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Storylines to watch as Wisconsin enters Big Ten, local media days

You can smell the FieldTurf already.

81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Western Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Less than a week from now, the Wisconsin Badgers officially open up fall camp in preparation for a potentially special 2017 season.

There are some questions facing particular position groups, but nothing extremely glaring for a team that is actually reloaded from an 11–3 2016 campaign despite the losses of key contributors T.J. Watt, Ryan Ramczyk, Corey Clement, Vince Biegel, Sojourn Shelton, and team MVP Leo Musso.

Wisconsin also has a new defensive coordinator in Jim Leonhard, who takes on the added responsibility alongside being the team’s defensive backs coach, and two transfers who could fuel the team on both sides of the ball.

Here are some key storylines to watch when fall camp opens on Saturday (with the annual team media day on Friday).

Impact of transfers Chris James and Nick Nelson

Wisconsin’s spring practices really showed what transfers Chris James and Nick Nelson could bring to the team this fall.

The former Pittsburgh transfer, James appears to be the most complete running back of the bunch as he showcased his blocking, receiving, and rushing skills in those 15 practices. His agility and elusiveness should garner some “oohs” and “aahs” this season. Also considering Bradrick Shaw—who I feel may be the better runner between the tackles by a hair at the moment while making some catches in the spring—and redshirt junior Taiwan Deal, UW’s running backs should not miss a step this season despite Clement and Dare Ogunbowale’s departure.

With Shelton now with the Arizona Cardinals, Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson showed he not just belongs in the Wisconsin secondary, but could also be one of the brightest spots on the defense. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook commended Nelson’s development and skill set after the spring game, and including senior Derrick Tindal, the duo could be among the conference’s best.

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First-year defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard

The spring practices didn’t reveal too many visible differences in Wisconsin’s defense under the former walk-on-turned-All-American-turned-10-year-NFL-vet, though it will be intriguing to see how the scheme develops over the course of the season.

Some wondered if it was too soon for the ascendant Leonhard to jump to coordinator with just one year of college coaching under his belt. Time will tell, but he’s extremely intelligent, knows his players, and has glowing recommendations from the likes of Rex Ryan and former teammates Danny Woodhead and Joe Thomas.

Despite having their third coordinator in three seasons, the Badgers’ defense returns key contributors at all of its position groups. Outside linebacker may be the biggest question mark entering camp in terms of who will replace Watt and Biegel’s 15.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss, but the defensive line and inside linebackers are ripe with depth.

Head coach Paul Chryst warrants trusting after the past few years in Madison, so many are betting on Wisconsin’s defense to perform up to the predecent set by recent seasons. Leonhard is expected to put his players into positions to succeed, and it should be fun to watch. It’s hard to bet against him, especially overcoming the odds walking on to UW back in 2001, then spending nearly a decade in the NFL—quarterbacking some of the best defenses in the league—after going initially undrafted in 2005.

Position battles

Possibly the biggest question mark does not involve a starting position, but rather a back-up job: who will be the No. 2 quarterback behind Hornibrook? Can two freshmen—Karé Lyles (redshirt) and Jack Coan (true)—develop enough to become viable back-ups in a worst-case scenario?

The shuffling of the offensive line should be intriguing, as the emergence of redshirt freshmen Tyler Biadasz and Patrick Kasl—the latter due to Jake Maxwell being out for spring ball—has given Wisconsin a much-needed sense of depth for the first time in a few seasons. Redshirt junior Michael Deiter has shown his versatility on the line at center, guard, and even tried left tackle. The return of a hopefully healthy Jon Dietzen to left guard should present many options for offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Rudolph.

We’ll examine these more later this week, but here are some other questions to consider:

  • What will the distribution of carries look like between Shaw, James, and Deal, and what will their roles be?
  • Who steps up at wide receiver outside of Jazz Peavy, Quintez Cephus, George Rushing, and A.J. Taylor?
  • Redshirt senior Garret Dooley seems like a lock to start at outside linebacker, but who will start opposite him? Will there be two or three other contributors to Tim Tibesar’s rotation, or more?
  • With an embarrassment of riches at inside linebacker, who starts and how do you rotate in four starting-caliber players? This is a good problem to have for position coach Bob Bostad, who has boomeranged back to Wisconsin after stints in the NFL and at Northern Illinois.
  • With Nelson and Tindal locking down the corner spots, who mans the third corner spot in nickel situations? Will Lubern Figaro, Dontye Carriere-Williams, Titus Booker, or Caesar Williams fight for roles in subpackages?

What is the potential of this team?

The time is right for Wisconsin. Despite the losses of key contributors, the program reloads at many positions. There’s an All-American candidate in tight end Troy Fumagalli, a potential three-headed monster at running back, and the sweet on-the-field melodies of Jazz Peavy on offense. Hornibrook showed more zip on his passes in the spring to complement his ability to throw it deep.

Defensively, the line is stacked two-deep, while the inside linebackers and cornerbacks have already been mentioned. Senior Natrell Jamersonwho just bench pressed 405 pounds—seems like he’ll pick up free safety just fine opposite strong safety D’Cota Dixon.

And, rejoice: redshirt junior placekicker Rafael Gaglianone returns.

There could be tough road games this year at Provo (BYU), Lincoln (Nebraska), and Minneapolis (Minnesota), but the Badgers do not play Michigan State, Ohio State, or Penn State in 2017 (unless those teams and UW make it to the Big Ten championship game). Chryst and co. face Jim Harbaugh and Michigan at Camp Randall Stadium in November with the Wolverines replacing many starters from last season.

Wisconsin may not be viewed as an underdog in any of its regular-season contests, but it’s still way too early to predict this season. During Big Ten media days starting on Monday (as well as the team’s local media day on Friday), bet money each player will mention taking fall camp one day at a time, each game one at a time.

However, barring significant injuries or other circumstances, there is potential for a big season for Wisconsin football in 2017. Believe that. Will this be the year Wisconsin returns to the ranks of Big Ten champions, and quite possibly the College Football Playoff?