Fresh off an 11-win season, the Wisconsin Badgers begin their 2017 spring practice schedule on Tuesday. Fourteen practices will lead up to their Friday-night spring game on April 21 inside Camp Randall Stadium.
Head coach Paul Chryst and his staff return a good number of starters on both sides of the ball, including all of the team’s contributing defensive linemen and inside linebackers. There’s also outside linebacker Garret Dooley, who started two games for Vince Biegel last season, and two defensive backs. Their possible replacements in the secondary have seen game-time experience as well.
The offensive side of the ball returns starters at quarterback, fullback, tight end, one wide receiver and four offensive linemen.
There are some holes to fill in key positions, especially now that left tackle Ryan Ramczyk and outside linebacker T.J. Watt declared for the NFL draft a year early. These are only spring practices and won’t necessarily define positioning heading into the 2017 opener against Utah State on Sept. 1, but here are some of the key areas B5Q will watch starting on Mar. 14.
Left tackle and the two-deep
Ramczyk emerged from obscure beginnings to dominate his own year in Division I, FBS, Big Ten football. Earning All-American status and consensus All-Big Ten honors, the Stevens Point native locked down the left side of the line and now is projected to be a first-round draft pick—even with him having hip surgery right after Wisconsin’s 24-16 win over Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl.
Redshirt sophomore David Edwards is projected to be the starting left tackle, according to UWBadgers.com’s Andy Baggot. Edwards, a former collegiate tight end and prep quarterback, has the athleticism for the position but it bears watching how he continues to grow into being an offensive linemen in his third season in the program.
Behind him, there’s an influx of talent with redshirt freshmen Cole Van Lanen and Patrick Kasl, along with redshirt sophomore David Moorman.
Van Lanen is a former four-star prospect by all the major recruiting services and was invited to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Kasl is a Minnesota native who was a first-team all-state performer.
Like Van Lanen, Moorman didn’t break the two-deep last year but could be an intriguing option at the position. The 6’5, 305-pound lineman was a four-star recruit by Scout and a first-team all-state selection by the Associated Press in Michigan. Entering his third year in the program, and with both Van Lanen and Kasl possibly in the mix, Moorman’s time to shine could start this spring.
Gone are Watt and Biegel, who contributed 15.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss to this defense last year. Watt earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors and numerous All-American honors, while Biegel earned a captain title by his peers and was the heart of the defense. Both should be selected in the NFL draft.
At least one starter returns in Dooley, who stepped up as the third contributing outside linebacker. He registered 40 tackles (6.5 for loss), along with 3.5 sacks in 2016. His continued development to take his game to the next level could be a welcomed sight for the rest of the position group that lacks significant FBS game experience outside of Zack Baun.
Baun, a Brown Deer native and former offensive player of the year as a quarterback, showcased his abilities despite some injuries limiting his production. He registered a career-high six tackles against Ohio State. Out of his 15 tackles last year, 3.5 were for loss.
Position coach Tim Tibesar has developed and mentored the likes of Watt, Dooley and Baun into significant playing time after converting from different positions in recent years, and this season he should have some intriguing players to mold into contributors.
Andrew Van Ginkel was a standout defensive end (first-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference) for South Dakota in FCS play two years ago before moving to Iowa Western Community College. He’ll play outside linebacker at Wisconsin with his 6’4, 230-pound frame, and Tibesar mentioned on National Signing Day that he could contribute to the program right away.
Alabama transfer Christian Bell sat out the 2016 season due to NCAA transfer rules, but the former ESPN four-star recruit already has the size (6’4, 247 pounds) to make some waves. These practices could carry some momentum into the fall for the Birmingham, A.a., native and former prep teammate of running back Bradrick Shaw.
Behind those four, there’s Max Praschak, Noah Burks and Keldric Preston.
D’Cota Dixon and Leo Musso combined to form a potent duo as Wisconsin’s starting safeties, contributing 134 tackles and nine interceptions to a secondary that over-achieved for most of the season. Musso, who will participate in Wednesday’s pro day, was the team MVP and his production will have to be replaced. There could be two, possibly three likely replacements.
Arrington Farrar will be a junior and could be in contention. The former four-star recruit played in all 14 games last season, recording seven tackles. There’s also would-be sophomore Patrick Johnson, who played in 13 games as a true freshman and worked his way up to be listed as the No. 2 free safety on Wisconsin’s depth chart behind Musso (Farrar was listed behind Dixon at strong safety).
You can also throw Natrell Jamerson’s name into the possible mix, as the converted wide receiver-turned-cornerback-turned-safety could figure into playing time and reps this spring.
Behind those three, it will be interesting to see how former walk-on Joe Ferguson, who has seen time in certain subpackages during his time in Madison, and a list of other younger players like Eric Burrell step up.
Quarterback (those behind Alex Hornibrook)
Hornibrook started nine games last season and replaced Bart Houston last season during the Georgia State game. He’s the only quarterback on the roster with significant playing experience heading into 2017, and as such, Chryst announced that the Chester, Pa., native will be the starter.
Behind the southpaw, Karé Lyles and Jack Coan are the only two scholarship signal callers in the program. If Hornibrook is injured at any point this season, their roles could be changed significantly.
Lyles sat out last spring after enrolling early and redshirted last year, but he has two semesters already in Chryst’s offensive system heading into spring practices. He has a strong arm and is a hard worker, and he should receive the reps to show off his skill set and improve upon other aspects like his footwork.
Coan enrolled early like Lyles and boasts an impressive prep resume. How the true freshman adjusts to the college game and picks up Chryst’s playbook will be key for how his role develops heading into fall camp.
Others to watch: Running backs Shaw and Chris James running with the first-team offense; which wide receiver steps up to complement Jazz Peavy; who replaces Eric Steffes as the main blocking “hand in the ground” tight end; longsnapper (that will be seen in the summer when Adam Bay arrives)