For the second time in three seasons, Wisconsin will embark on the road to the Big Ten championship with a new man at the helm. This time, however, it's not some "they hired who??" guy.
This time, it's none other than Paul Chryst, who's coming home to take over what's seems as if it's his birthright. The former Wisconsin quarterback -- whose father, George, was a state legend in both high school and at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville -- was the Badgers' offensive coordinator from 2005-11. Chryst was tapped by athletics director Barry Alvarez following the sudden departure of Gary Andersen to Oregon State, with Alvarez saying "the first person I thought of ... was Paul Chryst." Indeed, among many it seemed that balance in the Force had been restored.
Still, questions remain with Chryst -- and his staff -- following his three-year tenure as a first-time head coach at Pitt. To be sure, Chryst had several challenges to overcome, but his 19-19 record, sprinkled as it was with more than a few unseemly losses, tempers enthusiasm in some quarters. Regarding the staff, with this week's departure of ace recruiter and running backs coach Thomas Brown for Georgia, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is the only coach retained from Andersen's staff. Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph is a familiar face and a top-notch recruiter in his own right, but to most fans, Chryst's first UW staff is filled with unknowns.
When Wisconsin partially resurrected its 2012 season by dropping 70 points on Nebraska in Indianapolis, only a liar would tell you that the Badgers envisioned losing their head coach a few days later. After the 2014 season, and maybe because of the lingering effects of the conditioning provided by a 23-year stretch with just two headmen, the shock when Andersen left was comparable. And so it is, the 2015 season will proceed under the direction of the third head coach in four seasons.
2014 review (Paul Chryst)
Chryst arrives at Wisconsin coming off a 6-6 regular season at Pitt in which the Panthers went 4-4 in their second year in the Atlantic Coast Conference. His 2014 records fits in quite well with his overall 19-19 performance. Like Chryst's other seasons, 2014 saw very solid wins (at Boston College, at Miami), but tough-to-swallow losses (Akron, Georgia Tech -- the five-fumble game). His offense produced the ACC Offensive Player of the Year in running back James Conner (1,765 yards rushing, 26 rushing touchdowns), first team All-ACC wide receiver Tyler Boyd and left tackle T.J. Clemmings, who may be the first tackle taken in this year's NFL draft. Overall, Pitt finished 16th nationally, averaging 250 yards per game.
Chryst's defenses were never quite together, however. Under the direction of the young-ish defensive coodinator Matt House, Pitt's defense was middling, numbers-wise, but couldn't hold in crucial parts of games. From year to year, there was little improvement, in fact. Some of this has to be attributed to his defensive staff choices, some attributed to a limited roster. All of it could give an observer pause.
It's best to remember that even in year three, Chryst had to overcome significant obstacles for his team to achieve success on the field. The players he inherited were brought in by crabbed recruiting cycles under his predecessors and didn't always fit his style in terms of scheme, temperament and even character. You can read more about the challenges he faced and overcame in our Q&A with Cardiac Hill and listen to the in-depth analysis by Paul Zeise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Dave Aranda, defensive coordinator
Gary Andersen, head coach; Andy Ludwig, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks; Chris Beatty, wide receivers/recruiting coordinator; Thomas Brown, running backs; T. J. Woods, offensive line; Jeff Genyk, tight ends/special teams; Chad Kauha'aha'a, defensive line; Bill Busch, safeties; and Ben Strickland, cornerbacks (Strickland is now a non-coaching recruiting coordinator, however).
Paul Chryst, head coach/quarterbacks; Joe Rudolph, offensive coordinator/offensive line; Ted Gilmore, wide receivers; Mickey Turner, tight ends; Inoke Breckterfield, defensive line; Tim Tibesar, outside linebackers; Daronte Jones, defensive backs; and Chris Haering, special teams.
X-factor (on field): Wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore
It is expected that Wisconsin will attempt to pick up on offense where Chryst left off in 2011, his last year here as offensive coordinator. He won't have Russell Wilson, of course, but reason suggests that Wisconsin's stagnant passing game will be revitalized -- at least to the point where it's worthy of an upper echelon Power Five conference team. To that end, quarterback Joel Stave, whom the smart money says will be the starter against Alabama when the Badgers open the 2015 season, should benefit greatly from Chryst's return as quarterbacks coach and erstwhile "guru."
All that said, however, the X-factor is likely Gilmore. An eminently reasonable argument can be made that during Andersen's tenure, the wide receiver group limited Wisconsin's passing game as much as the quarterbacks. In 2014, former walk-on Alex Erickson led Wisconsin with 55 catches for 755 yards, but just three touchdowns; the next returning WR was Jordan Fredrick, better known for his downfield blocks, with 13 catches for 126 yards.
Gilmore, who comes to Madison after three seasons in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders, one at USC and six at Nebraska, will be counted on to continue and perhaps accelerate the development of juniors Robert Wheelwright and Reggie Love, along with sophomores George Rushing, Krenwick Sanders and, if he stays in the position, Natrell Jamerson. If a gamebreaker develops from this group, Wisconsin's offense might be difficult to stop.
This section is where these previews have made predictions on starting players, which doesn't really apply to a coaching overview. Instead, let's take a look at what we should expect from the 2015 coaching staff that hasn't been addressed as yet.
Most were pleased when it was suggested and then confirmed that Aranda would stay as defensive coordinator. He is widely acknowledged as one of the up-and-comers in the profession generally, and a budding defensive mastermind in particular. It also appears that much as he did at Pitt, Chryst will take a relatively hands-off approach to the defensive side of the ball, especially on game days. Aranda has shown that his schemes are effective and it's clear that UW's roster is filled with players who not only can grow in and with them, but have bought in fully. His assistants Breckterfield and Jones have solid collegiate track records, while Tibesar is well-respected in both the college and professional ranks. UW's defense should continue to improve under this staff.
On offense, UW's running game should continue to dominate, irrespective of who Chryst brings in to coach running backs. The offensive line is in good hands under former Badger and All-Big Ten lineman Rudolph, and the talent at running back is already on the roster. There are many names making their way through social media, websites and message boards, though reports state former Wisconsin and Pitt running backs coach John Settle may have emerged as the top target to replace Brown -- though it will be hard to replace Brown as a recruiter.
Chris Haering takes over as a special teams-only coach, a departure for Wisconsin, but not uncommonly seen in FBS programs. Haering was a successful high school coach in western Pennsylvania prior to joining Chryst's first staff. He coached linebackers and added special teams in 2014, which saw Pitt's special teams post very solid composite numbers. If Haering can keep Rafael Gaglianone on track, improve the punting/punter(s) and maintain Wisconsin's generally solid coverage units, fans won't hear Haering's name too often.
Overall, fans seem to have misgivings about Chryst and his staff as recruiters, even moreso now that Brown went back home to Georgia. Notwithstanding the fact that the 2015 recruiting class came together nicely under the circumstances (although due in no small part to Brown's efforts) and Chryst's classes at Pitt were far from terrible, how the class of 2016 comes together will be watched closely until next February. But that's next February, right?
As for the 2015 season, this staff appears to be up to traditional Wisconsin standards as far as development of players (Ross Kolodziej as head strength and conditioning coach is representative of that tradition). In other words, it shouldn't be surprising to see Wisconsin well represented in the NFL while it continues to contend for Big Ten titles. Getting to the College Football Playoff -- and past Ohio State, maybe eventually Michigan or Penn State -- may turn out to be bridges too far in 2015 and beyond. This staff should position Wisconsin as well as any in the Big Ten West division, and maybe as well as any in the conference save Ohio State.