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Wisconsin Badgers Spring Preview: 5 questions on offense

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Even if it doesn’t feel like it outside, spring is in air inside the Don McClain Center. That’s because today starts the Wisconsin Badgers spring football practices.

It also means it is time to put this group under the 2019 microscope and stop wondering what could have been in 2018.

What will be different this year is that the Badgers don’t plan on doing an official spring game. Instead, they will open up Camp Randall for fans to witness a practice on April 13.

Spring ball will end on April 26, but today is the beginning and we’ve got some questions to be answered — some more pressing than others. So, let’s get in to them from least pressing to most.

Is there a deep threat in the passing game?

Quintez Cephus is still awaiting trial on two separate counts of sexual assault, so any hope of him coming back to the Badgers program in 2019 seems to be out of the window. But, in terms of football, there is no question the UW offense missed his presence in 2018.

He was a downfield threat while breaking out in 2017, catching 30 passes for 501 yards and averaged 16.7 yards per catch to go with six touchdowns.

As a team last year, the Badgers averaged just 11.5 yards per catch — a significant drop from 13.2 yards per catch as a team in 2017.

A.J. Taylor did his level best to become a threat last year and was regularly the go-to receiver for both Alex Honibrook and Jack Coan.

Wisconsin needs someone to break out with some speed to get down field if the Badgers offense wants to make a move. Who would that guy be is still a major question.

Young players like Taj Mustapha and A.J. Abbott and Emmet Perry all have a big opportunity in front of them — especially given the open quarterback battle happening.

Who Will Take Ingold’s Place at Fullback?

Wisconsin still loves the fullback, as evidenced by the important role that Alec Ingold played in UW’s offense over the last four years. But, replacing him won’t be easy, because there was little depth and opportunity behind him last year.

Mason Stokke was the main backup, switching from inside linebacker before last season to help with depth. But, is he the answer?

John Chenal, Jack Collinsworth and Coy Warner were also listed as fullbacks last season, but there’s a reason UW went out and got one of the top fullbacks in high school football in this recruiting class too.

Can anyone emerge as the leader before said incoming freshman, Quan Easterling, shows up on campus in the fall? The Badgers bruising run game and versatility on offense as a whole depends on finding a quality answer here.

Is there a reliable backup to Jonathan Taylor at RB?

Last season the Badgers thought they would be loaded at running back, but a bad injury to Bradrick Shaw seemed to derail the explosive depth behind him Taylor.

With Taiwan Deal gone and Shaw’s future still in doubt, the Badgers have a big hole to fill behind Taylor. All indications are that Nakia Watson was both physically and mentally ready to go last season but the Badgers were able to redshirt him instead.

This season, Watson could be the second man in the backfield, but will have to show that in spring ball. Julius Davis was added in the 2019 class, but he won’t be on campus until the fall.

Then there is the question of Garrett Groshek. He emerged as a huge pass-catching weapon out of the backfield and someone capable of taking a carry or two as well. But, is he really the guy that can give you quality production with multiple carries?

My money is on Watson emerging as the second-choice, with Groshek in the mix and continuing to develop as a pass catcher. Maybe we could even see two-back sets with Taylor and Groshek to help keep defenses guessing? It would be a novel concept considering what happened last year.

How Will the Offensive Line Adjust?

Change happens every year in college football, and for the Wisconsin Badgers they likely thought that would include losing three offensive lineman to the NFL.

Instead, Tyler Biadsz surprised a lot of people and returned for his redshirt junior season. But, the Badgers ended up losing a third starter this offseason anyway, as oft-injured Jon Dietzen decided to hang up the cleats and call it a career.

We also found out on Monday that both Cole Van Lanen and Biadsz wouldn’t play this spring to keep them healthy and repair anything needed in the offseason.

That means all but one spot on the offensive line will be a new face in spring ball. We’ll see a battle to back up Biadsz between Kayden Lyles and Jason Erdmann.

On the outside we’ll likely get to see a lot of Tyler Beach, Logan Bruss and Michael Furtney. Additionally, inside we’ll likely get to see if David Moorman can make the jump to starter and if either Lyles or Erdmann will slide out from center to right guard to replace Michael Dieter.

Depth will get a test in the spring as usual and that can only be a good thing come fall. Will the Badgers find answers to whether that depth is good or still a work in progress though?

Will Anyone Emerge as QB Battle Winner?

Chryst has let anyone and everyone know that expecting a winner of the open quarterback battle to happen in the spring may be a long shot. Still, the question remains as to who will emerge at the position?

Will any of the four scholarship quarterbacks in the mix — Jack Coan, Danny Vanden Boom, Chase Wolf or highly-touted freshman Graham Mertz make a leap?

It would be nice to see at two separate themselves in the spring, setting up a good competition throughout summer workouts and in to fall camp. Coan has the most experience, but also was very inconsistent in his five games played.

Was it because of his ability or because the coaching staff tried to keep the gameplan too tight with him behind center? What about Vanden Boom and Wolf, who both flashed in camp last year before fading down the stretch.

My money is on Coan and Wolf to look the best of the returning quarterbacks, but the $1 million question is what about Mertz?

Everyone in the fanbase wants to see Mertz jump up and grab the job from the get-go, but that may be unrealistic. Just look at what happened to 4-star quarterback Artur Sitkowski at Rutgers last year and numerous others who were thrown in too soon.

Wisconsin has the luxury of not pushing him too fast, but that luxury could go by the wayside if none of the other three show the growth and confidence that will be needed.

Simply put, the Badgers passing game can’t be in the 100’s once again this year. It would be a shame to waste the final season of star running back Jonathan Taylor because of a bad passing game again.

Being able to come out of spring ball confident that there is at least one, if not more players capable of leading this offense would be a dream come true. Will it actually happen though?

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Badgers football

Badgers in the 2019 NFL Mock Drafts

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Believe it or not, we’re just three weeks away from the start of the 2019 NFL Draft. While, it’s likely your focus is on your favorite NFL team, its needs and who will go where, for fans of college football it’s also a time to sneak a look at where their favorite players will be going.

So, as we near the draft, I thought it a perfect time to take a look at where every former Badgers player stands. We’ll look at some of the most comprehensive 7-round mock drafts.

Making our cut were CBS Sports, Draft Wire, Draftteck and Walter Football.

Without further ado, let’s jump in in alphabetical order.

Beau Benzschawel, OL

CBS Sports: 3rd Round (No. 102 overall) to the Baltimore Ravens
Draft Wire: 4th Round (No. 114 overall) to Carolina Panthers
Draftteck: 4th Round (No. 116 overall) to Miami Dolphins
Walter Football: 5th Round (No. 149 overall) to Cincinnati Bengals

Ryan Connelly, LB

CBS Sports: Undrafted
Draft Wire: 7th Round (No. 238 overall) to Chicago Bears
Draftteck: Undrafted
Walter Football: 5th Round (No. 159 overall) to Seattle Seahawks

Michael Deiter, OL

CBS Sports: 4th Round (No. 108 overall) to New York Giants
Draft Wire: 3rd Round (No. 75 overall) to Green Bay Packers
Draftteck: 5th Round (No. 169 overall) to Los Angeles Rams
Walter Football: 2nd Round (No. 55 overall) to Houston TexansO

D’Cota Dixon, S

CBS Sports: Undrafted
Draft Wire: Undrafted
Draftteck: 6th Round (No. 190 overall) to Minnesota Vikings
Walter Football: Undrafted

David Edwards, OL

CBS Sports: 6th Round (No. 174 overall) to Seattle Seahawks
Draft Wire: 3rd Round (No. 94 overall) to Los Angeles Rams
Draftteck: 3rd Round (No. 88 overall) to Detroit Lions
Walter Football: 6th Round (No. 181 overall) to Buffalo Bills

T.J. Edwards, LB

CBS Sports: 5th Round (No. 162 overall) to Chicago Bears
Draft Wire: 7th Round (No. 215 overall) to Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Draftteck: 5th Round (No. 145 overall) to Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Walter Football: 6th Round (No. 178) to Jacksonville Jaguars

Alec Ingold, FB

CBS Sports: Undrafted
Draft Wire: Undrafted
Draftteck: Undrafted
Walter Football: Undrafted

Olive Sagapolu, DT

CBS Sports: Undrafted
Draft Wire: Undrafted
Draftteck: 6th Round (No. 182 overall) to Denver Broncos
Walter Football: Undrafted

Andrew Van Ginkel, OLB

CBS Sports: Undrafted
Draft Wire: Undrafted
Draftteck: 7th Round (No. 235 overall) to Oakland Raiders
Walter Football: 6th Round (No. 211 overall) to Cincinnati Bengals

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Badgers football

WATCH: Chryst addresses Spring Ball at halfway point

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Believe it or not…the Wisconsin Badgers are halfway through the 2019 spring practice season.

On Tuesday, Chryst addressed the media on where things stand. The head coach made it known the team is nowhere near ready to take the field in the fall, but that competition is fierce.

So much so, that there is nearly an open competition going on at every position on the team.

Some may see that as a bad thing, but considering the youth and the amount of graduated players, the fact that there are multiple players stepping up and performing well enough to compete for positions on this squad is a good thing.

Check out what else the head coach had to say at the halfway point here:

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Badgers football

Badgers using Axe loss as motivation for 2019 season

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The 2018 season did not go exactly as planned for the Wisconsin Badgers football program. Putting the cap on a disappointing season was UW’s first loss in 15 games to bitter rival Minnesota.

Not seeing Paul Bunyan’s Axe in the Badgers trophy case had to be a strange feeling when it happened. But, it has also become motivation for the Badgers to remember that awful feeling and never let it happen again.

To that end, apparently the coaching staff has put a picture of the Gophers players chopping down the goal posts following their win last seasons.

Ferguson and others note that the loss and the fact that UW went from a preseason College Football Playoff contender to the Pinstripe Bowl has served to make this offseason much more serious than a year ago.

“When we walk into the locker room, we’ve got the Nebraska trophy, the Iowa trophy, and then on the right is where the Axe would be,” Ferguson told the media. “Right behind it where it would be is that big picture.”

“Kinda pisses me off,” he continued. “But I think it’s a good thing we have that, and I’d say a lot more guys are focused up and a lot less goofing around in the weight room. Everyone’s holding each other accountable.”

With a much younger team and a whole lot of spaces up for grabs, things should be serious this spring as well.

The Badgers will move on from Alex Hornibrook at quarterback and four players have taken nearly equal reps overall so far this spring.

There’s youth being served along the defensive line, at linebacker and a host of young (but experienced) players at cornerback to give the Badgers plenty of focus overall.

But, it is interesting that with over seven months to go until the Badgers and Gophers knock heads again for the longest-played rivalry in college football, the Badgers have focused in on getting that trophy back in their possession.

While winning the trophy doesn’t guarantee success, it certainly has gone a long way towards letting everyone know the Badgers are successful on a near annual basis for the previous 14 years.

Can that focus on getting the Axe back be a catalyst for the improvement needed from the young roster? Only time will tell, but the fact that those young players appear to be locked in this early is a positive sign.

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5 Badgers who need to break out this spring

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As with any talk of spring ball, individual play is always at the forefront. It’s what Wisconsin Badgers head coach Paul Chryst is emphasizing the most this spring.

With injuries to potential starters like Christian Bell, Tyler Biadsz and Cole Van Lanen, there are more spots open for reps this spring. Add in a young overall roster and you can see why spring is big for the Badgers in 2019.

But, there are some players who need to showcase themselves more than others. For a group of players it may be their last chance to put it all together and show the coaching staff the belong in the mix.

So, let’s take a look at the five players who need to break out the most this spring.

Noah Burks, Jr. (Outside Linebacker)

MADISON, WI – NOVEMBER 03: Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor (23) is tackled by Wisconsin outside linebacker Noah Burks (41) and Wisconsin defensive end David Pfaff (52) during a college football game between the University of Wisconsin Badgers and the Rutgers University Scarlet Knights on November 3, 2018 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, WI. (Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Will Burks turn the potential that had him as a 4-star linebacker coming out of Carmel (Ind.)? It hasn’t totally happened so far and part of it has been other players ahead of him, but part of it has been his inability to win a position in the regular rotation.

To date, Burks has amassed 21 games played, 8 total tackles and a forced fumble to his name. If he’s ever going to take on the role as a starter, this spring is the time to do it. Christian Bell is out and there is plenty of room for snaps if one can prove they deserve them.

Burks has a big opportunity in front of him and the good news early on in practice is that he seems to be taking to that opportunity. Look for his name to be one that makes the jump necessary by the end of April.

Jack Coan, Jr. (Quarterback)

BRONX, NY – DECEMBER 27: Wisconsin Badgers Quarterback Jack Coan (17) gets set under center during the Pinstripe Bowl Game between the University of Miami Hurricanes and the University of Wisconsin Badgers on December 27, 2018 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, NY. (Photo by John McCreary/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Yes, he’s got experience as a starting quarterback and yes he is entering his junior season. But, one could argue no player needs to take the bull by the horns more than Coan does. With Alex Honribrook off to Florida State, the quarterback position is wide open this spring.

All the hype may be around early entrant Graham Mertz, and if he wins the job great. But, ideally the Badgers would like to not put Mertz in a situation where he’s not fully ready.

That requires Coan to show he’s growing and can be trusted to be a solid option, unlike what was there for most of last season. If Coan can’t put it all together in the spring, will he ever be able to be a solid option for the coaching staff to count on?

Anthony Lotti, Sr. (Punter)

ANN ARBOR, MI – OCTOBER 13: Wisconsin Badgers punter Anthony Lotti (15) punts during a game between the Wisconsin Badgers (15) and the Michigan Wolverines (12) on October 13, 2018 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’re talking about punters…yes punters. The truth is, Wisconsin needs better overall play from special teams and arguably no area needs more improvement than the consistency from the punter position.

Lotti came in as one of the most promising punters in the country according to scouts and hasn’t really lived up to that hype. He’s got 140 punts under his belt in the first three years, averaging just 38.8 yards per punt though.

Last season saw Connor Allen also get a crack at the punting duties and he wasn’t much better, booting 22 punts for an average of 37.5 yards per punt.

With a roster in flux at major positions on both sides of the ball, having some confidence in the special teams units would be nice. That means Lotti turning on the big leg and accurate punting that he was known for coming in to Wisconsin.

If he can’t turn it on consistently this spring, it could be time to give a new face a look in the fall.

Nate Carter, So. (Tight End)

Wisconsin knows it has a star in tight end Jake Ferguson, but what it doesn’t know is who in the heck can be counted on behind him. Expected second-string tight end Luke Benzschawel is out for an extended amount of spring ball and even he hasn’t proven to be a pass-catching threat.

In fact, there isn’t a Badgers tight end outside of Ferguson who has caught a pass in college ball yet. So, enter former quarterback turned tight end, Nate Carter.

The Waunakee native is 6-5 and nearly 210 pounds, so clearly he will need to put on some weight. But, if he can emerge as a good pass catcher and pick up some blocking schemes this spring perhaps the Badgers have another option.

Clearly the coaching staff thinks enough of his athleticism to put him in to a pass-catching role. Will that pan out or will the Badgers be searching for that other answer further in to the fall?

Aron Cruickshank, So. (Wide Receiver)

BRONX, NY – DECEMBER 27: Wisconsin Badgers wide receiver Aron Cruickshank (1) runs during the fourth quarter of the 2018 New Era Pinstripe Bowl between the Wisconsin Badgers and the Miami Hurricanes on December 27, 2018 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, NY. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

One part of Wisconsin’s passing game woes seemed to be inconsistent (at best) play at QB, but UW also struggled to get separation down field from its wide receivers too.

One potential cure for that is speedy sophomore Aron Cruickshank. The coaching staff thought enough of him to make sure he got the ball in his hands a few different ways all the way through the 2018 season.

But, can he go from a gimmick player to a real threat in the every-down offense? So far the returns in practice this spring indicate he’s having fun burning the crap out of UW’s defensive backs.

He’s already hooked up for a number of deep passes and made the quarterbacks lives easier. If he could help open up the deep passing game to go along with Jonathan Taylor’s home run hitting ability in the backfield, this could be a dynamic offense.

Of course, spring ball isn’t Saturday’s in the fall, but having him emerge as a true weapon in the regular pass game would be massive.

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