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Back-up quarterback, nickel back among intriguing position battles for Wisconsin

These are the position groups we have our eyes on as Wisconsin approaches fall camp.

NCAA Football: Georgia State at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

T-minus four days until fall camp begins for the Wisconsin Badgers, and there aren’t many glaring holes for this team heading into 2017. Even with the losses of the likes of All-Americans T.J. Watt and Ryan Ramczyk, along with key standouts Vince Biegel, Corey Clement, Sojourn Shelton, and others, there’s a hint of “reload” rather than “rebuild” around this squad.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any position battles or jockeying for playing time that will surface for head coach Paul Chryst’s crew, as there are several questions B5Q will monitor during the next month that should shape the Badgers in 2017.

Who will get the nod at back-up quarterback?

If redshirt sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook is injured and out for any portion of time in 2017, it will be a substantial gut-shot to an offense that could have significant firepower.

Who takes over the offense if the southpaw has to sit out will be a major question needing to be answered during fall camp. Enter two freshmen in Karé Lyles and Jack Coan.

Lyles, whose father (Kevin) and younger brother (Kayden) have Badger blood running through them, enrolled early in 2016 but was forced to sit during spring practices due to a hip injury. He redshirted last season behind Bart Houston and Hornibrook, but received reps during March and April. His arm strength is apparent and he threw some nice passes at times during the spring, but like all young college quarterbacks, he still needs to refine his skill set.

Coan is a true freshman who enrolled in January like Lyles, Hornibrook, and Joel Stave before him. During spring practices, he showed mobility in eluding pass rushers while playing mostly with the back-ups.

How the Long Island, N.Y., native continues to develop will be something to watch during camp. Behind Hornibrook, this position group is extremely young and would alter the efficiency of the offense if pressed into duty.

“Jack came early, and he or Karé’s got to become the back-up,” head coach Paul Chryst said on Monday when asked about the prospect of burning Coan’s redshirt. “Now we’ve added Danny Vanden Boom, so those are the four in. One of those three is going to be the back-up. I don’t think you worry about the redshirt or not. It’s who’s going to be the best for this team to be the back-up.”

Who locks down nickel (third) cornerback?

Senior Derrick Tindal and Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson, barring injuries or other circumstances, should lock down the starting cornerback spots for Jim Leonhard’s defense this fall.

However, most offenses utilize more than two wide receivers and are spread out, which means the Badgers’ defense—as seen often in years’ past—will have to use nickel and possibly dime subpackages depending upon each opponent’s personnel.

When Natrell Jamerson was injured for several games last year, Lubern Figaro filled in and recorded seven pass break-ups. There were times where Figaro was exposed (see: the Big Ten championship game), but he has game-time experience in critical moments.

Redshirt freshmen Dontye Carriere-Williams appeared to earn some reps in the nickel spot this spring, with Tindal saying he was impressed earlier this year by the fellow south Florida native.

There’s also redshirt sophomore Titus Booker, who didn’t practice in the spring, and redshirt freshman Caesar Williams. Both broke into the two-deep at times last year.

Who rotates in at outside linebacker?

Redshirt seniors Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs appear to lead Tim Tibesar’s relatively inexperienced group. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a void at this position group.

“I think we have some guys that are talented,” Chryst told reporters when asked about outside linebacker depth on Monday. “I thought what ‘Dools’ [Garret Dooley] did last year coming in when Vince got hurt, his first start, now there’s a guy that played some but hasn’t had that year where you’re that starter. I’m looking for can he be what Leo Musso was for us last year? On the other side, is Leon Jacobs, kind of the same deal. Leon, here’s a guy on our team, really talented football player, always trying to find that home. I think he’s found one at outside linebacker. Can one of those two have that year that ‘Mus’ did where he ends up first year starting being your team MVP? I don’t know.”

Behind them, redshirt junior Andrew Van Ginkel and redshirt sophomore Zack Baun should find some time in rotation. Van Ginkel, the JUCO transfer, flashed at times during spring practices, while Baun recorded a career-high six tackles against Ohio State last October. How Alabama transfer Christian Bell, redshirt freshman Keldric Preston, and walk-on Tyler Johnson try to work their way back in should be worth watching as well.

Who solidifies the best five on the offensive line?

One of two position groups where there are options and combinations of players to utilize, the spring revealed younger players who earned significant reps and could be game-ready if called upon. Among the possible linemen who could start or contribute for offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Rudolph:

  • Redshirt junior and team captain Michael Deiter (center/left guard/maybe left tackle?)
  • Redshirt juniors Micah Kapoi (left or right guard), Jacob Maxwell (right tackle), and Beau Benzschawel (right guard, which he appears to have locked down)
  • Redshirt sophomores David Edwards (left or right tackle) and Jon Dietzen (left guard)
  • Redshirt freshmen Tyler Biadasz (center) and Patrick Kasl (right tackle)

Throw in former walk-on Brett Connors—who backed up at tackle, guard, and center last year—and there’s considerable depth here.

Who starts or receives more reps at inside linebacker?

Having four starting-caliber inside linebackers last year helped foster a top-10 defense, especially after two season-ending injuries in the first half of 2016. How team captain Jack Cichy, leading tackler T.J. Edwards, former walk-on Ryan Connelly, and junior Chris Orr, will split reps remains to be seen. All four were either limited or did not participate in spring practices, so fall camp will be intriguing to see how they are used under new position coach Bob Bostad and Leonhard.

Again, another good problem for Wisconsin’s defense to have.

Other positions to follow

Fifth wide receiver spot

Four contributors—Jazz Peavy, George Rushing, Quintez Cephus, and A.J. Taylor—all are in line to contribute once again. Who else will step up in fall camp for further reps? Redshirt freshman Kendric Pryor played well in the spring, making some nice catches to add some momentum heading into the summer, and Deron Harrell, Cade Green, Danny Davis, and Emmet Perry bare watching during the next few weeks.

Fullback

Just to see how many ways Wisconsin uses Alec Ingold and Austin Ramesh this season. #GiveThemTheFBOptionPass #Seriously