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Wisconsin Badgers Spring Preview: 5 questions on defense

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Yes, we’ve hit that time of year once again — Spring has officially sprung, even if it doesn’t feel like it and the Wisconsin Badgers football program is back to work at spring practice.

Last week we took a look at the offensive questions heading in to spring camp. Today, we turn to the other side of the ball.

After a few years as one of the country’s best defenses, the Badgers took a bit of a step back last season. That makes this spring camp hugely important in turning this program back in to a national contender.

Let’s explore some of the questions facing this group heading in to the 3rd year under Jim Leonhard’s leadership.

Who is the Leader of this Group?

Wisconsin graduated Olive Sagapolu, T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly and D’Cota Dixon after this past season. All four of them were big time leaders on the field and in the locker room.

Replacing their talent on the field is important, but finding the guys who will step up and take responsibility in the leadership department is going to be equally important.

There are a lot of younger players looking for playing time in 2019, so could it be veterans like Zack Baun and Chris Orr that step up as leaders? That’s certainly a possibility.

But, I wouldn’t be surprised to see names like Bryson Williams and Isaiahh Loudermilk to be in the mix or even safeties like Reggie Pearson or Scott Nelson help to shape this defensive group in 2019.

No matter what names emerge, this spring has to be all about finding an identity and that’s where leadership comes in to play.

Where Will the Pass Rush Come From?

Andrew Van Ginkel had a ton of promise in 2018, but it didn’t turn in to pass rush success very often. UW tallied just 19 sacks as a team, ranking 12th in the Big Ten last year. It was the lowest total for a Badgers defense since racking up just 25 back in 2013.

Van Ginkel is gone, Zack Baun is still there at outside linebacker but appears to be a better run stopping option than a pure pass rusher.

Wisconsin also faced a really tough situation along the defensive line last year with injuries taking a toll and many names not panning out as quality options either. Isaiahh Loudermilk’s injury issues were a disaster for the team that was already spread thin.

This spring will see expected Van Ginkel replacement Christian Bell not participating due to recovery from injury, so once again the pass rush will start from behind the eight ball.

It’s also a massive opportunity for the players who will be there at defensive end and linebacker.

Can a switch to outside linebacker give Griffin Grady a fresh look at playing time? What about young names like Izayah Green-May and Jaylan Franklin? Could Noah Burks live up to his potential as a recruit and what about the fresh face in Spencer Lytle?

That’s to say nothing of who gets the majority of the snaps at defensive end. It’s likely that Isaiahh Loudermilk will get one of the spots based on potential and experience alone, but whom starts at the other end is going to be difficult to figure out.

Regardless of what shakes out, Wisconsin has to find a way to get in the opponents backfield more often in 2019. Spring ball could be all about finding the combinations that work best to accomplish that goal.

Who Starts Next to Chris Orr at Inside Linebacker?

On many other teams, Chris Orr is likely a three-year starter. Such was the depth on the Badgers roster at inside linebacker that Orr has had to wait his turn. His turn comes in his senior season as well.

But, who starts next to him is the mystery we’re all trying to solve. The player who will get the first crack is likely Jack Sanborn. As a freshman last season, Sanborn played in 11 games and recorded 7 tackles, forced 1 fumble and had a pass break up as well.

Other names to watch are Mike Maskalunas and Seth Currens, who makes the switch from safety to inside linebacker this year.

Wisconsin needs to come out of spring ball confident that it has depth at the position, after having a lot of it over the past few years.

Who Will be Starters at Cornerback?

One of the reasons for Wisconsin’s struggles on defense last season was its youth and injuries at the cornerback position. UW lost both starters to the NFL draft following the 2017 season and left a big void in experience to say the least.

That won’t be the case in 2019, as the Badgers played a ton of people at cornerback in 2018. The youth is still there, but that doesn’t mean youth still doesn’t reign supreme.

In fact, not a single cornerback played in every game for the Badgers last season. Faion Hicks led the group in tackles, with 35, and also had 1 tackle for loss, 1 interception and 3 pass break ups.

Others that were in the rotation often last year were Madison Cone, Caesar Williams, Rachad Wildgoose and Deron Harrel. Wisconsin also loved what they saw from Alexander Smith and Travian Blaylock, who both saw action in 4 games while still protecting their redshirts.

Guessing which people emerge as the starters from this group is no easy task. Spring will be huge in figuring out the mess of intriguing options at cornerback and it could arguably be the biggest battle outside of quarterback on this team.

What Wrinkles Will Leonhard Have?

While this will be Leonhard’s third season in charge of the Badgers defense, it feels like it should be just his second. After all, his first season in charge saw plenty of players left over from previous coaching regimes.

So, what has Leonhard learned from having a much younger roster last season and again this year?

His ability to adapt to the situation at hand and get his players the experience needed has been a strong suit so far. Let’s see if he can add in being a quick developer of talent too.

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Cephus says he wants to return to Badgers football

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Earlier on Monday we got word from the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the status of Quintez Cephus, the student. He was to have his expulsion reversed after the evidence from his acquittal was brought forth to the university.

The only question left was if he would want to return to the university and the Wisconsin Badgers football team.

During a press conference on Monday afternoon, the speculation was put to an end. Quintez Cephus wants to return to the university and the football team.

During his press conference, Cephus mentioned how he wanted to stay at Wisconsin largely because of the support he got from his teammates and the entire staff of the UW football program.

He also mentioned that he had yet to speak with head coach Paul Chryst face-to-face after this decision was announced, but he would be doing so later in the day on Monday.

Many will also wonder if he’s ready physically and mentally to get back on the football field this season. Well, Cephus has been working out in Arizona for three months straight in anticipation of coming back on the field.

Judging by the video he’s put out, he’s certainly in some good physical condition.

Of course, only time will tell how quickly any and all of this will happen for Cephus and the Badgers. But, Cephus is very clearly focused on not wasting this opportunity and doing things at a very high level.

There are likely a few NCAA hurdles to officially jump through, but I’m also guessing the paperwork was just waiting to be put in motion once the university reinstated him and he gave the go-ahead.

Either way, he will be a welcome sight for an already strong group of wide receivers.

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UW reinstates Quintez Cephus

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A week after Quintez Cephus, his teammates and his attorneys went in front of the cameras to implore the University of Wisconsin-Madison to allow Cephus back in to school, we now have word on his status.

On Monday morning, it was revealed that Cephus was reinstated to the university. UW sent out the following tweet regarding the matter:

In the statement announcing their decision, the university noted that they had received information that wasn’t available during their initial Title IX investigation.

“UW–Madison obtained information following the criminal proceeding that was not provided to the university during the student conduct process, ” said the statement. “Chancellor Rebecca Blank conducted a review of this information and the petition for Quintez Cephus’ reinstatement as quickly as possible and in a complete and impartial manner.

“As a result of this review, sanctions for Quintez Cephus have been reduced and his expulsion lifted. There were findings of responsibility of the student non-academic misconduct code that were upheld.”

Chancellor Rebecca Blank had the following to say about the situation.

“All three of the primary participants in this case are our students, and I know the past year has been painful for everyone involved,” said Blank. “My decision is based on the availability of substantial new information that wasn’t made available to us during the earlier process. I recognize that some will disagree with this decision.”

“To those in our community who have experienced sexual assault, I sincerely hope that there is nothing in this case that will deter you from coming forward for support,” she added. “Our university continues to be prepared to listen and respond.”

Cephus had his expulsion lifted, but did not have all sanctions removed from his record. According to the statement, the findings of responsibility of the student non-academic misconduct code that were upheld.

With this reinstatement, Cephus has a decision in front of him. He is free to return to the university and the football team has made it clear they will welcome him back with open arms.

But, does he want to return to UW at all? All indications are that he does want to come back to school, but getting his expulsion lifted would allow him to move on from the university if he so chose.

We will have to wait for more information from the program once everyone has had a chance to make their decisions known.

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Joe Thomas makes CBS Sports All-time All-American list

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College football celebrates is 150th season in 2019 and that necessitates a look back at the history of the sport. That’s exactly what CBS Sports decided to do and they came up with a long list of the best players in college football history.

Given the fact that the Wisconsin Badgers went through long stretches of horrific play and few years of good work prior to 1990, seeing a Badgers name on the list was a long shot.

But, one Badger did make the list and that was famed left tackle Joe Thomas.

He was named to the honorable mention All-Time All-American offensive line category. Center was broken out in to a different group all together as well.

While at Wisconsin, Thomas became the first Badger to win the Outland Trophy, which is given to the nation’s best interior lineman. He also was named to the 2006 first team All-American list and started 39 games in his four years in Madison.

He is also a member of the College Football Hall of Fame after an 11-year career in which he made the Pro Bowl in 10 straight seasons.

Joining him on CBS Sports honorable mention offensive lineman list were Maurkice Pouncey (Florida), Lincoln Kennedy (Washington), John Hicks (Ohio State), Aaron Taylor (Nebraska) and Jake Long (Michigan).

Making the first team list were Orlando Pace (Ohio State), Jonathan Ogden (UCLA), John Hannah (Alabama) and Ron Yary (USC).

On the second team were Anthony Munoz (USC), Bryant McKinnie (Miami), Will Shields (Nebraska) and Tony Boselli (USC).

Those are all some amazing names and gives us all a great reminder of just how great college football has been over the years to be sure.

Thomas is the only Badgers player to make the list, yes including all-time greats like Ron Dayne and Alan Ameche, let alone perhaps the most famous player of the formative years of college football — Pat O’Dea.

Yes, he doesn’t fit neatly in to the mold of a modern college football player, but this was supposed to be a list of the best players to ever grace the field in the history of the game.

It’s very hard to argue that O’Dea wasn’t exactly that in his era. He was a two time All-American in 1898 and 1899 as a punter and a fullback.

If CBS Sports was serious about honoring the entirety of college football, having O’Dea on the list would be a good place to start.

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Badgers unveil throwback unis for Northwestern game

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College football is celebrating its 150th year in 2019 and the Wisconsin Badgers have been playing the game since the 1889 season.

In order to honor some of the history of the game and the program, the Badgers will put on throwback (and I use that term loosely) uniforms according to a video released by the football program on Tuesday afternoon.

It appears that UW is looking back to the days where a simple UW adorned the front of the sweaters, as they were called at the time, in that 1889 season.

Today, regulations say that all teams must include numbers on the front and back of the jersey and thus the conundrum the Badgers find themselves in here.

Interestingly, the helmets will feature a first-time logo with the ‘UW’ having never appeared together in any helmet in Badgers history. Given the fact that back in 1889 there was no such thing as a helmet in the game of football it was an interesting call.

The helmets will also feature just a thin Cardinal stripe down the center and gray face masks.

Personally, I have to say I’m not a fan of cramming the ‘UW’ on to the front of the jersey and it would’ve been interesting to see them go back to the Bucky Badger helmet or something else.

It just looks too congested on the front of the jersey, but I do like the idea of the black shoes, khaki colored pants and the red jersey overall. It does harken back to that era in as much as is possible in today’s modern game.

However, the players were certainly excited for a different-than-normal look to the Badgers uniforms.

The logo on the side of the khaki colored pants is also the one that the athletic department used from 1962 to 1965 according to research.

Wisconsin will take on Northwestern in the Sept. 28 game that will feature these jerseys inside Camp Randall. Northwestern will also have a similar look as part of what Under Armour is calling its Second Heritage line.

What do you think of this ‘throwback’ look? Hit up the comments below or follow on Twitter @talkingBadgers.

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