsistent and at times terrible version that his more extensive body of work told us was likely who he was.

But, here’s why I think we aren’t seeing a blip on the radar with Coan. It’s his confidence and the fact that we’ve seen him go out and do better each and every week he’s been a starter.

We are seeing progress, which we never really did with Hornibrook under center. If you can’t see that Coan is improving, then you aren’t paying attention.

Last week, despite the first ever 200-yard day for Coan, a lot of attention was paid to the missed wide open receivers on vertical routes. What did Coan do about it? He went out this week and showed he could confidently and accurately hit those deep balls.

“I think it’s important, and certainly we’ve got to be able to — we thought coming into the year we’ve got to do a better job of attacking the whole field, and so when you can do that, it’s good, but I think guys have had confidence in it,” said head coach Paul Chryst after the CMU win.

“I know last week we were 0-2 for those “chunk” plays, but he wouldn’t have cut ’em loose today if he didn’t have confidence in it. So I don’t know that doing it in a game makes you more confident, but it was good to see. It’s nice to be able to hit a couple of those, obviously.”

Additionally, Coan’s relationship early on this season with Quintez Cephus has been something special to watch. With virtually no playing time and no extensive practice time together, the duo has seemed totally in sync to start the season.

Cephus has nine receptions for 169 yards and two touchdowns through two games. He also is averaging 84.5 yards per game, good for fifth in the Big Ten in this early season.

Just to put the difference between Coan and Honribrook in to some perspective for you. Through two games last year, the Badgers had just 26 receptions as a team. This year, UW already has 50.

Wisconsin also has a total of 16 passes for 15 or more yards on the season. That is a quarter of what the Badgers had (64) all of last year and we’re only two games in to the season.

A.J. Taylor (8), Danny Davis (6), Kendric Pryor (6) and Jake Ferguson (6) have all had major impacts in the pass game too.

It means a diverse and talented group is producing quickly this season.

Of course, the challenge of Michigan’s defense awaits the Badgers offense and it certainly will be a step up in competition from the likes of USF and Central Michigan.

However, the Wolverines also won’t be seeing the same old Wisconsin offense they did for the past few years either.

What Coan has brought to the table through two weeks of play should make Michigan think twice about stacking the box against the run all game long.

Wisconsin finally has an outwardly confident quarterback and it feels so very good.

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WATCH: Recap of Badgers 61-0 victory over Central Michigan

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If you were to draw up a perfect game, well, it would be hard to top what the Wisconsin Badgers put on film on Saturday against the Central Michigan Chippewas.

UW ran, passed and dominated on defense en route to a 61-0 win. What should we take away from this game? What were the highlight moments?

Well of course, Jonathan Taylor scoring four touchdowns in back-to-back games was impressive. But, let our Publisher, Andrew Coppens, get in to the detail in this week’s talkinBadgers recap.

Don’t forget to subscribe to the YouTube page, so you don’t miss any of our video work as the season goes on!

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