After a disappointing and disjointed year, there’s reason for optimism for the University of Wisconsin football team’s offense.
The group posted back-to-back wins to end the year and as the offseason machine starts to churn, it appears the Badgers are retaining more pieces of the puzzle than they may have once thought.
UW’s offense took the step back many expected after losing Jonathan Taylor and Quintez Cephus to the NFL. But the unit was also ravaged by injuries throughout the season, which limited what they Badgers could do. Add in a first-year play-caller in offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph having mixed results and you get an offense that averaged just 25.14 points.
One silver lining to take from the year is the amount of game reps young players got — freshmen like tailback Jalen Berger and wide receiver Chimere Dike became starters and showed they have big-play potential.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz had a year of ups and downs, typical of any young quarterback, but the seven starts he made should help him grow heading into next season.
Let’s take a look at how UW stands at each position as it embarks on the offseason. Note: Seniors have the option to return since 2020 didn’t count toward eligibility, but not all have announced their choices yet.
On the roster: Graham Mertz (RS Fr.), Danny Vanden Boom (RS Jr.), Chase Wolf (RS Soph.), Daniel Wright (Fr.)
Incoming: Deacon Hill
Departing: Jack Coan (transfer)
Projected starter: Mertz
Mertz (above) had moments of brilliance this season, but those were few and far between after his COVID-19 diagnosis and the outbreak the Badgers experienced. Not having his top two receivers certainly didn’t help, but Mertz missed open receivers and had ball-placement issues against the tougher defenses he faced.
COVID-19 also wiped out the Badgers’ typical offseason last year. How much the virus affects winter and spring workouts has yet to be seen, but Mertz and the offense would certainly benefit from getting spring practices in.
The backup quarterback spot is intriguing. It’s likely Wolf’s job, but outside of some designed QB runs, he didn’t show much in his chances on the field this year. In three appearances, Wolf was 6 for 8 for 29 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
On the roster: Jalen Berger (Fr.), Julius Davis (RS Fr.), Garrett Groshek (RS Sr.), Isaac Guerendo (RS Soph.)
Incoming: Jackson Acker, Loyal Crawford, Antwan Roberts
Departing: Nakia Watson (transfer), possibly Groshek (graduation)
Projected starter: Berger
Berger emerged as the Badgers’ top tailback this year, using an explosive running style to get through the holes quickly and challenge defenses. Two of his longest runs of the year were called back by holding penalties, but he led all backs in gains of 10 or more yards.
Berger (above) also contracted COVID-19 late in the year, which forced him out of the Iowa and Minnesota games. Groshek had the best day of his Badgers career against the Gophers, rushing for more than 150 yards and he remained a solid change-of-pace back. He must decide if he’ll come back to the program for a sixth year.
If he doesn’t, the Badgers will be thin on experience behind Berger, who only played five games this year. Davis and Guerendo each played in just one game in 2020. All three running backs in the Badgers’ recruiting class are ranked as three-star players.
UW is rumored to be a front-runner to land Markese Stepp, a transfer tailback from USC. He’d add experience and a solid short-yardage option if he were to end up in Madison.
On the roster: John Chenal (Jr.), Quan Easterling (RS Fr.)
Departing: Stokke (NFL)
Projected starter: Stokke or Chenal
Stokke became a go-to guy in the red zone for the Badgers this season, with three receiving TDs and one on the ground. He also split out and caught passes as a receiver when that unit was hit by injuries.
Chenal (above) should be able to handle the short-yardage running and blocking duties, but he hasn’t shown the same versatility that Stokke had. Easterling didn’t play in a game this season, but he’d be a playable reserve, especially in goal-line personnel.
It’s also possible (read: likely) the Badgers move a player from another position to fullback heading into next season.
On the roster: Clay Cundiff (RS Fr.), Cole Dakovich (Fr.), Jack Eschenbach (RS Soph.), Jake Ferguson (RS. Jr.), Jaylan Franklin (RS Soph.), Cam Large (Fr.), Gabe Lloyd (RS Sr.), Hayden Rucci (RS Fr.)
Incoming: Jack Pugh
Departing: Possibly Lloyd
Projected starter: Ferguson
Ferguson announced he would return for his senior season, which is a huge boost for the Badgers. Ferguson led the team in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns this season, and emerged as a leader of the young tight end group.
Bringing along another option at the position is crucial this offseason. Rucci and Eschenbach played the most as the No. 2 TE this season — Rucci is primarily a blocker at this point while Eschenbach had a few nice plays as a receiver. There’s a lot of young talent in the room — Cundiff, Large, and Pugh were sought-after recruits — so getting them a full offseason would likely lead to more production behind Ferguson.
Franklin is an intriguing option to keep an eye on. Arguably the best athlete in the group, he made the switch to tight end last year after starting his UW career as an outside linebacker. Given an offseason to learn the position at a deeper level, he could be a mismatch for opposing linebackers and safeties.
On the roster: A.J. Abbott (RS Soph.), Haakon Anderson (Fr.), Stephan Bracey (RS Fr.), Devin Chandler (Fr.), Danny Davis (Sr.), Jordan DiBenedetto (RS So.), Chimere Dike (Fr.), Jack Dunn (RS Sr.), Mike Gregoire (RS Soph.), Adam Krumholz (RS Sr.), Taj Mustapha (RS Soph.), Cooper Nelson (RS Fr.), Kendric Pryor (RS Sr.), Isaac Smith (Fr.)
Incoming: Markus Allen, Skyler Bell
Departing: Possibly Davis, Dunn and Krumholz
Projected starters: Davis, Pryor, Dike
Injuries depleted this group in 2020 and exposed the lack of readiness from the sophomore and junior classes.
Pryor (above) has already announced he’ll return, but Davis has not yet made a public statement on coming back for another year. Dike became a starter with those two out, but had trouble consistently creating separation. He’ll benefit from a real offseason as well, because even as an early enrollee last year he missed significant on-field reps with the cancellation of spring practices.
Allen and Bell are players who will “change the room,” according to UW’s director of player personnel Saeed Khalif, but the Badgers will need Bracey and Chandler to become more consistent threats next year.
If the Badgers dip into the transfer market again, expect them to try to find a receiver.
On the roster: Dylan Barrett (Fr.), Ben Barten (Fr.), Tyler Beach (RS Jr.), Tanor Bortolini (Fr.), Logan Brown (RS Fr.), Logan Bruss (RS Jr.), Jon Dietzen (RS Sr.), Michael Furtney (RS Soph.), Kerry Kodanko (Fr.), Kayden Lyles (RS Jr.), Jack Nelson (Fr.), Cormac Sampson (RS Soph.), Josh Seltzner (RS Jr.), Blake Smithback (RS Jr.), Sean Timmis (Fr.), Joe Tippman (RS Fr.), Cole Van Lanen (RS Sr.), Aaron Vopal (RS Jr.), Trey Wedig (Fr.),
Incoming: JP Benzschawel, Riley Mahlman, Nolan Rucci
Departing: Possibly Dietzen and Van Lanen
Projected starters (left to right): Brown, Seltzner, Lyles, Bruss, Beach
UW’s offensive line will have as competitive of an offseason and preseason as any position group on the roster.
Outside of Bruss (above) at either right guard or right tackle, all of the spots might be up for grabs. Add in the fact that the past two recruiting classes have added standout talents like Nelson and Rucci, there will be battles across the board. Losing left tackle Cole Van Lanen, who’s likely to make the jump to the NFL, will be a blow, but former five-star recruit Logan Brown played in all seven games this season, including a good showing in the second half of the Duke’s Mayo Bowl against Wake Forest.
With a good amount of young talent, Rudolph could create a rotation at a number of spots to keep players fresh and keep from putting too much pressure on an inexperienced player.
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After a medical issue forced him to sit out the 2020 season, safety Reggie Pearson is moving on from UW after 18 career games.
Packages for all seven home games start at $378 per ticket and will be limited at first to donors and those who ordered 2020 season ticket packages but weren’t able to use them due to the pandemic.
“(Jim Leonhard) painted me a really clear picture of what I'll be doing in his defense, what he saw for me,” Townsend said. “His career and what he's known for doing and developing players, that was a big deal to me.
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