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Wisconsin freshmen continuing to make strides as season nears

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A group of four 2016 recruits could find themselves impacting Wisconsin this season.

True freshman wide receiver A.J. Taylor looks to contribute in 2016.
Brandon Harrison/Wisconsin Athletics

Banking on contributions from true freshmen can be a gamble. The level of competition from high school football to college is an extreme jump that takes most players at least a year to acclimate to.

Especially within the Wisconsin Badgers, whose history has dictated a mostly developmental approach to players, this holds true. But that doesn’t mean UW hasn’t utilized first-year players effectively.

In 2015, the first year of the Paul Chryst era, two stepped up into prominent roles. Now a fullback, Alec Ingold evolved into Wisconsin’s short-yardage back with running back Corey Clement injured for most of the season. The 2014 Associated Press state player of the year accumulated six touchdowns in 10 games played.

Ingold transitioned to inside linebacker after Chris Orr worked his way into the two-deep of Wisconsin’s defense during an impressive fall camp. Orr then stepped up to play in 10 games (six starts) with Leon Jacobs out due to injury. Despite suffering a leg infection that cost him three games, he solidified the position group with then-redshirt freshman T.J. Edwards, registering 46 tackles, good for sixth on the team.

In 2014, wide receivers George Rushing and Natrell Jamerson, defensive backs Derrick Tindal and Lubern Figaro, and kicker Rafael Gaglianone were utilized by Gary Andersen and his staff. Gaglianone was a revelation, converting 19 of 22 field goal attempts and 59 of 61 extra points as a true freshman. Rushing, Tindal and Jamerson—the latter converted to cornerback last season—are looking to solidify major roles in their junior campaigns.

Since 2008, Clement, Robert Wheelwright, Chris Borland and Bradie Ewing remain in Badgers fans’ minds as freshmen who saw significant game action.

At least four true freshmen could be legitimate contributors for Wisconsin during the 2016 season. Nose guard Garrett Rand, punter Anthony Lotti and wide receivers A.J. Taylor and Quintez Cephus have worked themselves into positions to see the field and play a role on this year’s team.

Garrett Rand
Brandon Harrison/Wisconsin Athletics

Rand, a former four-star and U.S. Army All-American recruit, worked his way in with the second-team defense at nose guard. He came to UW physically ready for the college game (currently boasting a bench press of 505 pounds) but he admitted to facing an adjustment period. Now, he feels like the game is starting to slow down and click with Wisconsin’s season-opener against LSU less than two weeks away.

“It comes down to the littlest things,” Rand said on Monday. “Even looking at the offensive linemen’s fingers that go in the ground, their stances, how many wide receivers are out, how many backs are in the backfield—everything’s so complicated. Probably the second week [of fall camp], I started to go with coach Nokes [defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield], [nose guard] Olive [Sagapolu] and everyone in film.

“We really broke down film. Literally step by step, every step we took he coached us. That second week, it started to slow down because of the great coaching.”

Taylor and Cephus have been pleasant surprises at wide receiver. The latter originally committed to Furman on a basketball scholarship, but was a first-team all-state selection in football by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. He’s shown the ability to make solid receptions and could be in position to contribute in a receiving group that current holds Wheelwright, Rushing, Jazz Peavy and Reggie Love as its core.

Chryst mentioned in the first week of camp how both earned reps but still have a lot to learn, while wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore told reporters earlier in camp that the Badgers may have “hit the jackpot.”

Like Rand, Taylor came to Madison physically ready to play college football, but he noted the biggest transition has been the adjustment to the mental speed of the game.

“When it comes to knowing where you need to line up, knowing how many steps you need to take on a route, just the little things like that,” the 5’11, 194-pound Taylor said on Monday, “that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve needed to work on and I have to work on every day, especially with the plays and concepts.”

Taylor has flashed in fall camp, working in and making plays with the first- and second-team offenses. It’s not to say he, like any freshman, has had some teaching lessons after three weeks of practice.

The former prep running back — who participated in the 2016 Semper Fedelis All-American Bowl in January — transitioned to wide receiver, so there was going to be a learning curve associated with the position move heading into his collegiate career. Taylor credits Gilmore for focusing in on what he needs to improve on, especially learning the “stops” and “bursts” out of routes.

A few times in camp, Taylor has also dropped a couple of passes. That hasn’t squelched his confidence, however, and it’s shown in his seemingly consistent production.

“When I make a mistake, what I try to do is figure out why I made it and then try to channel it and try to work on it the next time,” Taylor said. “When it comes to dropping passes, I’ll just forget about that because passing is 100 percent mental. You just got to have a mindset that you can get go out there and get any ball.”

Anthony Lotti
Brandon Harrison/Wisconsin Athletics

Like Gaglianone two years ago, punter Anthony Lotti has an excellent chance to face an SEC opponent in his first collegiate game. The Georgia native is currently battling redshirt sophomore P.J. Rosowski for the starting job in replacing Drew Meyer.

A two-time, first-team all-state specialist by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Lotti averaged 45.4 yards per punt as a senior, including placing 19 of his 49 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

He admitted he’s settled in now and getting into a rhythm 10 days away from facing the No. 5 team in the nation.

The former three-star recruit believes he can be consistent with his punts and place the ball where it needs to be for the coverage unit. He’s also worked to improve on the directional style of punting. Those are welcomed, maturing signs for a highly-touted prospect that has a shown to elicit a distinct “boom” when his foot meets the ball.

That’s not saying Rosowski’s lying down. Both have worked for the title of starting punter throughout camp, and Chryst acknowledged on Tuesday that Lotti hasn’t officially won the job.

The competition has been friendly, however, as both want to help the team succeed.

“It’s been great,” Lotti said on Monday. “It’s been really back and forth—we’re feeding off of each other and trying to give each other great feedback because we both want to be the best we can be.”

It remains to be seen how much playing time those four will receive. Lotti may be the closest to contributing based on the position battles, but he hasn’t locked up the job just yet.

Outside of their control, injuries or personnel changes may throw them into the fire earlier than expected. How they continue to progress as the season wears on will dictate their roles and the reps they receive against what is widely considered Wisconsin’s most difficult schedule in memory.

“On the field, I’m going to do everything I can to actually play, get some reps and get the feel for it my first year,” Rand said. “I don’t want to go out there and play like two or three snaps. I want to get some snaps in, but it’s all up to me how I perform.”