The defense has been the star for the first three years of the Paul Chryst era, a stretch that includes a 34-7 record. Considering the personnel losses on that side of the ball, the offense will need to help out the defense at the beginning of the season.
The good news for the Badgers is that they’re loaded with talent and experience on offense. It’s a group that returns 10 starters from an Orange Bowl victory over Miami (Fla.). How explosive the Badgers can be remains to be seen, but this figures to be their most lethal offense since Russell Wilson, Montee Ball and Co. helped produce a program-record 44.1 points per game in 2011 with Chryst calling the shots as offensive coordinator.
That said, a defense that has allowed an average of 14.4 points since Chryst’s arrival isn’t ready to relinquish its label as a top-10 unit.
“We hold outselves to a high standard because we’ve been doing it for such a long time.” senior linebacker T.J. Edwards said, one of three returning starters on defense. “It’s something our team needs for us to be.”
A relatively light non-conference schedule should give the defense a chance to grow, but that group needs to be ready for a rugged Big Ten slate that includes road games against five teams that played in bowl games last season. The Badgers, who won 13 games last season and flirted with a berth in the College Football Playoff, are eager to take the next step.
“We expect to be just as good as last year, if not better,” senior linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel said.
Junior Alex Hornibrook needs to lower his interception total after throwing 15 a season ago as a sophomore. But if there was any notion that the starting job would be up for grabs heading into the offseason, Hornibrook quashed it by going 23-of-34 for 258 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in the Orange Bowl. Now, the question is whether that performance can be a springboard for Hornibrook, who threw for 2,644 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. “I love the way he works,” Chryst said. Chryst also is pleased with the development of Hornibrook’s backup, Jack Coan, who completed all five of his pass attempts as a true freshman.
The coaching staff was intrigued with Jonathan Taylor’s potential heading into his freshman season, but nobody expected him to rush for nearly 2,000 yards. Taylor gave the running game something it desperately needed: a home-run threat. Fumbling was an issue for Taylor in 2017, and he’s also working to expand his game by improving his receiving skills. Bradrick Shaw is the frontrunner to be the backup behind Taylor. though Chris James, Taiwan Deal and incoming freshman Nakia Watson could push for playing time. Fullback Alex Ingold has a nose for the endzone — he has 14 touchdowns in 86 career touches — and will move into the starting role following Austin Ramesh’s departure.
Quintez Cephus had a breakout sophomore season, catching 30 passes for 501 yards with a team high six touchdown receptions despite missing the final five games of the season with a leg injury. Cephus’ absense left the group without its biggest playmaker, but the trio of A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis, and Kendric Pryor picked up the slack. Together, Taylor, Davis and Pryor combined for 70 catches, 1,072 yards and 11 touchdowns. All four players are back, giving the Badgers their deepest set of wideouts in years. “This group has shown they can make plays,” Chryst said. Troy Fumagalli was a security blanket for Hornibrook at tight end and will be difficult to replace, but Wisconsin has options there as well. Zander Neuville is a reliable blocker and receiver, while youngsters Kyle Penniston and Jake Ferguson both have potential to be threats over the middle.
UW ended the 2017 season with three players mulling early departures to the NFL. One by one, Michael Deiter, Beau Benzschawel and David Edwards all decided to come back, giving the unit all five returning starters and a ton of depth. How deep is the unit? Jon Dietzen, who has 20 careers starts, has work to do to secure a spot on the first unit. Meanwhile, Micah Kapoi and Brett Connors, who have combined for 18 career starts, are battling to stay in the two-deep. “I think you have some really good options and there’s probably more competition than we will have had,” said Chryst, “but you also have a glaring hole right now.” That hole is at left tackle, because after spending one season at that spot, Dieter is likely moving back inside to left guard. Cole Van Lanen has the best shot of moving into Deiter’s old role, but offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, who oversees the offensive lineman, will have options at his disposal.
While ends Alex James, Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih may not have been stars, they were fixtures on an experienced line. In short, they exemplified the three traits Chryst and his staff look for in players: being smart, tough and dependable. Olive Sagapolu is a linebacker’s dream because he does a great job of taking up multiple blockers. The coaching staff is pushing Sagapolu to make more plays on his own. His backup, true freshman Bryson Williams, was an early enrollee who got valuable reps in the spring.
The deepest position on defense is inside linebacker, where Edwards, Ryan Connelly and Chris Orr have all started games. Edwards, who considered leaving early for the NFL, is coming off an All-America season in which he shared the team lead with four interceptions. He and Connelly combined for 22 tackles for loss. UW has to replace both of its starting outside linebackers, but Van Ginkel is ready for a full-time role after menacing opposing offenses as a pass rusher last season. Van Ginkel tied for second on the team with 6.5 sacks and had 10 tackles for a loss and believes those numbers should have been higher. “There are a lot of plays I left on the field last year that could have been impact plays,” he said. Finding a starter on the other side will be one of the big keys heading into camp. Zack Baun was the frontrunner for that spot, but a foot injury late in the spring cost him valuable practice reps.
Chryst views the cornerback position much like he did the wide receivers heading into the 2017 season — young and talented but unproven. Things turned out well for Wisconsin after several players emerged at wideout, and Chryst is hoping for a similar scenario to play out on the other side of the ball. The Badgers had the luxury of two solid cover men last season in Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal. Dontye Carriere-Williams likely will move into the starting role after serving as nickel back last season. The other spot is up for grabs, with Madison Cone, Faion Hicks and Donte Burton the top three options. Strong safety D’Cota Dixon is a vocal leader for the secondary and a consistent playmaker, while Scott Nelson has the best chance to take over for Natrell Jamerson at the other safety spot.
After missing all but three games in 2016 with a back injury, Rafael Gaglianone bounced back to make 16 of his 18 field goal attempts as a junior. His career conversion rate is at 80 percent heading into his final season. Zach Hintze blossomed into a weapon as a kickoff specialist, booming 54 of his 79 attempts for touchbacks. Punter Anthony Lotti improved as a sophomore, but the Badgers still ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in net average. Chryst would like a more dynamic return game, and one player who could help in that area is speedy true freshman Aron Cruickshank.
- Aug. 31 vs. Western Kentucky
- Sept. 8 vs. New Mexico
- Sept. 15 vs. BYU
- Sept. 22 at Iowa
- Oct. 6 vs. Nebraska
- Oct. 13 at Michigan
- Oct. 20 vs. Illinois
- Oct. 27 at Northwestern
- Nov. 3 vs. Rutgers
- Nov. 10 at Penn State
- Nov. 17 at Purdue
- Nov. 24 vs. Minnesota
Jonathan Taylor, RB
Rushed for over 100 yards in 10 games during his rookie season, including 200-plus in three games.
Michael Deiter, LG
Has 41 career starts heading into his senior season. After playing at left tackle in 2017, Deiter is expected to move back inside.
T.J. Edwards, LB
Registered 11 tackles for a loss and four interceptions to earn first-team All-America honors as a junior.
Troy Fumagalli, TE
Finished with 135 career receptions and hauled in a career-high four TD receptions as a senior.
Nick Nelson, CB
The transfer from Hawaii earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his only season playing for the Badgers before leaving early for the NFL.
Alec James, DE
His 6.5 sacks in 2017 were the most by a Wisconsin defensive lineman since J.J. Watt had seven in 2010.
Cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams made five starts as Wisconsin’s nickel back last season as a redshirt freshman. The departure of starters Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal leaves Carriere-Williams as UW’s top cover man.
Scouting The Badgers
Opposing coaches size up Wisconsin. “If they were a little better at quarterback, if Alex Hornibrook were a little more refined, they would’ve been in the playoff last year. They could have beaten Ohio State in our championship game, and probably should have …. you can say, ‘How many quarterbacks played well against Ohio State?’ and that’s a fair argument. Then watch the tape, and watch (Hornibrook) miss open receivers on throws he just has to make. They are so good everywhere else. You just can’t do that … If I were to tell you, hey Wisconsin had a freshman that had 2,000 yards, you’d probably say, yeah, that sounds about right. I don’t want to make light of what Jonathan Taylor did because he’s a special player, but it’s death, taxes, and Wisconsin with an elite tailback. Oh by the way, three of those stud offensive lineman who could’ve left for the NFL, stayed in Madison. I loved watching these guys play last year. A team that looked like it was having fun every time they stepped on the field. It was so cool to watch week after week. That’s a reflection on Paul Chryst.”
Nick Obot’s Verdict
Projection: 13-0, 9-0 Big Ten
Led by a defense that limited teams to just 13.9 points per game, Wisconsin was one win away from the CFB Playoff last season. Defensive Coordinator Jim Leonhard has holes to fill at every level, but a drop-off is highly unlikely. The Badgers will need to lean on the offense early in the season, but that shouldn’t be a problem for coach Paul Chryst, as he’s assembled one of the most balanced Wisconsin offenses in recent years. The offensive line is the best in the nation, running back Jonathan Taylor returns after rushing for 1,977 yards last year, and quarterback Alex Hornibrook is poised to challenge for All-Big Ten honors – if he limits his turnovers. With road trips to Michigan, Penn State and Iowa, those could be the Badgers’ biggest obstacle in 2018.
CFB Semi-Final: Orange Bowl, Wisconsin vs. Clemson
CFB Championship Game: Wisconsin vs. Alabama