For the second in time in three seasons, Wisconsin will embark on a new year with a new man at the helm. This time, however, it's not some "They hired who??" situation.
Nope, this time it's none other than Paul Chryst, who's coming home to take over what seems like his birthright. The former Wisconsin backup quarterback whose father, George, was a state legend in high school and at UW-Platteville, and who was UW's offensive coordinator from 2005-2011, was tapped by athletic director Barry Alvarez following the sudden, shocking departure of Gary Andersen to Oregon State four days after the Big Ten championship game shellacking. "The first person I thought of... was Paul Chryst," Alvarez said at the introductory press conference and indeed, among many it seemed the 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 Pittsburgh. No one disputes that in taking over a beleaguered Panthers program, 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 many quarters.
Regarding the staff, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is the only coach retained from Andersen's staff. Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, a top-notch recruiter and Chryst's right-hand man at both Wisconsin and Pitt, is a familiar face, 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 he or she saw the team losing its head coach a few days later. After the 2014 season, and maybe because 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, Gary Andersen edition
Concerned coaching and coaches, the 2014 season was something of a rollercoaster for most fans and many in the media. Although Andersen had to replace a well-respected running backs coach who was also the team's recruiting coordinator, his staff didn't otherwise change in year two -- perhaps refreshingly so after the nearly annual staff turnover in the latter years of the Bret Bielema regime. Despite the pounding UW endured against juggernaut Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, there were high points.
Even though the defensive front seven was almost entirely replaced, the players on the roster continued to adapt and many excelled -- the numbers showed massive success, with UW's defense ranking in top 10 nationally in several categories.
Offensively, as odd it may seem in retrospect with a Heisman Trophy runner-up and a record-setting running game, skepticism of both Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig emerged as early as fall camp, when it was leaked (not declared) that Tanner McEvoy would open the season as the starter despite reports indicating he was being outperformed in camp by incumbent Joel Stave. After UW's opener, in which UW blew a 24-7 lead following a fake punt midway through the third quarter, Melvin Gordon mysteriously disappeared after just three second-half carries and McEvoy turned in one of the worst performances by a quarterback for any ranked team in 2014, the skepticism intensified considerably. It seemed that the honeymoon for Andersen, whatever was left of it after 2013's slouch of a finish, was truly over.
Only after Stave took the starting job back in an eventual (and frustrating) loss against Northwestern and McEvoy's game action was relegated to single plays and designed QB runs did the questions subside. Following the loss against Northwestern to open Big Ten play, UW rolled through the remainder of the regular season, eventually taking the Big Ten West with consecutive victories over chief division rivals Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota. Iowa was still a contender at the time; winning a game, let alone a difficult road game, by less than a field goal surely represented progress. The 59-0 drubbing by Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, UW's worst loss in 20+ seasons, was inexplicable unless maybe the Buckeyes were just that good (they were). Shortly after that, the Gary Andersen era came to an abrupt end.
An honest appraisal of Andersen's tenure, including the 2014 season, yields far more good than bad. His teams sometimes gave head-scratching performances, especially in big games, but his players never quit, and they never seemed unhappy or dispirited. The impression given by the team was always that of a close-knit band of brothers. Andersen's relationship with the media was never prickly, although many felt he could have been clearer on several occasions. His teams were successful on the field: a 9-4 record in 2013 and 10-3 record in 2014 are in the "very good, but not great" category.
Andersen's legacy will likely be the different approach he took to recruiting. Where Bielema offered fewer players that he and his staff did not feel were close fits, Andersen and his staff offered scholarships to a much wider group, some more talented per recruiting services, some less well-known. Andersen also significantly expanded Wisconsin's geographic scope, perhaps at the expense of in-state efforts. Andersen also sought more prospects from the junior college ranks, an approach that was often rebuffed by the UW admissions office -- in fact, it seemed that his relationship with said office was the prime mover in his bolting back west to Oregon State. The Beavers will get a very good coach; just what Wisconsin will learn from Andersen's tenure remains to be seen, especially after the recent denial of admission to the school to four-star running back prospect Jordan Stevenson, who was only the latest of several academic casualties.
2014 review, Paul Chryst edition
Chryst arrives at Wisconsin coming off a 6-6 regular season at Pitt, in which his team went 4-4 in its second year in the Atlantic Coast Conference. His 2014 records fits in quite well with his overall 19-19 performance. Like his 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 LT 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.
His defenses were never quite together, however. Under the direction of the youngish 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 here and listen to a close observer's in-depth analysis here.
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 Strickland left Wisconsin to coach at Florida Atlantic).
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)
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 may be close to worthy of an upper-echelon Power Five-conference team. To that end, quarterback Joel Stave, on whom the smart money will be placed as this season's starter -- an unseasoned QB will not take the field to open play in 2015 against none other than the Alabama Crimson Tide -- should benefit greatly from Chryst's return as quarterbacks coach and erstwhile "guru." This is one area at Pitt where Chryst excelled, with Tino Suneri, Tom Savage (drafted) and Chad Voytek all turning in solid seasons at the controls of Chryst's offense.
All that said, however, the X-factor is likely new wide receivers coach Ted 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, a No. 1 in few other programs, led UW with 55 catches for 755 yards and just three touchdowns. The next returning receiver was the blocker Jordan Fredrick, with 13 catches for 126 yards. Gilmore, who comes to UW off three seasons in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders, one at USC and six at Nebraska (not remembered fondly by Husker fans), will be counted on to continue and perhaps accelerate the development of juniors Robert Wheelwright and Reggie Love and of sophomores Jazz Peavy (redshirt), George Rushing and Krenwick Sanders. If a gamebreaker develops from this group, UW'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 relieved when it was even suggested that Dave Aranda would stay on 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's schemes have been shown to be 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, especially with Corey Clement more than ready to take his star turn as the bellcow running back, but under proven teacher and former UW running backs coach John Settle. The offensive line is in good hands under former UW and All-Big Ten lineman Rudolph and there is talent at tight end, a position group so critical to UW's offense, both running and passing.
Chris Haering takes over as a special teams-only coach, a departure for UW, but not uncommon in FBS. 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 UW's generally solid coverage units, fans won't hear Haering's name too often.
Finally, although academic issues have continued, the 2015 recruiting class has come together quite nicely under the circumstances. Chryst's classes at Pitt were far from terrible, and the 2016 class is taking shape positively after moving a bit slowly in the spring and early summer.
As for the 2015 season, this staff appears to be up to traditional UW 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 continue to be well-represented in the NFL even though getting past Ohio State (and maybe eventually Michigan or Penn State) and/or into the College Football Playoff may be bridges too far in 2015 and beyond. This staff going forward, and under Chryst, should position UW as well as any program in the Big Ten West - and maybe as well as any in the Big Ten save Ohio State.