Welcome back to another season of Bucky’s 5th Quarter’s roundtable sessions: where the points don’t count, and we always fire Drew Hamm.
The 2016 Wisconsin Badgers could be significantly better than the 2015 squad that won 10 games, but their record may not show it with five AP Top 25 teams on their schedule. Wisconsin starts off the journey on Saturday against No. 5 LSU in the Lambeau Field College Classic presented by Carmex (imagine an advertisement pops up here).
Four B5Q writers answered three questions about the upcoming season.
Which position group is the biggest concern for the Badgers?
Drew Hamm: For a team that is quite talented, the Badgers sure do have a number of position groups that popped to mind here. The secondary and wide receivers are an unproven and under-performing lot respectively, but the biggest concern to me is the quarterbacks. With NFL backup and excellent hair-haver Joel Stave gone to Minnesota (where he might see meaningful snaps this year), that leaves the Badgers with heralded recruit/career backup Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook, a guy who didn’t even win the conference title in his senior year of high school. Who did win the Inter-Ac conference in 2014, you ask? Just a little place called The Haverford School (WOOOOOO GO FORDS! WE’VE WON THREE IN A ROW NOW!!), but I digress.
Anywho, say what you will about potential NFL starting quarterback Joel Stave, and I have, but he is statistically the second-best quarterback in Wisconsin football history. Look it up! I’m excited that Houston was able to beat out Hornibrook, who has looked impressive for a youngster by all accounts, but Houston is still an unknown for the most part whose only meaningful playing time came against Illinois and, I mean... come on. It’s Illinois. An improved offensive line and a healthy Corey Clement will mean nothing if there are 10 men in the box on every play because no one is worried about the quarterback.
Neal Olson: While the throw game (sorry, still trying to flush the last of Gary Andersen from my system) position groups are tempting, I am going with the bread and butter of Wisconsin football: the offensive line. In 2015, the boys up front bared little resemblance to a dominating unit Badger fans have come to expect. Youth and an injured Clement were important factors in the below-average (by Wisconsin standards) running game, however the Badgers managed just 3.82 yards per rush, their first time being under 4 yards since 2006. Compounding the situation was the news of Dan Voltz, the most experienced offensive lineman on the roster, retiring due to injury.
Regardless of who is throwing and catching the ball, a Paul Chryst offense will always use the run to set up the pass. That starts with the offensive line and its ability to consistently open up holes and allow the offense to stay in favorable down-and-distance situations. Despite his multiple years in the program, Bart Houston is still a first-year starter at quarterback and will gain more confidence seeing more 3rd-and-4 than 3rd-and-8 or 10.
Curt Hogg: I’ll go with the
defensive backfield here let’s be honest, it’s the wide receivers for me. Sure, there is that new quarterback, but I think we can relatively safely assume what we’re going to get out of either Houston or Hornibrook. No longer available is noted safety valve and NFL superstar Alex Erickson. Robert Wheelwright and Jazz Peavy have shown flashes, but there is still more to be seen from that receiver group.
Owen Riese: I don’t want to beat a dead horse, so I’ll say the safeties. Leo Musso and D’Cota Dixon are the likely starters, but neither has given the fanbase an overwhelming reason to feel safe with them roaming in the last line of defense. Don’t be surprised if true freshman Eric Burrell works his way into the rotation for reps, as the two aforementioned safeties (along with Arrington Farrar and Joe Ferguson) likely won’t be far away from Justin Wilcox if Musso and Dixon aren’t getting the job done, which neither has consistently in their careers to this point [Ed. note: On the two-deep, true freshman Patrick Johnson is listed as the No. 2 free safety behind Musso].
Heading into the season, what are the strengths of this team?
Drew: The linebackers are a strength of this team and would be a strength on almost any team in the country. Clement is really good, too. Rafael Gaglianone is the best and if he dances after a field goal this year. there won’t be enough voltage in the world to shock me back to life.
Neal: Seems unreasonable to go with any group other than the linebackers. Not many position groups stare down the barrel of opening against LSU without the leading tackler in T.J. Edwards and reload with “Three Sack Jack” Cichy. Last and most importantly, Vince Biegel’s mullet would win the day regardless of help from other linebackers’ on-field performance.
Curt: First and foremost, Paul Chryst’s sweatshirt game is the team’s elite strength. After that, in order: the front seven, Clement, a more experienced offensive line than last season and not having Drew Meyer punting footballs.
Owen: Linebackers. OK, that’s out of the way. I’m going to also bring up the running backs, who have Clement, Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Deal to rotate through, with Bradrick Shaw (oh, there will be WWE references) emerging into the player the staff recruited. There’s plenty of depth here, along with Alec Ingold and Leon Jacobs, two more prospective runners lining up in front of them.
Who’s your candidate for breakout player of the year?
Drew: We are currently in the fourth #YearOfWheelwright, which is well on its way to surpassing Fast & Furious as America’s longest running franchise, but I think it’s time I moved on to an indie passion project. Also, Wheelwright had a solid 2015 campaign, so he probably isn’t a “breakout candidate.” I think that tight end Kyle Penniston is going to make some early contributions to the passing game and help the quarterbacks settle into a rhythm. He has good size, better hands and was a four-star recruit coming out of high school. He was built to succeed at tight end.
Neal: Houston gets my vote, as I’m starting to get some Tyler Donovan vibes from him. Both replaced wildly underappreciated, three-year starters in John Stocco and Joel Stave and earned starting jobs in their senior seasons. For those that are unfamiliar, Donovan threw for 2,607 yards and 17 touchdowns along with 277 rush yards and another five touchdowns in 2007.
Houston is not the gifted runner that Donovan was, but he has a better arm and is now going on his second year under the tutelage of Chyrst. Houston’s play will help people remember what a dynamite job Chryst does at developing quarterbacks.
Curt: Chris Orr is my choice here. He filled in nicely as an injury replacement last season and finished with 46 tackles. Now, he’s one of the main pieces to a stout linebacking group. Orr’s nose for the ball and sideline-to-sideline quickness are impressive. Biegel will get most of the attention on that defense, but Orr’s sophomore season could be one that puts him on the national map.
Owen: I was going to say Orr, but Curt beat me to it. I’ll shift over about 10 feet and say T.J. Watt. He’ll get plenty of attention due to his last name, but if there’s one unheralded player in the linebacking corps, it’s Watt, who has truthfully yet to do a ton. All of the potential is there, he’s got the size and reportedly played well during camp, so bring on the TURN DOWN FOR WATT puns.