Look at the Wisconsin Badgers' recruiting efforts in the 2016 cycle in a nutshell, and you'll find there was little drama to it. Now, I know there was a touch of drama and potentially a bit of disaster in the final days, but this was a recruiting class that had few disasters and ended up with a bushel of upside and a touch of star quality.
On offense, the biggest fun had to be at receiver. Even with Wisconsin missing out on stealing Lil'Jordan Humphrey from Texas, this position is definitely one of the strengths of the class of 2016. Kansas City, Mo., four-star A.J. Taylor comes in with the biggest star pedigree since Lance Kendricks and Kraig Appleton. In and of itself, that's not exactly a guarantee for some magic, but Taylor is dangerous when he gets the ball in his hands, and when Wisconsin offered, he was one of the top running backs in the country. What happened to that position is another story for another paragraph, but suffice it to say athleticism at his level at wide receiver has been rare for UW.
The other two receivers the Badgers landed are both not to be ignored, either. Miami's Mark Richt made a late charge for Macon, Ga., three-star Quintez Cephus, but by the time he came along it was already too late -- not even the promise of playing for the U could sway the former Furman Basketball commit. Flossmoor, Ill., three-star Kendric Pryor doesn't have the raw upside of Cephus, but he was highly productive his senior season, and does have the fearlessness and leaping ability to go get any throw the quarterback makes. He could also make an impact at cornerback if Cephus and Taylor develop quickly.
When Saguaro, Ariz., three-star quarterback Kare' Lyles committed on March 15, he became the first signee for the class of 2016. He's a big-armed prospect who's all set to be in a multi-year battle with Alex Hornibrook for the inside track on who starts from 2017 on. He's a solid prospect and a worthwhile signing -- even if his highly touted brother wasn't set to be a cornerstone of the class of 2017.
An under-the-radar pick-up who looks like he could pay big dividends is high-three-star tight end Jake Hescock. The Badgers were able to find a sleeper in this Salisbury, Conn., prospect with an out-of-the-box ability to run block and hands that seem more under-utilized than needing improvement. The Badgers love running multiple-tight end sets, and teaming him with redshirt freshman Kyle Penniston provides a tantalizing look into the future.
The offensive line situation was a Ben Bredeson away from being something spectacular. But in landing Green Bay, Wis., four-star prospect Cole Van Lanen, Paul Chryst won his first major battle on the trail while beating Michigan and Michigan State for a prospect that made the U.S. Army All-American game. Another prospect who might turn out to be a major steal is the 247Sports four-star tackle from Forest Lake, Minn., Patrick Kasl. Kasl's a 6'6, 278-pound, prototypical left tackle who the Golden Gophers didn't come in on until it was too late with a 33 ACT and a 4.30 SPARQ-verified shuttle time. That's some serious mental and lateral agility. Faster side to side, at least for that moment, than running back Sam Brodner.
With the class the Badgers grabbed last season and the four redshirt freshmen who ended the year starting for them, there isn't an immediate need for either Kasl or Van Lanen to be impact players. But by the time they get a shot, with even standard development, they have a chance to be special.
Now, we get to the running backs.
We knew what the Badgers were getting into when running backs coach Thomas Brown left for Georgia. The reputation of his replacement, John Settle, is that he struggles on the trail despite his skills in development. After Antonio Williams flipped to Ohio State, Wisconsin missed at every turn. No C.J. Freeman, no George Hill, no Kyle Porter, no Brandon Stephens. It doesn't take a quasi-expert to tell you that this was the biggest weakness of this class.
And yet, the Badgers landed a standout running back in Glen Ellyn, Ill., three-star Sam Brodner. He was Illinois's Mr. Football and scored 40 rushing touchdowns plus an extra seven scores through the air. With a SPARQ-timed 4.49 40-yard dash, he can bring a lot of force to linebackers to get the extra yard. He's a quality pick-up with good potential beyond his star rankings, but with Corey Clement, Dare Ogbunwale, and Serge Trezy going at the end of the year, the Badgers have to land two running backs for 2017.
For a program that lost its defensive coordinator on New Year's Day, there was a minimal amount of sweat in terms of recruits who could possibly be lost. Sure, three-star cornerback Ke'Shan Pennamon and four-star defensive tackle Garrett Rand came past the final weekend to reaffirm their commitments. The only commitment the Badgers lost on the defensive side of the ball was safety Craig Watts in July, and it's not unreasonable to say they found a quality replacement -- more on that later.
Keldric Preston has an interesting opportunity to be a rather useful piece in Justin Wilcox's defense. The three-star Tampa, Fla., recruit is initially set-up to be an outside linebacker, but if the personnel sets up to need four-man fronts, the 6'4, 245-pound prospect is a readymade, weakside defensive end. Griffin Grady and Noah Burks also step in with star-quality upside. Grady, a three-star inside linebacker from Dublin, Ohio, was active from sideline to sideline and could easily have that hundred-tackle potential. Burks was dominant at the Semper Fi All-American game and has a versatility to his game that makes him the linebacker prospect I'm most excited for.
That's not to say the other linebackers aren't interesting. In fact, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., three-star inside linebacker Dallas Jeanty is probably the most popular signee of the class. He's active on Twitter, and was integral in helping the Badgers get their class together. He also received aid offers from every school in the Ivy League. He's definitely going to be integral to the team and will make an impact in some form. Menomonie's Mason Stokke was one of the first commits for the Badgers, as the in-state three-star committed on April 22. The top-ranked wrestler in the state at 220 pounds, Stokke has good athleticism to go with that natural toughness.
Speaking of athleticism, let's talk about defensive end Luke Benzschawel -- the Grafton, Wis., three-star prospect has already put on 25 pounds of muscle since he was the first defensive commitment on April 10. Isaiahh Loudermilk was the first commitment the Badgers grabbed on defense with no coordinator. The 6'6, 275-pound, three-star athlete from Howard, Kan., already has the athleticism and the frame to be a major presence at defensive end or wherever he ends up. Tyler Biadasz has that strength and motor to have him be a valuable player that will most likely end up at nose tackle. Lastly, Garrett Rand will come in and put the unprepared offensive lineman on skates. He's got a 500-plus-pound bench press and a move set that will allow him to make plenty of plays in an offensive backfield despite looking like he's your nose tackle of the future. Of the defensive commits, he has the most star quality.
Outside of Owings Mills, Md., safety Eric Burrell, the secondary isn't going to come in with a great deal of star hype, but there's a lot of interesting physical talent. At cornerback, Ke'Shan Pennamon is a three-star prospect who stands at 5'10, 170 pounds, but he's a burner that plays receivers physically. That has value. Dontye Carriere-Williams showed cover skills above his station as a low-range three-star prospect from St. Thomas Aquinas in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Add to that a 6'1 Ceasar Williams, who grew into a three-star prospect on his play at the highest level of Texas competition in Grand Prairie, and you have three prospects with a chance to play beyond their star ratings -- and early. That's without the 6'3,, 175-pound, 4.50 40-yard dash upside of the grayshirt offer that might yet become a part of the class of 2016 from Denver, Colo., in Deron Harrell.
Joining Burrell at safety is Pickerington, Ohio, three-star Seth Currens. He doesn't take false steps in coverage and with solid athleticism in a 6'2 frame, he has a chance to be a real strong centerfielder. A three-star athlete from the Bullis School in Potomac, Md., Patrick Johnson II missed most of his senior season with a high ankle sprain, but the Badgers never wavered. Johnson should come back healthy and show the skills that led Georgia, Michigan State and Oklahoma to offer. Burrell had late interest from Maryland and Syracuse, but Wisconsin kept him in tow, and like Johnson, he has cornerback/safety hybrid potential.
Special teams-wise, there's likely going to be a race to see who replaces Drew Meyer at punter, and it goes without saying that Anthony Lotti, the three-star from Oakwood, Ga., is the leader in the clubhouse to start from day one. He has a big leg, and the Badgers have been needing one for a while. Jacob Cesear is yet to sign, but he's an athletic long snapper from Encitas, Calif., that had a severe car accident in mid-January. He's set to walk on for two years and then get a scholarship starting in 2018.
So as we close the books on the class of 2016, the Badgers landed their best class in terms of star ranking since 2001. And January was nothing but positive momentum. There were concerns about Paul Chryst's ability on the trail, but it's a long way between signing day and graduation day. At first blush, this is a class that could fall short of peak development, and they will far surpass their star ranking. Chryst put together something really strong.