The Wisconsin Badgers start spring practices under new head coach Paul Chryst on Sunday. With the new era beginning, we continue to tackle a series of questions regarding the Wisconsin football program heading into spring ball.
In case you missed them, here are our position previews from last month:
- Running backs
- Wide receivers
- Tight ends
- Offensive line
- Defensive line
- Defensive backs
- Special teams
- Coaching staff
Earlier this week, we asked our writers which positions they would be watching most closely this spring. Today, we ask who could be a breakout player in 2015 for Wisconsin heading into spring practice?
Drew Hamm (@DrewHamm5): It has to be a wide receiver, right? I'm doubling down on my love of Rob Wheelwright and saying that he has a breakout season in 2015. Irrational? Probably. Likely? Not even 50 percent sure. Will I stick with it? You betcha. Wheelwright was rated as a four-star recruit by Scout and a three-star recruit by the rest of the services, so there is clearly some talent there. He has the size for a wideout that scouts drool over and could make himself into a nice red-zone target for the winner of The Wisconsin Quarterback SituationTM.
For his career he has three catches. That's in 22 games, which some quick calculations tell me is, uh, not good -- BUT, haters, one of those catches was for a touchdown against Minnesota and if every third catch of his goes for six points, I can confidently say that I am a seer. Chryst is good at coaching offense. He will help [fill in the blank] quarterback get better and hopefully with that progression, the receivers will follow. Last year, Kenzel Doe was the second leading receiver at the position and such mediocrity (if we're being generous) can't stand, even for a run heavy program like the Badgers. I hope Rob reads Bucky's 5th Quarter, because then he'll know how important this season is to me.
Jim Dayton (@TheDaytonFlyer): I like Drew's sleeper pick of Wheelwright, but I'm going to go with inside linebacker Leon Jacobs. He'll likely earn one of the starting spots at inside linebacker since Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter have both moved on. There's a few parallels here between Jacobs and Trotter. Both played sparingly as backups but showed a glimpse of their abilities as one-game injury replacements.
Against Iowa in November of 2013, Trotter got his first career start filling in for Chris Borland. He tied a then-career high with nine tackles, including 1.5 for loss, before falling out of the rotation when Borland returned the following week. Against Illinois in October of 2014, Jacobs started for the injured Trotter and tallied 12 tackles, two of which were for loss, and also recorded 1.5 sacks. Like his predecessor, Jacobs was a one-game wonder who hardly played once Trotter was healthy again.
While we shouldn't place too much emphasis on just one game, Trotter parlayed his fill-in performance into a brilliant senior season in which he finished second on the team with 93 tackles. Jacobs could see a similar progression this year.
Luke Mueller (@Luke_Mueller24): The breakout player, for me, is not necessarily one person, but more a unit. I think there is a quarterback that will make a leap in development in the spring. There are going to be five quarterbacks vying for playing time and reps with a very wide open race. This is nothing new to seniors Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy, so I believe they will both take everything in stride, but it will be interesting to see how D.J. Gillins, Austin Kafentzis, and Alex Hornibrook respond. While Gillins was in camp last spring, he was never really a factor in the quarterback race, as he went through growing pains in spring ball last year and redshirted in 2014. Kafentzis and Hornibrook will be faced with much of the same struggles that Gillins faced, so despite the talent of the two, I don't expect them to steal reps from Stave, McEvoy and Gillins.
To pick out a single player of the unit who will break out is difficult, but I will choose Gillins. He's had a year to bulk up, has a year with the playbook underneath his belt, and has athleticism that no other player in the group has. This spring, I will look for him to show a better understanding of defenses thrown at him and improved decision making skills. With a quarterback guru like Chryst, he will be given the right tutelage to improve on fundamentals like footwork and will make great leaps towards becoming the next quarterback for the Badgers.
If McEvoy is moved to the defensive side of the ball in spring, he will gain even more reps. I think Gillins will win most improved of the unit at the end of the spring, but Stave will emerge the starter again (EVERY BADGER FAN IN THE NATION GASPS/CRIES UNCONTROLLABLY).
Jake Kocorowski (@JakeKocoB5Q): This may seem too easy of an answer, but you have to be excited with junior running back Corey Clement and the potential he has in a Chryst offense. Last season, he was only 51 yards shy of a 1,000 and scored nine touchdowns, averaging 6.5 yards per carry as part of a potent combination with Melvin Gordon.
Taking over for the departing Gordon and being the only established running back with significant game experience, look for Clement to get the load of the carries while excelling and improving further under the guidance of new running backs coach John Settle. If Chryst's pro-style offense can improve in the passing game -- with Wisconsin being 116th in the FBS last season, it really can only go up from here -- it could alleviate some pressure from the running game and offensive line (the latter facing three new starters to implement) from seeing eight or nine defenders in the box. Clement is the next great Badgers running back, and we'll see how high his ceiling can go starting in the spring.